In the 32 years between 1973 and 2005, Terence Malick directed only four films, and absolutely nothing in the 20 years from ’78 and ’98. Now he has given us his sixth movie since 2011’s The Tree of Life. In the autumn years of his life, Malick seems to be galloping along, working at lightning pace and with a frenzy with, arguably, has seen him produce patchier work, dipping in quality from the near-perfection of his first three films: Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.
His latest is a contemplative true-life story based on the life and death of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is at least a partial return to glory, if not a wholesale one. Jägerstätter’s story is a remarkable one: living a life in a rural idyll in the mountains of Austria before he is conscripted into the German army during the Second World War. Wrestling with his conscience, he finds he cannot swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and is duly ostracised by his neighbours and cast adrift by the spiritual leaders to whom he turns. The mental sparring between Jägerstätter and his conscience and the verbal sparring between him, his compatriots and former friends plays out in Malick’s signature slow-burning style, revelling in the pure artifice of film as much as the incredible story.
Malick’s unhurried, contemplative style is both a blessing and a curse here. A pleasingly languid opening act focuses on the minutiae of a simple, pre-conflict farming existence as Jägerstätter and his wife played by Valerie Pachner enjoy worldly days of heaven in the Austrian mountains. The immense and breath-taking vistas are partnered by tight-fit, waist-high shots which linger on the expressions of the couple with contentedness giving way to concern and eventually heartbreak. Malick’s signature voiceover narration has the effect of making much of the unfolding drama feel like a whispered prayer to the heavens as Diehl’s torn protagonist argues internally.
There are times, though, as the movie drifts through its second act and approaches its third, where Malick’s penchant for introspection and unhurried admiration of the scenery feels a bit of a burden. Occasionally, scenes seem to stall a little and settle into a repetitive rhythm of actors circling each other, hands in pockets. It sometimes feels like there lacks a sense of anything driving anything to a conclusion, like prize fighters testing each other without ever attempting a proper punch. Given the direction of travel for the movie and the ultimate destiny of its principal character, it’s a shame. At times I felt that the consequences for Jägerstätter’s ultimate act of civil and moral disobedience were a little out of sight.
Irrespective, it’s still a bracingly considerate movie that demands attention and almost certainly repeated viewings.
Drama, History | Cert: 12A | 20th Century Fox| UK, 17 January 2020 | Dir. Terrence Malick | August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Maria Simon, Tobias Morette, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts.