From Sam Mendes’ 1917 to Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, the horrors of war are raging over the big screen right now, in tonally different packages. The first aims for historical accuracy with immersively punishing results, while the second is a comedic fable where conflict is seen through the eyes of an indoctrinated child. Enter Terrence Malick to complete the current triptych with his take on last century’s warfare, A Hidden Life, the true story of an unsung hero, Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for the Nazis during WWII.
As to be expected – with Malick’s superb The Thin Red Line still resonating – the celebrated filmmaker tackles the threat of fascism by portraying it as not only a socio-political menace, but a moral struggle between the material and the spiritual. Over the course of the nearly three-hour runtime, the conscientious objector’s spiritual turmoil is expressed through hushed monologues and sweeping shots of nature, which contrast with the claustrophobic interiors of Nazi offices and prison cells. It’s without a doubt all Malick-by-numbers, and won’t convert any Malickophobes; it does, however, stand as a noticeable return to form following his most recent output. A Hidden Life is more narratively-structured storytelling and doesn’t feature the script-less swanning about of Song To Song or the particularly exasperating indulgences of Knight Of Cups.
Both Diehl and his on-screen wife – played to perfection by Valerie Pachner – are superb, and the visually sumptuous camera sweeps, as well as James Newton Howard’s beautiful score, counterbalance some of the more heavy-handed existential musings. As for the overwhelming (and topically resonant) finale, it would take a very cold heart not to be moved by the onscreen inclusion of the George Eliot quote that gives the film its title.
A Hidden Life | Directed by Terrence Malick (Germany, US, 2019), with August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Franz Rogowski. Starts Jan 30.
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