Review by Sean Boelman
The latest film from divisive filmmaker Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life promises to be a different type of war movie than audiences have ever seen before. Even though there is more of a clear narrative in this movie than most of his other recent outings, this is still going to be a love-it-or-hate-it cinematic experience.
The film tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian soldier and conscientious objector who refused to serve the Nazis during World War II. Jägerstätter’s true story is undeniably very interesting, as he is one of the unsung heroes of the war. Most movies set during WWII focus on the heroes who actively fought against Hitler’s regime in battle with people like Jägerstätter who resisted in their own way often living hidden lives as the title implies.
Unfortunately, either due to overindulgence or ignorance, Malick stretches this story too thin, trying to justify a nearly three-hour runtime with a quiet and subtle story. Although an epic that long wouldn’t be too unheard of, Malick’s film isn’t driven by battle, but rather, the suffering experienced by a man and his family, and to be honest, it is an utterly exhausting experience.
Malick’s script is also very on-the-nose in terms of the themes it addresses. Perhaps in an attempt to make the story more palatable for mainstream audiences, the movie includes a voiceover that clearly spells out what the filmmaker hopes the audience will gain from the story. And that message isn’t remotely unexpected given the subject matter.
That said, the film does an extremely good job of making the audience care about the characters. Jägerstätter is obviously very compelling as the person standing up for what he believes in, but the more interesting character is his wife, conflicted with allegiance to her beliefs, the desires of her husband, and doing what is best for her children. Sadly, this storyline isn’t developed nearly enough, but it is the highlight of the movie when it is there.
August Diehl is absolutely wonderful as Jägerstätter, and his chemistry with Valerie Pachner, who plays his wife, is very strong. Both of them play their roles with a lot of nuance, bringing out the humble nature of their story and characters. Around them is an excellent supporting cast including Matthias Schoenaerts and the late Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist, although as is the case with most Malick films, their roles are quite small.
On a technical level, the movie isn’t bad, but Malick’s insistence on digital cinematography is sometimes distracting. While there are some compositions that are absolutely fabulous, the aggressively digital look of the film can get to be way too much at times. Movies set in this era should not look so crisp, and that, coupled with the boredom from the long runtime, will likely pull viewers out of the film.
Although there are some interesting things happening in A Hidden Life, it is yet another example of Malick going overboard. Most general audiences will find themselves frustrated by the deliberately slow pacing and frequently over-indulgent nature of the movie.
A Hidden Life is now playing in theaters.