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Hidden Life, A
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Grace Under Pressure"
5 stars

Considering the fact that it took more than 32 years for him to make his first four feature films, the past decade proved to be a surprisingly prolific one for celebrated filmmaker Terrence Malick, though even his most dedicated acolytes might concede that the surprising jolt in quantity was not always backed up by quality. He kicked off the decade with “The Tree of Life” (2011), his long-gestating and semi-autobiographical look at a young man growing up in the fifties and dealing with the wildly differing natures of his hard-case dad and his ethereal mother, was arguably his crowing cinematic achievement to date and is now justifiably topping many of the best of the decade lists that are currently popping up. Inspired by the free-form nature of that film, he then embarked on a trio of cinematic meditations on life, love and the pursuit of something resembling grace for which he reportedly only supplied actors with the barest scraps of a screenplay and encouraged them to improvise the situations that he wanted to capture. The first of these films, “To the Wonder” (2013) was a wobbly sort of triumph that overcame a certain dramatic haziness with a strong and moving central performance by Olga Kurylenko. “Knight of Cups” (2015), which told the story of a jaded screenwriter trying to find himself through a series of relationships with a number of wildly different women, was a genuinely lovely and haunting work that is eminently worthy of reappraisal. “Song to Song” (2017), which focused on two overlapping romantic triangles set amidst the backdrop of the Austin, Texas music scene, was an unmitigated disaster—a pretentious and disjointed mess that felt more like someone doing an especially vicious and straight-faced parody of Malick’s distinctive cinematic approach than anything else.

If there was a bright side to the disastrous “Song to Song,” it was that it was such a complete failure, both in concept and execution, that it felt as is even Malick himself had hit the limits of how he could express himself through his explicitly non-narrative experiments and that something would have to change when it came time for his next project. Indeed, Malick’s latest film, “A Hidden Life,” finds him returning to the land of conventional narrative structure for the first time since “The New World.” This is not to say that completely abandoned his unique directorial approach in order to focus solely on the plot points—his style is as enigmatic as ever and at just under three hours, he clearly sees no need to rush from point A to point B and beyond. However, this time, he has a clear and compelling story that just happens to fit in nicely with his unique style and the end result is both one of the very best films of 2019 and easily Malick’s most satisfying work since “The Tree of Life.”

The film is set during World War II but unlike “The Thin Red Line” (1998), Malick’s previous film taking place in that era, all of the battles on display are the internal sort. Instead, we are taken to Radegund, an idyllic-looking village nestled in the hills of Austria, and introduced to Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). As we see flashbacks of them meeting and marrying interspersed with them tending their farm and living a life of seeming domestic bliss, one might think for a moment that they were watching a story set at least a century earlier. In fact, it is 1939, World War II is underway and Franz, along with most of the other men in town, is sent away for several months for basic training, though he vows at the time that he will not fight in combat nor will he take the required oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. When France surrenders, Franz is sent back home and continues to work the farm with Fani, their daughters, his mother and her sister. Everything seems fine for a while but the war drags on and Franz is eventually called up to serve in combat and he makes it clear once again that he will neither fight nor swear allegiance to Hitler.

This makes him a pariah amongst his once-friendly neighbors, who turn on him and Fani with frightening cruelty. Franz goes to the local church to ask for advice and learns from the priest (Tobias Moretti) has fallen in line with the Third Reich as well, going so far as to expel the town’s previous priest for delivering an anti-Nazi sermon. At this point, both Franz and Fani realize that if he persists in following with the decision, he could be arrested and even sentenced to death for treason. Nevertheless, Franz refuses to sacrifice his convictions to save himself and Fani is fully supportive of his decision despite the hardships that doing so will entail. Eventually, Franz is indeed arrested and sent to prison, first in Enns and then in Berlin, and throughout that time, people are constantly trying to get him to just fall in line with everyone else. He won’t even have to go into combat—he can serve his military duties working in a hospital. However, the one thing that he has to do is sign the oath—it is okay if he doesn’t actually mean it, he is constantly reminded, just as long as his signature is there. That he cannot do and he continues to serve a long and painful period of incarceration—where the only relief is the letters that he exchanges with Fani—until he is finally tried and sentenced to death for treason. Even then, people still try to convince him to sign the oath—after all, the refusal of one man is not going to make the slightest bit of difference, so why doesn’t he just do the easy thing and save himself? What they cannot begin to comprehend is that someone would be more interested in their soul than their body and would be willing to sacrifice the latter in order to preserve the former.

