Rating: (3 stars)
In “A Hidden Life,” Terrence Malick tells the little-known story of Franz Jägerstätter, a farmer living in Austria during World War II, who was executed in 1943 after refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.
Malick took the title of his film from a George Eliot quote about the myriad anonymous acts of moral courage that go forgotten throughout history. With this sweeping, spiritually minded story, Malick continues to explore the subjects that have captivated him throughout his career, exploring the human search for God and the liminal space between earthbound desires and more transcendent aspirations. Here, that exploration is embodied by an extraordinary figure made all the more heroic by the fact that he was ordinary: Putting one ethical foot in front of the other, he trudges to a tragic but ultimately sublime end.
Portrayed in a thoroughly convincing performance by August Diehl, Franz is introduced while plying his trade as a farmer, with his beloved wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) by his side. Living in an idyllic corner nestled amid mountains and verdant valleys, the two work, play and love together, eventually welcoming three daughters and members of their extended families. Viewers familiar with Malick’s 2011 masterwork “The Tree of Life” will recognize similar moments of domestic intimacy, as they play out amid family games, quick, darting gestures and meaningful glances. When Franz is called for military training in 1940, he attends, thinking that the war will be over soon. When he is drafted a few years later, he has decided to forswear allegiance to the Third Reich, a choice he knows will result in hardship for Fani, shunning by their fellow villagers and, most likely, his own death.
At nearly three hours, “A Hidden Life” takes its time establishing the bucolic rhythms of the Jägerstätters’ lives, their relationships with their neighbors, and Franz’s ongoing conversations with Catholic priests who, as Hitler’s rise progresses, are either passive or complicit. The wrenching fatalism of Franz’s story is underscored by historical newsreels of Nazi rallies and pageants, making his stance feel even lonelier by comparison. Filming on location in St. Radegund, where the Jägerstätters lived — and even using their real-life farmhouse for some interior scenes — Malick uses the same visual language he’s been honing, with uneven success, since “The New World”: a combination of loose, improvisatory scenes, often filmed with a wide fish-eye lens; whispered voice-overs of prayers lifted up to an unhearing God; and lots of shots of nature (in this case waterfalls, wheat fields and magnificent alpine crags).
These stylistic tics have made Malick’s most recent films — “To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” “Song to Song” — little more than sincere but vague and self-indulgent cinematic ruminations. Here, in the service to a more linear, character-driven story, they can seem simultaneously blunt and maddeningly indirect. As Franz worries over what to do, Malick stages encounters with Fani and fellow villagers against arresting backdrops, as if he directed the actors simply to pace around each other and utter gnomic pronouncements about good, evil and the nature of God. When he drops in the occasional heavenly choir — a gratuitous gesture given James Newton Howard’s marvelous orchestral score — the effect is less numinous than overworked.
And yet, even at it teeters on the edge of pretentiousness, “A Hidden Life” exerts a cumulative power that cannot be ignored. Diehl and Pachner are ideally suited to their roles, their expressive faces as simple and as weathered as the tools their characters use in their aged barn. Over the course of the movie, their love story evolves from one of sensuality and shared purpose to a truly sacred bond. As Franz’s personal passion play unfolds, the beauty and sadness of his story have burrowed into the viewer’s consciousness on a level beyond mere narrative. “A Hidden Life” is indisputably the finest work Malick has produced in eight years, as an examination of faith, conviction and sacrifice, but also as proof of concept for his own idiosyncratic style. It marks an exhilarating return to form but also, more crucially, content.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains mature thematic material including violent images. 173 minutes.