Terrence Malick knows how to make a beautiful film. Since his first feature film, 1973’s Badlands, Malick’s movies (Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) give us a reason to see a film on the big screen. It’s the same with his latest, A Hidden Life. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer helps make this film, which takes place in the Austrian mountains, a gorgeous movie to watch. And while A Hidden Life should be a can’t-miss movie, unfortunately, it loses points for Malick’s unwillingness to edit the film to make it a more involving story.
We meet our protagonist Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who lives a happy life with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and children. A man respected by the others in his village, Franz is a religious and caring man, but he lives in a time when he cannot continue his comfortable existence, for it is the start of World War II. When Janz is called to serve in the German military, he refuses.
Malick, who also wrote the film, takes a true story to give us a tale of a man willing to die for his beliefs. When he refuses to donate to the Nazi brownshirts who come collecting for the war fund, Franz learns that his refusal to be a Nazi follower creates enemies. The script uses the citizens of the village to indicate how German propaganda and anti-Semitic messages poison what was once the genial nature of the other villagers.
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Though a beautiful film, Malick’s use of swooping camera angles and multiple scenes restating the joy of Franz and Fani’s bucolic life becomes tiring. It doesn’t help that the film is almost three hours long. The film wears you out, even as you admire the beauty on screen or the performances and the underlying story. For every excellent scene like a German officer (Bruno Ganz in one of his last performances) questioning Franz or watching Fani struggling to plow a field, we get scene after scene of both gazing pensively into the distance. A slow-moving story can build a powerful film, but an indulgent, drawn-out film with repetitive scenes loses its impact.
A Hidden Life offers us beautiful images and even some powerful moments. It also stops us from feeling fully involved in the story due to its imperfections.