Since it deals with a man struggling to maintain his sense of personal intercity in the face of craven and dangerous forces who demand unthinking loyalty and evangelicals who have sold themselves and their convictions out in the name of raw political power, some might assume that Malick created this film out of whole cloth in order to comment on the current political scene. In fact, Malick actually shot this film in 2016, long before the ascendancy of certain political figures, and based it upon the real-life story of Franz Jagerstatter, who was the only person in his town to be a conscientious objector and who was indeed executed in 1943 for his refusal violate his personal code of ethics by swearing allegiance to Hitler. (In 1997, his sentence was nullified by a Berlin court and he was later declared a martyr and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church.) That said, the parallels between the events in the film and what can be seen going on today, coincidental as they might be, are both unmistakable and frightening to behold—in one especially ugly scene, the town’s mayor tries to curry favor among the Nazis by delivering some extended anti-immigrant talk that the townspeople, looking out for themselves, quickly take to heart. If most of Malick’s previous films have seemed to take place in some kind of ethereal dream world that is slightly removed from the ordinary concerns of the day—leaving more time to gambol in the field or contemplate ones existence—then “A Hidden Life,” despite being his first full-on period project since “The New World,” is the one that feels most inextricably tied to the time in which it was release and gives it a disarming directness that even his biggest fans may find a bit surprising.

And yet, while the film is more plot-oriented than usual for Malick and may lack the existential flights of contemplative fancy found in much of his recent work, “A Hidden Life” is still his film through and through. From the very beginning, in which the sights and sounds of nature at its most pristine are presented with Bach playing in the background, there is no question whose movie this is and as it proceeds in its quiet but determined way, his examination of faith and moral conviction and the difficulty of finding some measure of grace in a world all too willing to succumb to madness and violence, it definitely reveals itself to be at one with the rest of Malick’s filmography. What is different this time around is that his fusing of those elements with the more straightforward requirements of his uncharacteristically linear narrative is handled in a surprisingly deft and moving manner. This is especially true during the film’s extraordinary final hour with Franz in jail awaiting his fate, which is one of the most moving and powerful stretches of pure cinematic storytelling that Malick has ever put before the cameras.

The performances in the film are also quite stunning as well, especially considering the unique challenges faced by anyone acting for Malick, who tends to favor performances where the emotions are conveyed physically and where scenes are often reduced in the editing to a line or two of dialogue augmented by voiceovers. August Diehl may be unfamiliar to most American moviegoers—he turned up as one of the SS officers in “Inglourious Basterds”—but his work here is one of the best performances ever seen in a Malick film. Franz’s actions may seem inexplicable to most of the people that he encounters in the course of the film but Diehl is able to convince viewers of both his inner decency and the strength of his convictions without needing to deliver one speech after another reaffirming those attributes for the slower members of the audiences. His performance, especially in the final scenes, is completely shattering and he is matched throughout by the work of Valerie Pachner as Fani—they are so good and convincing in their early scenes together that we can truly feel the pain of their separation when he is arrested, leading to a powerful final encounter between the two that is a sight to behold. Malick has spent his entire career giving big breaks to new or unfamiliar actors—Sissy Spacek in “Badlands,” Linda Manz in “Days of Heaven,” Q’orianka Kilcher in “The New World” and Jessica Chastain in “The Tree of Life” among them—and the work seen here from Diehl and Pachner is the equal of any of them.

Although to even suggest such a thing might strike some as tacky and insensitive, there is a case to be made that one of the reasons that “A Hidden Life” is such a powerful moviegoing experience is because Malick recognizes something of himself in Franz Jagerstatter and his struggles, at least in artistic terms. If he had any desire to do so, I am certain that Malick could have easily carved out a conventionally successful career in Hollywood—maybe not as the guiding light behind some superhero franchise but certainly as the man behind the kind of slick and tony Oscar bait dramas that pop up towards the end of the year. And yet, something within him knows that would be wrong for him and a betrayal of his beliefs as an artist and he has instead consistently chosen to go his own way, regardless of the consequences. In this particular case, the parallels are even more striking as Fox Searchlight, the studio—and newly acquired division of Disney—distributing the film has essentially forsaken it by dumping it in a handful of theaters and with little promotion, presumably to save room at the multiplex for “The Rise of Skywalker” and save awards season focus for Searchlight’s other WW II-related project, the insipid “Jojo Rabbit.” Like Franz’s stubborn determination to remain true to himself, Malick’s work may well wind up being written off as a gesture of no consequence that was doomed to fail from the start. That may be true for now but we are still talking about and celebrating Franz Jagerstatter and his efforts decades later and my guess is that the same thing is going to happen with “A Hidden Life.”

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originally posted: 12/21/19 02:15:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/01/20 Anthony F. Cianciolo A noble effort though too long. Thecinematography overwhelms the narration. 4 stars
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  13-Dec-2019 (PG-13)


  DVD: 17-Mar-2020

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