August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life
August Diehl and Valerie Pachner in Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

MOVIE REVIEW: Extraordinary true story in WWII biopic

Writer and director Terrence Malick took the title of his film from a line in George Eliot's book Middlemarch, a reference to those who do acts of good but are never recognised for it, most of them preferring it that way.

The real-life man at the centre of Malick's epic film, an Austrian farmer named Franz Jagerstatter, probably wished his life had never been the subject of anything beyond the memories of his family and friends.

But his extraordinary act during World War II is why we know his name today - and why Malick has devoted three hours to telling his story in this visually spectacular film.

Franz (August Diehl) was a peasant farmer in rural Austria in a small village where the tight-knit community comes together for harvests. With his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner), his sister-in-law, his mother and his young daughters, Franz lives a simple but adequate life.

 

A Hidden Life is based on the true story of WWII conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter.
A Hidden Life is based on the true story of WWII conscientious objector Franz Jagerstatter.

 

With the backdrop of the mountains and evergreen fields, Franz's work of tilling and growing is presented as honest. He doesn't strive for exception, only adequacy.

Malick brings a strong visual perspective to these early, languid sequences. Cinematographer Jorg Widmer's camera roams among the family as if it, and consequently the audience, is one of them. There's a real intimacy created by the leisurely close-ups and long edits, coupled with James Newton Howard's velvety score.

It's an effective way to reinforce the emotional connection with the audience.

When he's called up for training, Austria having come under Nazi rule in the 1938 Anschluss, Franz obliges. But the propaganda videos he's exposed to stirs in him a certainty that the actions being perpetuated in his name are wrong.

As a farmer, he's sent home from training, but the family dreads what happens when he's inevitably called up for active duty.

As part of conscription, even if you're not serving in combat duty, everyone is required to pledge their loyalty to Adolf Hitler, something Franz can't do.

It's his act of conscientious objection that lands him in prison, ostracises his family from the village and earns him his place in the history books.

 

A Hidden Life is one of Terrence Malick’s more straightforward and accessible films.
A Hidden Life is one of Terrence Malick’s more straightforward and accessible films.

 

There's something reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's Silence in A Hidden Life in that both are challenging films about men of faith in the face of great mental and physical threats, trying to stay steadfast to what they think is right - though Scorsese was more interested in questioning that faith than Malick is.

Malick is a divisive filmmaker, both praised as genius and dismissed as indulgent for his ambitious but sometimes inaccessible films. Often, your appreciation of a Malick film depends on whether you're vibing on his wavelength.

A Hidden Life is much more linear and straightforward than most of his films. There's a clear plot and thematic throughline, which you can't always say for Malick's work.

A Hidden Life is definitely on the long side at a few minutes shy of three hours, and there will be people whose patience may be exhausted, but if you give yourself over to it, it's a moving, emotional film with truly breathtaking visuals and wonderful performances.

Rating: 3.5/5

A Hidden Life is in cinemas from Thursday, January 30

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