Published on January 3rd, 2020 | by Noah Dimitrie0
A Hidden Life
Terrence Malick may have just made one of his best movies since Tree of Life. It is a beautiful, meaningful epic called A Hidden Life.
Terrence Malick doesn’t make films about characters. He makes films about souls — people, real or fictitious, who engage in a unique emotional experience of the world. He doesn’t tell stories, doesn’t spin a yarn so much as he renders those all too relatable moments in between the stories, in between names and places and events. He is interested in our memories, our perceptions; the way time ebbs and flows in our perception, incongruous with clock time. Dealing in subtle signifiers, in fragmented moments, he allows the viewer to fill in the blanks.
Recently, this has wielded mixed results. His work in the past decade, especially post-Tree of Life, has leaned on this experiential style to its extreme, incrementally substituting dramatic substance with pure ethereality. Many filmgoers have had little patience to play catch up. And why should they?
Films, even the challenging ones that Malick creates, should not be hard work. With his recent output — films like Knight of Cups or Song to Song — he has stretched this fragmentation to the brink, obfuscating even the simplest of character arcs into enigmatic, often frustratingly obtuse tone poems. Most critics and audiences saw these films as contrived messes, though a small discipleship has remained, praising them as inspired and wholly original filmmaking. And no matter where you might fall on that spectrum, its become undeniable that his filmography has been steadily growing more and more esoteric in the years since his Palme d’Or win.
With A Hidden Life, however, he has returned to the cogent storytelling that garnered him such acclaim in the first place, all without sacrificing the aesthetics that he committed so hard to mastering in the last ten years. His latest is still oriented around a cinema of human experience, a phenomenology of the very core emotions that bind us together and make life blossom and burst with meaning. It doesn’t feel like a step-back aesthetically. The truth is that the real-life story of the film just simply contains a refreshing straightforwardness, a distinct clarity that will surely satisfy a legion of fans who have recently hopped off the bandwagon. The historicity, the authenticity at its core carries the film in ways his more contrived, recent efforts could not. A Hidden Life’s narrative bites off just enough for it chew, yet clearly requires careful, methodical elucidation as supplement in order to work as a film. A perfect match for Malick’s sensibility.
It’s not necessarily a movie that can be spoiled; the story is basic, yet intense and that intensity is brought to life more through Malick’s formal schema than any specific plot elements. It would be a crime to summarize the film in any detail. To write about it in this context would sell short that which is only elevated to profundity by going on the three-hour journey he has crafted.
Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to provide some context for understanding what is so special about it. An Austrian farmer and his wife are put in an extremely difficult situation when Nazi forces seep into their homeland and require each and every able-bodied soldier to swear featly to Hitler. Franz, our story’s hero, rejects Nazism, and confronts the brutal lengths in which one in his situation must go to stand up for what they believe in. Meanwhile, his wife attempts to maintain their farm, raise their children, and deal with an ever-increasingly hostile village that ostracizes her and her family.
It goes without saying that the performances are top notch. Everyone commits so admirably to their characters’ reality, and as a result, Malick is able to find incredibly touching nuances in the editing room. His signature jump cuts are finely tuned. He seems to always find the perfect moment on which to hone his gaze without allowing the narrative’s pace to get lost in translation.
This is his first film since The Thin Red Line to not be shot by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Yet, German DP Jorg Widmer finds ways to assert his own flourish onto an already well-formed style. There is an affinity throughout the film with the POV shot; instead of the camera hanging directly over the characters’ shoulders in that intimate way Malick has become so famous for, he and Widmer go one step further. They embody the characters’ own field of vision in key moments, such as a loving embrace in a meadow as the couple entwines their hands and holds them to the sky. Here the camera paints such a vivid picture of the majesty of their union.
Another powerful shot involves a prison guard horribly assaulting Franz, the brutality of which we see only through a shaky camera that saunters back before dropping to the floor. In many ways, this is Malick’s finest adherence to the nuances of human perception, crafting an entire three hour tour-de-force around precisely that: the unique perceptual elements that reveal a meaning behind the madness, that characterize the subjects’ emotions and memories with a striking and relatable verisimilitude. It’s accomplished through an extraordinary technical craftsmanship that is due more praise and attention than it has received. Perhaps cinephiles have just gotten too accustomed to his consistent visual inventiveness.
As mentioned earlier, there isn’t much to the film on paper, which will unfortunately keep it from doing much business at the box office (par for the course for Malick). But that therein lies the brilliance of the film’s message. Malick finds a way to redeem those hidden lives, only barely visible in the black and white margins of history books. He sees the story so compassionately through their eyes, finding a whole world of love in the face of suffering that is impossible to understand, impossible to feel through any conventional dissemination of human history. A Nazi official asks Franz at one point, “Why are you doing this? Why do you stand up to a regime that will never even notice your actions? Who are you doing this for?” Franz replies by saying that if he does not do what is right, he will not be able to live with himself, to accept himself in this world. He does not rely on history vindicating him; he solely leans on his own faith in himself, in his soul.
Yet, there is profound irony that this film is built on; his actions are noticed, by every man and woman sitting in the auditorium, witnessing not only the extent of his bravery, but the extent of his sacrifice of family, of love. And the beauty Malick finds in rendering this story cinematic is that meaning one finds in sacrifice — that love that does not die with the body but lives on in the hearts of those who choose to feel it, to accept it unconditionally. In that sense, A Hidden Life is far from a tragedy. It captures, in a way only cinema can, the beauty of a love that withstands the evil of mankind. Malick finds that beauty in the fields that they plow, in the lush hills and babbling brooks of St. Radegund, in the tiniest caterpillar skirting along a windowsill. The majesty of the human condition in harmony with nature.
As the courageous wife, Franziska states in that signature, Malick voice-over:
“I will always meet you in the mountains.”