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Germany 2019
Directed by
Terrence Malick
174 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
5 stars

Hidden Life, A

Synopsis: It’s 1939 and farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who lives with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and three young daughters in the Austrian Alps, is called up to serve in the German army.  When he refuses to swear an oath to the Führer he is sent to prison and faces the threat of execution for treason.

There is no question that Terrence Malick’s latest film is the most lyrical paean to an unsung hero ever made. It may also be the director’s best film, a work so complete a statement of his genius that one wants him not to make another for fear of disappointment.

Working in a manner he initiated with his 2011 film The Tree of Life Malick delivers a narratively spare but cinematically rich essay on existential issues, his setting this time being the timeless idyll of the Austrian Alps where although it is the late 1930s villagers still work their small holdings in traditional pre-industrial ways. For Franz this veritable Garden of Eden (Malick is still working with the kind of Paradise Lost themes announced in the title of his first film, Days of Heaven in 1978) is threatened once he is called up. Not only is he forced to weigh his commitment to the principle of non-violence but he must confront the cost for him and his family of the ostracization from his fellow villagers.

Basing his story on real events Malick makes extensive use in voice-over of letters between Franz and Fani to give verbal form to the young couple’s anguish. Despite the brutality and bigotry which become increasingly apparent as Franz refuses to compromise his principles one never feels less than awe for the sheer polish and conceptua integrity of Malick’s film. Every scene, given superlative visual form by cinematographer Jörg Widmer, is a composition of rare beauty.  Even more so than his previous films in this style, A Hidden Life utilizes the full palette of cinematic means with striking camera work and a beguiling interplay between the rhythms of editing and music, here provided by James Newton Howard and a variety of classical pieces, while the physical settings, both exterior and interior, bring a wealth of essential contextual meaning to the story. Even if the running time challenges at just under three hours, the film never feels too long.

In the lead Diehl gives a quietly compelling performance, his moral torment and real physical fear internalized whilst Pachner gives empathetic support as his loyal wife and in turn Karin Neuhäuser as her devoted sister.

A Hidden Life, simply by virtue of its excellence is likely to have a limited theatrical run (most audiences will choose JoJo Rabbit Taika Waititi’s lightweight Nazi spoof instead). See it on the big screen while you can.

FYI:  The real Franz Jägerstätter was beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, who grew up in a part of Bavaria not far St. Radegund, the location of A Hidden Life.  It was the last film for Bruno Ganz who played Hitler in Downfall (2004)




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