Cannes 2019: Malick's Overlong Austrian WWII Drama 'A Hidden Life'
by Alex Billington
May 20, 2019
Acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick returns to the Cannes Film Festival this year 8 years since winning the Palme d'Or in 2011 for The Tree of Life. His latest film is officially titled A Hidden Life (in French: Une vie cachée), originally called Radegund while in production - which is also the name of the town in Austria (St. Radegund) where most of the film takes place. This 2 hour, 53 minute-long film tells the true story of a young farmer in rural Austria during World War II who refuses to sign an oath to Hitler, landing himself in prison. We have seen and heard many stories about conscientious objectors, but this time it's told from the perspective of the Nazis - or rather, someone who was conscripted to join the Nazi army (like most Germans and Austrians) and refused to do so. His family was scorned and spat at, and he never could get out of jail.
Malick's A Hidden Life is unquestionably a beautiful-looking film, which should come as no surprise, but it's mostly just another rehash of his visual style all over again. He borrows shots and elements from Days of Heaven and The Tree of Life, showing this farmer family rolling around in the grass, playing on the hillside, laughing and running around their farm. The cinematography by German DP Jörg Widmer (who was a camera operator on The Tree of Life) is gorgeous and sweeping, with crane shots and wide-angle handheld views galore, pretty much similar to the way he has shot most of his films. That's not to say it isn't lovely to see, especially all of the views of this mountain town where they live (and I now need to visit). But all of this gorgeousness is established fairly quickly, and the story plays out over three very long hours. It is indeed overlong and at times grueling to keep watching, but more in the later half once he's in prison. I prefer the opening more than the second half - showing the sudden transition from tranquility to war in subtle ways.
While this is clearly a World War II film, Malick specifically pulls back on any of the cliche elements usually found in war films. There's no blood, no violence, barely any fighting (aside from some villagers getting into a tussle), and even the prison scenes aren't as intense as expected. This restraint is used to keep the focus on this one story, to show us how one man struggles to maintain his sense of peace in a world where everyone seems to have gone mad. There's an obvious reference to today's times throughout - the villagers who used to be peaceful and calm are suddenly up in arms yelling about how great the Nazis are, and how anyone who refuses to agree with and support them are crazy (or criminals or bad people). War, and the Nazi regime, has turned them into hateful people who believe they're just benefiting their own nation, fighting for their country and for the safety of themselves and their neighbors. Of course, history allows us to see how wrong they were. And at that time, only Franz sees how absurd this is, and won't join the army like everyone else.
Over the course of this three hours, Malick doesn't spend as much time establishing Franz's reasoning for this (though it is expressed as a religious view - God encourages peace), as he does giving us this beautiful portrait of his farm life and how it's disrupted once the Nazis take over. Which is compelling, especially in comparison to what's happening all over world with right wing regimes taking over and nationalists being sucked up into believing it's good for the country (spoiler: it isn't). And I support this message, and Franz's cause, but extending this man's story to three hours really starts to stretch it too thin. He's only one man, and while there are others out there of course, the second half of the film involves this prison officers trying to convince him that his defiance won't influence anyone, or make any difference at all in the world. No one will ever hear of him. No one will care. It's a lost cause. Yet he doesn't give up - neither should we. And all of this prison time is effective at the start, but seems laborious as a viewer - especially if you know how it ends.
That said, I appreciate so much of Malick's work as a filmmaker I can't entirely dismiss this film. Aside from the beautiful cinematography, the moody score by James Newton Howard is wonderful. Another one of my favorite scores this year, but I'm already a fan of JNH so it comes as no surprise. August Diehl playing Franz Jägerstätter gives an riveting lead performance, but it's not awards worthy. The rest of the cast is fine, but they never seem to go above and beyond the basics - almost as if it was the first or second take and they never went for more. They speak a mix of German and English, mostly English when it's important dialogue - which is odd but not as off-putting as I thought it might be. The film flows along smoothly with the help of consistent voiceover. The performance by Valerie Pachner as Franz's wife Franziska is my favorite. Malick may not be making his best films anymore, but he can definitely still make very affecting, gorgeous cinema.
Alex's Cannes 2019 Rating: 7 out of 10
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