Cinema Review: A Hidden Life | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, September 25th, 2020  

A Hidden Life

Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by Terrence Malick

Dec 31, 2019 Web Exclusive
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Franz Jägerstätter is a simple Austrian farmer living off the land. After Germany annexes the country in 1938, despite being a staunch Catholic, he willingly participates in the German army’s invasion of Poland. However, he soon breaks with the rest of his countrymen, realizing the German cause to be less about justified self-preservation, than a flawed, thinly-veiled excuse for supremacy and countless deaths. Deaths, supporters of Hitler argue, which are justified punishments against those who threaten Germany, but Jägerstätter has a different, unpopular perspective: he sees them as innocent victims. He’s far from the only one to believe this, but few can openly support him. Instead, most caution him against the eventual repercussions that will come when he’s inevitably called back into battle.

Terrence Malick’s self-described return to scripted filmmaking unapologetically critiques the current global wave of nationalism. His most effective scenes show how this nationalism starts at the top, but entrenches itself in society via trusted, everyday institutions -- like, say, small-town churches and teachers -- which makes the reprehensible permissible and discourages dissent. Some individuals in positions of power actually believe in the cause. Others keep their heads down and fall into line. They’re the ones who find themselves most challenged by Jägerstätter’s idealism -- they find themselves either outraged by his courage or they look upon him solemnly, with slight admiration but palpable sadness, knowing such idealism cannot survive.

The futility of idealism is explored in Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line, and the film’s philosophy recall his previous foray into World War II, but A Hidden Life’s nobility, aspirations, and philosophies unfortunately cannot overcome its technical shortcomings. This isn’t a heavily plotted film, and with a runtime of three hours, the audience is subjected to a bloat of confusing, distracting, and repetitive cinematography and editing. Malick famously finds his film in the edit room, and he’s famous for cutting whole scenes (or characters) out of films, opting for quiet moments over traditional dialogue. In his best works, the succession of images and the images themselves are arranged by feeling over logic. Director of Photography Jörg Widmer clearly tries to emulate John Toll and frequent Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, but the glut of beautiful faces in the foreground cast against gorgeous scenery never finds a philosophical through-line. Nor does Malick’s voice over, perhaps because of the bizarre choice for his Austrian characters to speak in English. The Thin Red Line famously climaxes in a speech by a non-subtitled Japanese soldier, so why here would he deliberately make his characters and actors deliver his musings in their non-native tongue?

From this choice to opting for a traditional narrative, the sum of Malick’s filmmaking decisions in A Hidden Life seems motivated by approachability. In a sense, this is admirable -- a reclusive filmmaker repulsed by the modern tides, he abandons his esoteric style in an attempt to connect with the masses. But that’s just not who he is. When The Thin Red Line was released months apart from Saving Private Ryan, advertising attempted to position his film the same as Spielberg’s, though the two couldn’t be more different. If Spielberg expresses pain through dying screams and mutilated limbs, Malick shows a bird with a broken wing or a man sacrificing his dignity for survival by playing sick. He is a philosopher who conveys his ideas through abstract visuals, and even if A Hidden Life is still miles from the literal filmmaking of Spielberg, his choices made in the spirit of accessibility -- choices that are both obvious and less obvious -- all have the unfortunate effect of diluting his much-needed philosophy, effectively contradicting his film’s central message: never compromise your values.

Author rating: 5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10


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