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“A Hidden Life” Tests Your Patience

At this point, Terrence Malick is a known entity. You’re either in or you’re out when it comes to his style of filmmaking. Sadly, despite my best efforts, I’m decidedly out. A Hidden Life takes all of Malick’s worst instincts, some of his best, and mixes them together in an epic run time that became utterly punishing to endure. Amazing visuals and a sense of wonder only take you so far, especially when this has become par for the course for this particular storyteller. At about 80 minutes, this film would have been sparse and only mildly off-putting in its inscrutable nature. However, at about 180, it’s positively tortuous. Opening this week, Malick fans only need apply here.

The movie is a biographical drama set during the early days of World War II. Taking place in Austria, this is the story of the country’s most well known conscientious objector. As the war breaks out, Austrian Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) initially goes along with the basics when he’s called up for military training. A farmer by nature, he finds the Nazis evil, but tries to stay out of trouble. However, when he’s called up for duty, he takes up conscientious objector status. However, the Germans don’t take kindly to this, and even though his wife Franziska Jägerstätter (Valerie Pachner) urges him to fake it and keep the Nazis off his back, Franz persists. Soon, he’s thrown in jail, and when that doesn’t work, Franz is scheduled for execution. Through it all, various people attempt to converse or convince him to reconsider, but Franz remains resolute and mostly silent. He claims not to want to be a martyr, but all evidence (what little there is on the screen, anyway) here to the contrary. The aforementioned Malick writes and directs, with cinematography from Jörg Widmer, and a score by James Newton Howard. Supporting players include Bruno Ganz, Michael Nyqvist, Jürgen Prochnow, Matthias Schoenaerts, and more.

Remove the visuals and I found almost nothing to grab on to here. The first half hour or so just sets up the world we’re spending time in, and doesn’t do a terrible job of it. The stock footage of Adolf Hitler more than presents the time period, for example. However, once you’ve seen a few shots of August Diehl’s Franz working in the fields or staring off into space, you’ve seen all of them. That look persists throughout the film. Valerie Pachner’s Franziska ends up leaving more of an impression, but mostly due to her actually speaking. Malick goes down the rabbit hole of observing these two as a horrible choice awaits, but he never once finds a way to make it interesting.

A Hidden Life has gotten Malick some of the best reviews of the modern section of his career, but it’s slightly puzzling as to why. Yes, James Newton Howard contributes a nice score. Yes, Jörg Widmer seamlessly works with Malick to give the auteur the visuals he requires. However, it all adds up to so little. It really feels as though pundits who are praising this are either just comparing it to Malick’s prior and larger misfires like Knight of Cups, Song to Song, and To the Wonder, or they’re projecting added meaning to the work. Taken on face value, it’s simply a beautiful slog.

Tomorrow, Malick devotees have a flick they can fall for when A Hidden Life opens up. Everyone else, however, will be left scratching their heads. If you’re a fan of the director, this movie will delight you. Me? It just wasn’t for me. Your mileage may vary, so perhaps give the film a shot? Maybe you’ll get more out of it than I did…

A Hidden Life is in theaters this weekend.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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