To coin a sports term, the much-acclaimed (and no less divisive) filmmaker Terrence Malick has, with his latest film, A Hidden Life, “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.”
This is a wonderful film, beautiful and inspiring, and had the running time been two hours or thereabouts, it would have ranked among Malick’s best films, and perhaps among the best of 2019, as well.
Unfortunately, it runs nearly three hours, thereby supplanting inspiration with exhaustion. Malick, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing, evidently couldn’t bear to part with a single frame or a single word, even if the ultimate outcome was to the detriment of the overall work. That it took Malick nearly three years to edit the film is mind-boggling, during which time two actors have since died, Michael Nyqvist in 2017 and Bruno Ganz last February.
Nyqvist and Ganz have only minor roles, while the lion’s share of screen time is appropriately allotted to August Diehl as Franz Jagerstatter and Valerie Pachner as his wife, Fani. Their farm, situated in the remote but extremely picturesque region of Austria called Radgeund (the film’s original title).
World War II is raging, and even Radegund is not spared its impact, with some residents becoming die-hard converts to Adolf Hitler. Franz, however, is not among them. A devout Catholic, he resists consignment to the military and refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler or the Third Reich.
Franz is adamant in his decision, despite being ostracized by much of the community and branded a traitor by the belligerent, drunken mayor (Karl Markovics). Even Franz’s own mother (Karin Neuhauser) views his decision with disdain, blaming Fani for “changing” him.
When Franz is eventually summoned to Berlin, which entails a traditionally tearful farewell between him and Fani at the railway station, she and their three daughters are left to contend with the continued vitriol of the villagers. Franz is imprisoned, where he endures humiliation and beatings on a regular basis, yet he offers no opposition, nor does he fight back. This continues for roughly two hours of the film’s running time, culminating in a conclusion as foregone as it is tragic.
Oddly, the end legend isn’t about Jagerstatter (who was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict CVI in 2007 and beatified), but a quote from poet George Elliot. Ever the maverick, Terrence Malick.
Most of the filmmaker’s trademarks can be found in A Hidden Life: Idyllic flashbacks, somber narration, episodic structure, glorious cinematography (courtesy Jorg Widmer), a soaring score (courtesy James Newton Howard), and the location as a character. Technically, there’s nothing wrong with A Hidden Life, and certainly, the fact-based story is a worthy one.
But it’s not a complicated one, and could easily have been told in a simpler, more concise manner than it is here. As it stands, Franz and Fani are the only characters to emerge with any depth, and it should be noted that both Diehl and Pachner give heartfelt performances in emotionally grueling roles.
The elements are all there in A Hidden Life, and nearly three hours later, they’re still there – but they’ve been emphasized and over-emphasized and re-emphasized so many times that a genuine sense of tragedy is tainted by an equally genuine, and unmistakable, sense of over-indulgence from a filmmaker who might well do to remember another old term: Sometimes less is more.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2020, Mark Burger.