As critics begin to discuss films that will end up on their best of the decade list, many are including Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in their internal debates. The 2011 drama won the Palm d’Or, became the auteur’s second film to earn a Best Picture nomination and was something of a comeback after the disappointing New World six years earlier. Frustratingly, his last three star-filled creations have been what can only be described as a mess. In Knight of Cups, To The Wonder, and Song to Song, Malick’s aesthetic technique of moving camera, gorgeous landscapes, intercuts and voiceover has developed into something of a parody of itself. Armed with a true story set at the height of WWII, Malick proves he may still be running on fumes with his latest effort, A Hidden Life.
In competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian citizen who ended up becoming a conscientious objector to serving in Hitler’s Nazi Army. The film begins with Franz and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) living a peaceful existence with their three young daughters on a small far. We find out how they met. We see them working in the fields together. We see them playing with their children. And, most importantly, we see them gloriously in love in a hand-held style you’ve come to expect in a Malick film.
When Austria surrenders to Germany, Franz is called up for military training. As the soldiers are shown newsreels of Nazis advancing on France and other nations, Franz becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the proceedings. His stay is short-lived, however, and he’s soon home again and everything seems back to normal. It isn’t, of course.
A xenophobic fever has been cast over Jägerstätter’s small village of Radegund with the Mayor spouting Nazi racist propaganda and townspeople believing things were bad before Hitler’s arrival (sound familiar?). The plight of German and European Jews is barely mentioned in this sequence or later on in the film which is distressing considering how flimsy Franz’s eventual reasoning for not wanting to serve in the army is. Franz makes his disapproval of Hitler public knowledge, however, drawing the ire of some of his peers.
Afraid of being called up, Franz visits his bishop for religious advice on abstaining from the war. His Excellency isn’t much help as he’s clearly afraid of retaliation from a Nazi government that has sent priests to concentration camps. The scripture says what the Nazis doing is wrong, but the Catholic Church in Austria isn’t going there. Despite Franziska’s belief they won’t call Franz up because he’s a farmer, the inevitable occurs and her husband reports for duty. When standing in line with other soldiers instructed to swear their allegiance to Adolph Hitler, Franz abstains. He’s quickly dragged away and arrested.
We’re now just over an hour into the film. There’s about another hour and 53 minutes to go.
With Franz sticking by his guns and refusing to sign allegiance to Hitler, it’s important to realize that at this point in the film he has never clearly verbalized why he wants to be an objector (a phrase not used in the picture). He just refers to Hitler being bad and the war being wrong. It isn’t until about halfway through Franz’s extremely long stay in two different military prisons that he segues into his faith which – click – makes sense after those scenes reading out to the Church. In real life, Franz and Franziska were deeply religious but Malick can’t make that clear enough until Jägerstätter starts referring to god in a voiceover while he’s in custody. This seems par the course for Hidden Life. You’d have no idea Franz was waiting for a military tribunal until a lawyer shows up by the time he’s reached his second prison in Berlin. Up until that point, it simply seemed a German soldier might just shoot him at any time.
A quick Google search makes reveals that Malick has taken some creative liberties with historical facts that are slightly disconcerting. The Jägerstätter home in Radegund is a two-story dwelling more contemporary than the close to 19th century mountain dwelling the family is seen living in the picture that makes them look extremely poor (we’re betting the Jägerstätter’s might have had a radio in real life, but no electricity in the movie!). It’s also conveniently left out that the church helped defer Franz’s military service while he worked as a sacristan for them. This fact alone would have brought more genuine tension to the film if included in the proceedings. And that’s another one of the film’s overreaching problems.
Because Malick is so aimless in his filmmaking he ends up repeating the same point again and again and again. Want to know if Franziska is struggling on the farm on her own? What to know if she’s being treated poorly by the town? Want to know if the soldiers rough up Franz? Don’t worry, you’ll experience countless sequences of those plot points you got the first time around. This monotonous repetition isn’t poetic as Malick intends. Instead, it often makes the film a slog to sit through no matter how pretty those Austrian Alps in the background are.
Malick’s screenplay also gives little for Diehl and Pachner, two well regarded German and Austrian actors respectively, to work with beyond surface character reactions. It’s becoming increasingly transparent that it’s a rare actor who can elevate Malick’s material working within the director’s signature aesthetic. Jessica Chastain, James Caviezel and Brad Pitt? Sure. Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, and this duo? Not so much.
Despite these legitimate criticisms, Malick somehow finds a way to make the last half hour or so genuinely compelling (and that might be slightly generous). It begs the question whether taking an hour – yes, an hour – out of the film might tighten the narrative enough to make the themes he wants to convey to the audience rise to the forefront. There is something to Franz’s life that’s worth revisiting but as presently constituted Hidden Life isn’t that movie.
It should be noted that the film represents the last big screen performance of Bruno Ganz. The actor best known for playing Hitler in 2004’s Downfall portrays the head judge at Franz’s trial.
Catch up on all of our reviews from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival below: