The mere mention of certain directors – and, indeed, actors – can get those pre-conceptions flowing like you wouldn’t believe. So here’s one to get you started. Terrence Malick. Detractors – and there are plenty – label him long winded and pretentious, while his fans – and there are just as many of those – regard him as a cinematic poet. In a career that’s had its peaks and troughs, his latest, A Hidden Life, sees him reach a hat-trick of awards from Cannes, one of which was the coveted Palme D’Or (for The Tree Of Life in 2011). More recently, he’s languished in a lean period with Knight Of Cups and its partner films finding less favour with audiences and critics alike.
Not that this isn’t a characteristically Malick film. It has all his hallmarks – length, a leisurely pace, introspection, thoughts rather than dialogue, lingering photography – but here he ventures into a story inspired by true events. About somebody you’ve probably never heard of, somebody who fits George Elliot’s lines, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts: and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” which gives the film its title.
This hidden life belongs to Austrian pacifist Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) who, as the Nazi empire starts to spread across the Europe of the late 30s and war breaks out, is called away from his idyllic farm in the mountains to military training. He goes reluctantly, leaving his wife and daughters, but the experience convinces him that he cannot support the regime, even though all Austrian men of military age were required to sign an oath of allegiance to Hitler. He steadfastly refuses, his village turns against him and his family, he goes to prison, but nothing will change his mind, not the brutality of his confinement or his pragmatic lawyer.
Much of the film is based on the letters between Jagerstatter and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), forming a long distance correspondence which is turned into spoken thoughts on screen. Those letters are their only connection when he’s in prison, on the surface intended to reassure and comfort, but thinly disguising the reality of their situation. They know it and so do we. And, with the focus on their thoughts, there is much that we physically don’t see and don’t need to. Malick shows us just enough for us to understand what’s happening and then leaves the rest to our imagination, especially when it comes to Jagerstatter’s incarceration. But he does spend time luxuriating in the beauty of the farmer’s origins, which makes a stunning contrast to the wider world. Make no mistake, though, this is not a cosy country lifestyle: potatoes are planted by hand, wheat harvested with scythes and water drawn from the well.
Malick’s portrait of the village community is equally one of contrasts. It appears to pull together effortlessly – until the farmer pulls in a different direction and he and his family are soon ostracised. Other children throw rocks at their little girls and, once he’s taken away, Fani has to rely on her sister and elderly mother to help run the farm: nobody will speak to her, nobody will buy from her and some even spit at her. It’s a microcosm of what was happening in Germany and its spreading empire, as the newsreel footage from the time shows only too clearly.
At just under three hours, it’s a lengthy film but not one of those where you wish for tighter editing. The audience needs that time to think through what’s on the screen and form an impression of the passage of time. It may not be to everybody’s taste – Malick haters are gonna hate – but for those who love him and even for those sitting on the fence, there’s plenty of relish, enjoy and consider.
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.