Terrence Malick is back. Back from the present. Back from the twirling. Back from his battle with the boundlessness of digital technology, a neutral force that nevertheless has the power to seduce certain filmmakers away from their convictions. Malick has always been the cinema’s most devout searcher, his faith and uncertainty going hand-in-hand. But the work he’s made over the last few years hasn’t been searching so much as lost. 2011’s “The Tree of Life” found the auteur pivoting away from the past for the first time in his storied career, and that semi-autobiographical masterpiece came to serve as the auteur’s bridge from historical frescos to contemporary sketches – from profound awe to puzzled wonder.
If “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” once proved that Malick’s impressionistic film language has the power to make myth feel like memory, the exasperating likes of “Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song” suggested that it also lacks the vocabulary to make sense of the 21st century. Unable to find any real measure of grace in a world that seems to have left it behind, Malick resigned himself to manufacturing his own artificial variety. His uncertainty faltered into doubt — if not in his Christian God, than in himself. And that’s how we got Ben Affleck watching Olga Kurylenko spinning herself stupid in front of a Sonic Burger.
But now, after seven long years of wandering in the desert — at a time when evil has become so rampant that even atheists might tremble at the godlessness that’s blowing over the world like a dull breeze — Terrence Malick has finally rediscovered his conviction and returned to solid ground. And he hasn’t come back empty-handed. Shot on digital (and taking full advantage of the catch-as-catch-can opportunities the format allows), but told with the probing moral urgency that was suffused into “The Thin Red Line,” “” is a lucid and profoundly defiant portrait of faith in crisis. It’s an intimate epic about the immense strength required for resistance, and the courage that it takes for one to hold fast to their virtue during a crisis of faith, and in a world that may never reward them for it. It is, without question, the best thing that Malick has made since “The Tree of Life.”
Providing a soulful and occasionally sublime middle ground between Malick’s two eras, “A Hidden Life” is only a few seconds old before it announces itself as a kind of return to form. An opening title card boasts that “The following story is inspired by real events,” and just like that, Malick makes his audience a promise that he intends to keep: This movie will have a story. The virtue of a coherent plot may be a bit overstated these days, particularly in an indie community that likes to stress how “everyone has a story to tell,” but Malick is in dire need of the bumper lanes that a linear narrative provides.
And “A Hidden Life” provides a linear narrative, albeit one that’s interrupted like a jammed radio signal, and characteristically assembled from the bits that other period epics might cut. The film begins in the idyllic valleys of Austria’s St. Radegund, a postcard-perfect village that’s located above the clouds and the storm that’s brewing in the world below. The year is 1939, but that information doesn’t seem to be especially relevant for Franz Jägerstätter (August Dielh) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), a farming couple whose simple life is limited to their crops, their daughters, and the tight-knit community who gathers in the local pub each Saturday night and the local church each Sunday morning. and eventually their three daughters. We see the representative images of Malick’s ideal life, complete with all the usual running and playing and frolicking in the fields. Imagine the childhood sequences from “The Tree of Life” transposed into pre-war Europe, and you’ll have a decent idea of how the first hour of Malick’s new film unfold.
One striking difference here is the absence of Malick’s regular cinematographer/enabler, Emmanuel Lubezki, who’s been replaced here by Joerg Widmer. Widmer, who worked as a camera operator on five of Malick’s previous films, steps into the role without rocking the boat — if anything, he steadies it. The natural lighting brings a rustic hue to everything it touches, while the lush camerawork is often as restless and anecdotal as it was in “The Tree of Life,” running towards the actors like an eager child and looking up at the adults with a sense of worship. Here, however, Malick slows his unmoored style to emphasize serenity, and punctuates the film with an array of static shots that are almost Herzogian in how they capture the indifference of the green mountains and the gentle mist that floats between them.
