The Second World War has provided such a wealth of stories over the last 70-odd years, it’s a wonder that there are any unique tales left to tell. Even Terrence Malick has been here before, his previous WW2 effort, 1998’s Thin Red Line, was somewhat overshadowed by the more bombastic Saving Private Ryan, but nevertheless had its place as a philosophical alternative to Spielberg’s classic.
With A Hidden Life, Malick comes at the war from a completely different angle, telling the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer and devout catholic.
Franz lives in a small village amongst the fields and hills of St. Radegund, and is a respected member of the small community in which he and his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), aim to raise a family.
As war breaks out in 1939, Franz is called up to basic training, something he begrudgingly accepts. But when it comes to fighting for real, and swearing an oath of allegiance to the Nazis, Franz can’t bring himself to go against his beliefs, and becomes a conscientious objector. Sadly for Franz and his family (he now has three young daughters), this means facing incarceration and, potentially, a death penalty.
The events of the movie take place over the course of months, certainly less than a year. But such is Malick’s ponderous tone, such is the reparative nature of the scenes, it feels like longer. A lot longer.
It’s hard to imagine time passed more slowly for Franz in his prison cell that it does sitting in the audience watching all this unfold. It’s a relatively short story told in the longest possible way. The level of navel-gazing is extreme even for Malick.
Not only are many of the scenes telling the exact same message as scenes before, some scenes are repeated in their entirety. Need to know that the mayor wants Franz to comply? Great, ‘cos Malick has three ways of telling that plot point. Is war bad? Malick has the answer! Need to know that Franz misses her husband? Boy are you in for a treat!
There’s no doubting that the story is heartbreaking, that putting yourself in the position of the characters feels all too real. There’s just not a lot else to say, despite Malick’s best efforts to drill into the heart of the human condition.
And some critics and viewers will love that. Malick’s camerawork remains enchanting. There are few directors with such a personal style as him. The shots of the rolling hills and fields are glorious, you’ll wish you lived there. And it does delve deep into the consciousness of those at the heart of the story, in a way only Malick seems able to do. It’s just that, no matter how well-intentioned, no matter how deep and meaningful his dolly shots, A Hidden Life is boring.
War is a bitch. People don’t want to fight in wars. And when they choose not to in Nazi Germany, it doesn’t go work out too well. Think about that while staring out at a tree blowing in the wind, and you’ve just saved yourself three hours of your life. Now go and make sure you do something useful with it.