Some filmmakers find their movie in the screenplay and then shoot it as it was written. Some find the movie they want to make on the set. They make decisions based on feedback from actors and other collaborators, preside over happy accidents and shape their movie in camera. Others make their movie in the editing bay by sculpting the footage into shape. And then… there’s Terrence Malick.
Maybe with the small exception of his earliest work (Badlands and to a lesser extent Days of Heaven), Malick’s work has been increasingly permeated by a highly specific authorial tone that – as time went on – brought Malick’s cinema ever closer to poetry. This is in no small part owed to his unique artistic process that involves multiple re-writes of the script, shooting way more footage than anyone would ever need to complete a movie and then making critical changes to the film whilst editing. If I were to place him among the three types of filmmakers I mentioned in the paragraph above, I would have no choice but to position him at the Venn overlap of all three. Malick seems to have one vision when he writes his movies, which he then explores the boundaries of on the set and during multiple reshoots and pickups, and then he is no stranger to overhaul everything while assembling the film. This has famously led to many of his movies (like The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life) sporting stellar casts of actors many of whom get very little screen time, or even get excised out of the final version of the movie altogether. It is undeniable that Malick’s process is unique to him and perhaps singular in the sphere of filmmaking as a whole. He is a poet with a camera. However, his approach to cinematic form might not necessarily lend itself to certain types of storytelling which would benefit more from a structured and, dare I say, concise artistic touch.
Malick’s 2019 A Hidden Life is one such example where his fragmented storytelling, oneiric tone and impressionistic style do not gel very well with the material at hand, which is a story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to swear alliegance to Adolf Hitler and paid for his decision with his life. In fact, the story alone is fascinating because up until the 1960s it was almost unknown outside of Jägerstätter’s home village of St. Radegund. It is an astonishing story of stalwart conviction and a triumph of determination to stand for core human values in times where such values were not only discouraged but actively punished by the ruthless collectivist Nazi regime presiding over this part of the world. It must be fully acknowledged that speaking truth to power in Austria in the 1940s was tantamount to high treason and treated as such, which makes Jägerstätter’s life story even more uniquely heroic. However, the way Malick translates it into film does not do it justice at all.
To call A Hidden Life purposefully meandering would be the most polite way to describe how it treats Jägerstätter’s story. Some would also call it self-indulgent or even abrasively pretentious, which may give you a good indication as to what to expect, though it might equally obscure the filmmaker’s intent. I don’t think Malick ever intended to put his own ego in between the viewer and the story he was telling, especially if you factor in the simple fact he decided to shoot the film in the area where Jägerstätter lived. Interestingly, the village of St. Radegund is quite modern these days so a lot of the film was shot a bit further uphill from the actual village. Though, they did shoot in Jägerstätter’s family home, which to me is a clear indication Malick had his subject’s best interest at heart. He wanted to introduce Jägerstätter to the outside world and give him the cinematic equivalent of beatification he had received from Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.
Unfortunately, it is my strong opinion that he may have failed in doing so by virtue of losing focus and drowning out the principal narrative (which is in itself extremely lean, straightforward and therefore immensely potent) with the ancillary philosophical conversation Jägerstätter’s life story inspires. Thus, between the floating wide-angle shots orbiting around the characters, the frequent cutaways fortifying Malick’s penchant for episodic filmmaking, and the ever-present off-screen narration laying out the thematic thesis of the film in black and white A Hidden Life forfeits the raw power of its central story and redirects its focus into far too many vectors. Therefore, although the film has frequent moments that call for a strong response from the viewer and are perfectly and succinctly impactful as they happen, you are never allowed to marinade in the horror of what is unfolding. You are instead invited to detach from the story, assume Malick’s god’s-eye perspective and ponder the philosophical ramifications of what’s happening almost without acknowledging it is happening in the first place. Which is the film’s biggest flaw and its ultimate undoing.
I like to think that there’s a 90-minute-long masterpiece hidden in every movie and it surely holds true for A Hidden Life as well. Sadly, it is hidden beneath a further 90 minutes of excessive tissue that obscures the film’s biggest asset – its story – and serves predominantly to fatigue the viewer, as opposed to imbue flavour into the narrative. I can only imagine how much more vivid the characters of Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) would have been had their story not been effectively diluted with superfluous meandering. How much more harrowing Franz’s odyssey would have come across as, had we not been consistently and repeatedly distracted by the artist pre-occupied with his own thoughts on the themes he was so keen to tackle? Don’t get me wrong, the thematic discussion Malick blew out of all proportion would have still been there if he had decided to cut around the main story and leave the viewers to think for themselves. In fact, the film would have been much more impactful as a result, by virtue of simply adhering to to the age-old rule of ‘show, don’t tell’.
Well, Terrence Malick decided to show and tell and maybe wasn’t completely aware that the material he was handling was much more suited to a different, more canonical approach. Sadly, as it stands A Hidden Life falls prey to its pretentiously unfocused musings and effectively hides (sic!) the life of Franz Jägerstätter from the audience behind the filmmaker’s impressionistic style. It just goes to show that some stories are better retold as prose, not poetry.