It’s all so beautiful that Franz — quiet, stoic, more of a vessel than a man, and generally emblematic of how the simplicity of these farmer characters suits Malick’s emotional detachment — has to alert us to a disturbance in the force. It drifts up the hill like a pestilence that only he can see. News travels about Hitler’s advancements, as does the fact that every able-bodied Austrian man will be forced to sign an oath pledging their allegiance to the fuhrer. Franz, whose father died on the losing and less dignified side of World War I, doesn’t respond well to that idea. “Oh my wife,” Franz says via the voiceover track that predictably comprises most of the dialogue in this movie, “what has become of our country?” That’s only managed to become a more familiar refrain in the years that Malick spent tinkering with this footage in the editing room.
Franz is a religious man, but not necessarily any more religious than the rest of the people in his mountain hamlet. Nevertheless, none of the other Christians seem troubled by the idea of swearing fealty to the antichrist (maybe documentary would be Malick’s ideal mode?). The argument is that it wouldn’t do any good for a few quiet farmers to defy the Third Reich — they’d simply be sent to the camps, leaving their families to starve. Much to the hostile chagrin of his friends and neighbors, Franz disagrees. “God won’t send us more than we can bear,” they insist, as they devolve into good Nazis. Of course, they’re unwilling to find out how much that might be.
Franz has a far more proactive understanding of the free will that his God has given him. His understanding of divinity isn’t driven by results. Franz isn’t eager to martyr himself; he’s not the Joan of Arc type, as much as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s influence can be felt throughout the final 90 minutes of this lightning-fast three-hour film, nor does he wish to position himself as the protagonist of Malick’s version of “Silence,” which rebukes all versions of that story by insisting that apostasy in the name of survival can never be as Christ-like as dying on the cross. “A Hidden Life” is never spiteful towards Fani, or many of the other characters who plead with Franz to sign the oath once he’s taken to a Berlin prison and branded as a traitor, but there is little ambiguity to the George Eliot quote that closes the film, and lends it its title:
“For 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.”
“A Hidden Life” is essentially a pearl string necklace of unhistoric acts, as the banality of the moments that dominate Malick’s attention help to reinforce the pointless of Franz’s potential martyrdom. He isn’t dying for a cause, or leaving behind an empire — he’s dying for his principles, and leaving behind a loving family and a few pigs. His is a moral narrative, not an emotional one, and Malick characteristically omits the major decisions that lead Franz to his fate, choosing instead to focus on the soul-searching that guides his decisions, and the anguish that they cause. The reward for Franz’s nobility is as ambiguous on Earth as it is in heaven, but that is precisely why doing the right thing requires a measure of faith.
Despite its repetitive and foraging nature, “A Hidden Life” flies by, as the film is helped along by gorgeous scenery, a beautiful score, and a handful of supporting performances from actors like Matthias Schoenaerts and “Transit” star Franz Rogowski (who earns the distinction of appearing in more than one scene). The late Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist respectively make their final appearances as a Nazi judge and an anguished, sympathizing member of the Church.
The relentless pace, and the distance that Malick keeps from his characters, only feels problematic after the film is over and you’ve been released from its grip. The moral velocity of “A Hidden Life” requires viewers to believe that Franz is doing the right thing, but the film only earns our sympathy and support by suppressing emotion, and limiting its access to how Fani and her children feel about the events that unfold. At times, that tactic feels like a cheap way for Malick to shore up his eclesiastical argument, as the film itself is never as conflicted as Franz appears to be in its first movements.
Then again, faith isn’t a fight to be won, but rather an ongoing conversation, and one that Malick is contributing to more productively than ever before (it was just recently that Malick wrote “Silence” filmmaker Martin Scorsese a letter that asked “What does Christ want from us?”). Early in “A Hidden Life,” there’s a telling conversation between Franz and a man who paints murals of Christ on church ceilings — happy paintings of Jesus surrounded by his disciples, so that parishioners might have something nice to see when they lean back and look up at the heavens. The painter laments the cowardice that has kept him from painting Jesus suffering on the cross. “How can I know what I haven’t lived?,” he asks Franz. “Someday I’ll have the courage to venture. Someday I’ll show them a true Christ.”
For Malick, his someday has finally arrived. For the rest of us, this show of faith hasn’t come a moment too soon.
“A Hidden Life” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.