THREE STARS An Austrian farmer is arrested by the Nazis for failing to take an oath in support of the Reich.
August Diehl, Valerie Pachner
PERIOD DRAMA #AHIDDENLIFE
Terence Malick takes arthouse very, very seriously. It's won him a venerated career, Oscar nominations, a Palme D’Or and a following of very, very serious admirers. His works are known for their length and beauty. Sometimes he transcends the medium to create films of tremendous significance. Other times they’re just long and pretty. So when Malick takes on the true story of conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter, there’s an expectation that the very finest human qualities will intersect with the very best of Malick. So you’d hope.
Jagerstatter is one of WW2’s lesser known figures. An Austrian farmer who refused to take a Nazi oath of allegiance, he was ostracised by his village before being imprisoned by the Reich and sent to the gallows. His young family bore the brunt of local aggression while he endured that of his gaolers. The church counselled him not to take his stand for it would serve no purpose (“God judges what is in your heart”), while his military accusers failed to understand him at all, and didn’t much care.
It’s about here that art and life intersect as Malick also fails to make much of a case for the man, and without one, it becomes hard to care deeply about Jagerstatter’s situation or Malick’s film. He objects, says the director, and that’s enough. But without understanding why he’s willing to forfeit his life, and his wife, there’s precious little reason to become profoundly involved in the story. And when it’s 176 minutes long, that’s a problem. Was Jaggerstatter’s objection merely one of not wanting to assist the invaders, the barbarians? Was it a simple moral choice, or a more fervent religious one? Since the church was willing to absolve him, and free him from his internal grief, this is important. Why would he forsake his family? And with three hours up your cinematic sleeve, there was plenty of time for Malick to tease out an answer.
Instead, we get three hours filled with some extraordinarily beautiful cinematography as Jord Widnmer’s commanding steadicam prowls around his characters to land on exhilarating views of Jagerstatter’s village, or mountains, or people looking and staring. Granted, a lot can be said in a look, particularly when it comes from the dashing August Diehl (more pin-up boy than Austrian farmer) and is supported, counter-intuitively, by Malick’s disconcerting sound mix. The result is serious art house, and it’s beautiful.
What A HIDDEN LIFE is not is profound. But with three hours at his disposal, the source material, the director’s past achievements and the extraordinary talent that has been poured into this project, we have a right to expect something approaching profound, not just a long and pretty historical drama.