'A Hidden Life': Film Review | Cannes 2019

A life insufficiently examined for three hours.

Premiering in competition, Terrence Malick's latest film tells the true story of Franz Jagerstatter, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II.

Since Terrence Malick won the Palme d’Or at Cannes eight years ago for The Tree of Life, he has, after a fashion, run the count to two strikes and a foul ball with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song. Well, it’s a big swing and a miss for strike three with A Hidden Life, which sees the massively talented but often mystifying writer-director take on true-life material for the first time in this desperately indulgent and puzzlingly de-theologized study of an Austrian man who paid the ultimate price for his conscientious objector stance against the Nazis during World War II.

As beautiful as it is to look at on a big wide screen, this lustrous, independently produced three-hour indulgence will struggle to find much footing in theatrical release, at least in the U.S., which will ironically relegate this high-calorie slice of art film extravagance mostly to the home screen.

Unfortunately, instead of embracing the weighty moral, religious and political components of the story, Malick has alternately deflected and minimized them. Of course, when you’ve got the Nazis as the villains, there’s scarcely any dramatic need to explain anyone’s opposition to them. But in the context of upper Austria before and at the beginning of the war, after Hitler pulled his native country into the Reich, it was a different matter, one the film only fuzzily presents.

After a vigorous opening in which black-and-white newsreel footage from the time lays out the Fuehrer’s rise and march to war, the film settles down in a gorgeous precinct of northern Austria that can’t be too far from the land of The Sound of Music. And the way the area is shot by Malick and his cinematographer Jorg Widmer (a veteran Steadicam wiz who operated for Malick on the latter’s most recent feature, Song to Song) isn’t any less rhapsodic, although now it’s accompanied by the strains of European classical masters, not Broadway luminaries.

Maintaining a large farm in a slice of Alpine paradise is Franz Jagerstatter, who, as impersonated by August Diehl, looks like a poster boy for Aryan male beauty whom Hitler himself would have approved (the real Jagerstatter was a far cry from this standard). He and his handsome, sturdy wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) have a brood of young daughters and some fellow farmers who help maintain a high-altitude farm, plus an abode that comes dangerously close to looking like something out of the Sundance catalog.

Right here you want to call a time-out: Haven’t we seen nearly these identical images somewhere before — of gorgeous fields, scythes cutting through them, open spaces as far as the eye can see, land unspoiled but for animals scuttling about and a rustic, hand-built house anyone would love to call home? Wait, weren’t they in a film called Days of Heaven? Was that really 41 years ago? The answer is 'yes' all around.

However, the local political conditions are considerably different in the new film. When Franz is first called up by the Reich for military training, in 1940, he goes along with it like everyone else, although in a letter home he does query, “What’s happened to our country?” After he’s released to return home and toil in the harvest, literal storm clouds coalesce around the mountains, as visual beauty begins to merge with simplistic metaphors and storytelling in a way that doesn’t let up.

So just when you ache for the film to begin to go deeper, it instead starts flatlining. Franz confides his misgivings to the local priest, who flatly warns him he might be shot for objecting and adds, “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.” Franz is the only refusenik around and, from this point on, the character effectively shuts up. There are increasingly long stretches in the pic during which the leading character doesn’t say a thing, even to his family, suggesting that he’s taking the maxim, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it,” a little too far.

This development presents major dramatic problems. First, it leaves Franz no way to communicate the development of his attitudes. Second, it distances him from his family.  Third, it leaves the true nature of his objections fuzzy and vague. He becomes a conscientious objector to the war and military service when he knows this is a capital offense, and yet Malick, with three hours on his hands, never gives him the opportunity to thoroughly explain his thinking.

For anyone who has even taken a cursory look at the real Jagerstatter’s behavior, one can’t help but note the ever-increasing religious component to his refusal to join Hitler’s team. But this is systematically ignored in the film, as is his inscrutable reluctance to discuss the matter with his wife and family. He becomes almost entirely uncommunicative by the third hour, scarcely what the movie needs at this point.  

If in this rendition of Jagerstatter’s life the man was not setting himself up to be a martyr, then what was he doing? Maybe the right thing, as he saw it, but he never explains it to anyone. Malick has never been averse to paring dialogue down to the bone when more gorgeous images are available, but here he willingly turns his back on exploring the inner turmoil and thought processes of his central character, leaving an empty plate where a significant moral, religious and intellectual meal was available for the taking. The pic is nearly perverse in its avoidance of dramatic meat.

As it skirts around deep or direct consideration of the nitty-gritty of its subject’s thinking, A Hidden Life begins resembling a melodramatic silent movie, and one built around a cipher. Malick’s tendency has always been to externalize, not internalize; this is a story of an intensely internal struggle, one that remains unexplored. We’re not ever really even sure if Jagerstatter’s objections are truly religious in the scriptural sense or just in a general moral way. For the audience, he’s become an empty vessel.

By 1943, the Reich has had enough of the man’s obstinance and he’s hauled off to a military prison, where the guillotine awaits. How it all ends is a foregone conclusion, but one nice touch in the climactic scene is that, on this day of multiple beheadings (Malick, fastidious as always, doesn’t actually show any), the Nazis clean the killing machine and the floor around it of the blood of the previous unfortunate. How very thoughtful.

Within moments of starting to watch the film, there can be no doubt whose signature it bears. But even with potentially deeper material, Malick is still making all the same moves, while neither varying them or amplifying what might lie beneath. His process consists of beautifying, flattening and simplifying.  

Jagerstatter, who was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, had his life dramatized once before, in the 1971 Austrian television film The Refusal, directed by Axel Corti.

Production companies: Elizabeth Bay Productions, Mister Smith, Studio Babelsberg
Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tobias Moretti, Bruno Ganz, Michael Nyqvist, Ulrich Matthes
Director-screenwriter: Terrence Malick
Producers: Grant Hill, Dario Bergesio, Josh Jeter, Elizabeth Bentley
Executive producers: Marcus Loges, Adam Morgan, Bill Pohlad, Charlie Woebcken, Christof Fisser, Henning Molfenter, Yi Wei
Director of photography: Jorg Widmer
Production designer: Sebastian Krawinkel
Costume designer: Lisy Christi
Editors: Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason, Sebastian Jones
Music: James Newton Howard
Casting: Anja Dihrberg
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)

173 minutes