A Hidden Life is perhaps the most beautiful looking film I’ve seen all year, and its the unadulterated visual poetry of the film that makes it more than a overlong and indulgent slog. Terrence Malick is unquestionably a filmmaker that has often changed the very fabric of the medium, and while it’s hard to not be impressed by the synchronism of his visuals and the up close, intimate feel of his environments, A Hidden Life is frankly a very long movie where not a lot happens. While the thematic core of opposing evil is never lost, it’s repeated over and over in such a way that can often cause the attention to sway.
Based on the true story, A Hidden Life follows the life of Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who refuses to fight for Hitler in World War II. Jagerstatter finds the thought of fighting for someone he doesn’t believe in unconscionable, and as he considers his decision he’s strained from his community and persecuted by his government. Even as he’s offered the chance to serve as a medic, Jagerstatter cannot swear loyalty to Hitler, and he faces a whirlwind of pain as his entire life is taken away from him.
Malick is a filmmaker who often dabbles in the surreal and the mythic, and it’s interesting to see him try his hand at a biopic. It’s not a traditional biopic by any means, and possesses Malick’s signature sweeping shots, improvisational style, and long escapades across vast environments, but it is grounded in a signature message that gives the film a semblance of structure. It’s intimate in a way that is provocative; Jagerstatter doesn’t need to be on the front lines to know that his country is wrong, and the time spent in his community with his family shows all that he leaves behind for the sake of refusing the call of evil.
It’s a powerful story, but the intimate environments limit the dynamics of the story at play, and for a three hour movie it’s often repetitive and reverts to very simple concepts about free will, duty, and community. Much of the story is told through Jagerstatter’s extended, philosophical letters with his wife, and despite the beauty of the prose and the richness of the locations, there’s a lot of similar points being made in different words. While there are different characters that question Jagerstatter in different ways, once he becomes imprisoned it’s hard to see what Malick’s point was other than to show the crushing tole that it takes on Jagerstatter’s spirit (which while important to see, is often dull to watch and never becomes particularly gruesome or haunting).
It’s the early scenes, in which Jagerstatter’s home life is slowly undone by the seeds of discontent within his community, that are the film’s strongest. We see how the hateful ideologies begin to take root in even the most sacred of places, and how Jagerstatter slowly becomes ostracized. His home setting of Radegund remains the heart of the film, particularly when he’s imprisoned and his wife and family are left alone as outsiders among Nazi sympathizers, and seeing this once welcoming place turn on itself is the most nuanced and interesting thing the film has going for it once the inevitability of Jagerstatter’s situation becomes apparent.
August Diehl’s performance is truly impressive, and it’s his pensive nature that makes the character both remarkable and hard to gauge emotionally. Diehl shows the conflicted nature of a man standing up for duty, but even amidst his capture there’s never really the sign that he’ll be broken. Once his capture is confirmed and his fate is pretty much sealed, the film doesn’t ever deviate from the path it’s on, making the roadblocks Jagerstatter faces oddly inconsequential.
I think A Hidden Life will either work for you or it’s won’t; it’s impossible to ignore the sea of gorgeous visuals, but the viewer will either appreciate the meticulous slow burn of Jagerstatter being transported between prisons, refusing different compromises, and writing impassioned letters, or find it dull, repetitive, and strangely underdeveloped. There’s certainly an inherent power to the story, and while I was often moved by the idea of a common man fighting with no hope of glory, I think perhaps there’s a great two hour movie somewhere within this tiresome three hour one. Grade: B-