A Hidden Life, formerly known as Radegund, is the 10th feature film from the notoriously reclusive director Terrence Malick. The infamously delicate and long-winded director, who after his sophomore effort Days of Heaven in 1978 left filmmaking to teach philosophy in France only to return in 1998 with the phenomenally evocative The Thin Red Line. Ever since he has been on a warpath of late and against his character has made three films in the last five years with Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and now A Hidden Life. The latter makes its world premiere at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, bringing Malick back to the same event that won him the festivals most prized award in the Palme d’Or in 2011 for The Tree of Life. A Hidden Life follows Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a farmer living in Austria in the 1930s, who stands apart as a conscientious objector to WW2 and the regime of Nazism, as well as Adolf Hitler himself. Franz, along with his wife Franziska, played by the marvelous Valerie Pachner, is ostracised from their group, and as the conflict grows on a world stage, so does the inner turmoil of the family.
Malick’s latest is a compelling and exquisitely captured feature that is sadly ultimately let down by the self-indulgent nature of its director. At 2 hours and 53 minutes, A Hidden Life is Terrence Malick’s longest film, beating that of The Thin Red Line by a whopping three minutes. Spending over three years in the editing room results in an incredibly elongated picture that has everything imaginable thrown into it with the excessive nature of Malick’s typical self-absorbing personal heretics.
The film has a staple of Malick’s creations, in which a profoundly personal absorption is exercised to examine a character’s mentality/internal conflict via voiceover, resulting in meaningful dialogue. Here it is utilized to oblivion and considering the film is based on the letters between Franz and Franziska, contextually it works wonders and feels remarkably organic and effective. But, this convention doesn’t take the audience anywhere narratively speaking, nor does Malick want to for that matter, we’re situated still in a fragment of time, which artistically is a beautiful rendition of the small elegant moments of life, but cinematically the effect isn’t so kind. You’re left somewhat stagnating, as the film ultimately can’t shift gear quick enough — you’re left sort of held prisoner, which is quite ironic considering this is Malick’s first linear narrative since The New World.
Thankfully, A Hidden Life is visually astounding and remarkable to see on a cinema screen. Malick’s regular cinematographer Emanuel Emmanuel Lubezki sits this one out and in his place is Steadicam operator Joerg Widmer, and you wouldn’t even notice the difference. The visual representation here is faultless with the crafting of the image in both framing and composition utterly astounding. The expressive nature of a misty haze or blue skies has never been caught in practice as beautifully stunning or moving as is the quality in this miraculously intangible feature. You feel the weight and beauty of even the most minute and exquisite details of the setting.
The film opens with Franz farming in one of the most expressively conquering exhibits of the mundane meets the marvelous I’ve ever witnessed. It’s this meeting between the mundane and marvelous that Malick strikes such absorbing tentative lifeblood. It’s not a discussion of beauty in the eye of the beholder — more a general beauty throughout. This beauty strikes even the most devastating and glib moments or life’s perils, especially that of Franz. Take his home and work for an example — a beautifully remote Babylon of freedom, defiant against an ever-growing technological demand (in this case war). It’s this constant contradiction that Malick wants you to feed on, specifically? Who knows.
Not even solely visual, even moments of character interactions offers elegance, no matter how brittle or rugged Malick still fines layers of humanity, and humane process. A thread that serves as a chilling reminder of how innocent, or devastating man-kind is so often relentless at being, even in their brutality of execution and killing there is this ironic layer of rule and system. Theirs an astonishing charged emotionally captivating gravitas here, so much, so it begins to fry one’s brain just trying to process the magnitude of explosive enamored metaphor.
The cast list is an element that is also beautifully crafted and curated for the films better creation. It’s a feat, even for Malick’s standards considering he has worked with the likes of Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Christian Bale, etc., that takes a step back and serves character far before it serves the film via monetary gain. Granted there are few sizeable names here in the likes of the late Michael Nyqvist and Bruno Ganz, but they’re nothing more of snippets in a more massive film. Powerfully brought to screen no doubt but small strokes in a broader artistic vision.
Matthias Schoenaerts is arguably the biggest name here with a sizeable character, but even then, it’s merely a scene or so until Malick cuts back to August Diehl and Valerie Pachner, who are both outstanding. The dynamic and partnership are executed terrifically in conjunction with this aesthetic Malick have devised. It’s a quaint, raw, and romantically visual. Longing into each other eyes with no need for overly excessive dialogue. You know what is said with their visual expressions alone. It’s haunting in one way and devastatingly romantic in another. The passion burns brightly between them both, and their family dynamic, on the whole, is ever so engaging and exciting to see — made more the devastating with how darkly a turn A Hidden Life progresses.
A Hidden Life serves as one of the better features that director Terrence Malick has devised. The repetition of the story is harsh, but the emotional vulnerability of its characters is mesmerizing, with gripping, captivating performances from both Deihl and Pachner. However, even with a daunting edit, the visual prowess on offer here is nothing short of pronounced unprecedented beauty and for anyone who appreciates captivating art should witness this on a cinema screen.
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