Terrence Malick is back. The reclusive Texas filmmaker went to Cannes to support his ninth feature film, “A Hidden Life,” but he did not pose for photographers. He did soak up his auteur’s ovation for the three-hour world premiere of the World War II drama Sunday at the Grand Theatre Lumiere. Did he show up at the Monday press conference? Mais non! His stars August Diehl (“Inglourious Basterds”) and Valerie Pachner did the honors.
Énorme ovation pour #AHiddenLife de #TerrenceMalick un grand film à la réalisation et aux images extraordinaires. Le réalisateur américain a frappé un grand coup 8 ans après sa palme d’or pour #TheTreeOfLife.#Cannes2019 pic.twitter.com/DryquKPKde
— Alex Pastorello (@PastorelloAlex1) May 19, 2019
Fox Searchlight, which took Cannes 2011 Palme d’Or-winner “The Tree of Life” to a Best Director Oscar nomination and $61 million worldwide, has scooped up his new film, which has been for sale for some time, with bits and pieces shown to various buyers over the last three years. But after subsequent Malick movies failed to woo critics or audiences, distributors waited to see how this painstakingly assembled movie would play. Searchlight won the bidding, acquiring U.S. and several international territories for a reported figure in the $12 million range.
At Cannes, it played well. This time, Malick deploys his trademark voiceovers, editing rhythms, and stunning cinematography in service of a riveting, moving, romantic, and chilling anti-Hitler World War II narrative. Diehl and Pachner play a loving Austrian couple with three little girls who live a bucolic existence in the Austrian alps, farming in close harmony with nature, until Hitler calls.
When farmer Franz Jägerstätter is called to serve, he realizes that he can’t make the required loyalty oath to Hitler. “This is more about a private and silent choice,” said Diehl in Cannes, “not something visible, not outstanding, he’s not a hero. It’s a personal and spiritual choice.”
When asked why the filmmaker was not present, his stars smiled and said, “We don’t know!”
They both recognized the resonance the film has today with the rise of the Far Right in Europe and America. “If it’s about our society,” said Diehl, “it’s about how a person who says ‘no’ is getting more rare. We are all jumping on one train, and have to go with it. If a person in a room says ‘no,’ we are not doing anything … Maybe this movie is not only political, but is personal — maybe this movie can help. Why is it possible that everyone jumps on a train going in the wrong direction?”
The movie’s spiritualism “comes from simple place,” said Pachner. “Two characters have a strong connection with each other and the world they live in. The most spiritual thing is their connection, which is love.”
For Diehl, Malick’s spiritualism is in all his movies. “There’s also another presence, something invisible, the most simple things: a peasant sees where his food is coming from and wheat is growing. The German word is ‘heimat,’ a home or fatherland. Terry is curious. It’s a search that every child sees, that this is all connected.”
The actors enjoyed Malick’s habitual ways of working: long, uninterrupted, improvisational 20-30 minute takes that were filmed in German-accented English and some German back in 2016, followed by a protracted and exacting editing process that took three more years. Michael Nykvist and Bruno Ganz both died in the interim, having shot their last films with Malick.
All the actors, no matter from what country, immediately adapted to Malick’s mood on set. They went “into search mode,” said Diehl, “being decent, humble, and quiet, light, not stressed. That was the mood though the whole of shooting.”
“Terry would say, ‘It’s like catching fish,'” said Pachner.
“He’s posing questions,” said Diehl. “Does this make sense? He’s inviting you on a search not for an answer, but a question. He doesn’t want this character to be a hero or a preacher who knows good from evil … It’s not about the words … The good between people is better than all the evil things. But it’s is not as loud, it’s more quiet.”
The actors went back for repeated voice-over recordings, as the movie changed radically over time.
With Searchlight behind it, “A Hidden Life” will get serious support for a theatrical release and a robust Oscar campaign for Academy voters who will appreciate the gorgeous production values and timely political message.