It was one of the most anticipated events of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Announced as a return to « classical » storytelling after a rather experimental trilogy, Terrence Malick’s new film certainly goes back to what had made some of his previous endeavours so powerful. After the Battle of Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line and the discovery of America in The New World, Malick dives back into historical subjects that are huge in scale. A Hidden Life has received almost nothing but praise since its world premiere in Cannes, including from critics who hadn’t been entirely convinced by his three previous movies. Is it a return to grace? Although we were strong advocates of Knight of Cups and Song to Song, A Hidden Life definitely left us with mixed feelings.

For his 10th film (counting Voyage of Time), Terrence Malick explores the life of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who lived in the Nazi era, and who was beatified as a martyr in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI. As predicted, the director is mainly interested in the later years of this farmer from the village of Sankt Radegund, from his first doubts about National Socialism to his imprisonment, to his final refusal to serve in the army and pledge allegiance to Hitler. His wife Fani will stand by him no matter what, all the while taking over the family farm when her husband is forced to leave.

One thing is for sure: A Hidden Life was among the highlights of Cannes 2019, and will be remembered as one of the most gorgeous films of the year. Why the jury lead by Alejandro González Iñárritu favoured The Young Ahmed for the Best Director award over this is inexplicable. Malick’s new film opens with footage from Triumph of the Will, while a voice over narration ponders on the purpose of a secluded life among the trees, above the clouds. Soon, Leni Riefenstahl’s images give way to scenes of family life shot in the small Italian town of Sappada. The aesthetic shock is immediate, and those who feared the replacement of Emmanuel Lubezki (Malick’s cinematographer since The New World) by Jörg Widmer can rest assured: A Hidden Life has some of the most beautiful shots in the director’s filmography, who captures the Alpes for the first time here. It’s in this awe-inspiring landscape that the memory of the meeting between Fani and Franz lives on. The power of the images instantaneously makes the couple’s relationship a part of the natural order of things. Elevated by James Newton Howard’s moving score, this part will likely leave you emotionally wrecked, and proves once more that Malick can grasp the intensity and purity of love in mere seconds, in a sequence that rivals the best moments in The Tree of Life.

Visually, A Hidden Life owes much to Malick’s recent trilogy (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song). Indeed, numerous shots were captured using an anamorphic lens, while the editing plays on untimely cuts. And of course, there is this touching, spontaneous ability to catch fleeting moments and expressions. If The Tree of Life could be described as the romantic echo to 2001, A Space Odyssey, the impressive mountainous landscapes of A Hidden Life are a new testament to the filmmaker’s love for romanticism. It’s impossible not to think of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, or of Ansel Adams’ photographies.

Narratively speaking, the film is indeed more linear, but classifying it as a return to classical storytelling would be exaggerated for the story still mostly revolves around the internal thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. The script focuses on four main episodes, namely Franz’s life if Radegund, his military service, his return to Radegund, and finally his drafting/imprisonment/trial. Surrounded by villagers that hail the coming of Hitler as someone who will cleanse Europe of the foreign gods that have taken over, the farmer sees the rise of Nazism as the advent of evil, which is why he refuses to volunteer in the armed forces. His decision being spiritual, political and ideological, his hiring by the medical forces — which also require allegiance to the Führer — is never presented as a compromise for Franz, who very quickly paints himself as an unshakable martyr.

This is where the film fails to be entirely convincing. Although this biography of a quiet hero guided by the strength of his convictions is harrowing (just like the scenes with his wife, a beautifully written female character), this is where the protagonist’ evolution stops. The first act delivers a powerful blast of emotions that then slowly die down for lack of change and a number of redundant scenes (such as the ones that show the Jägerstätter children being bullied by the villagers, for whom the whole family is guilty of treason) and monologues. The Book of Job serves as the matrix for the films moral questionings, except The Tree of Life had already done it with an almost identical voice over narration.

It is the first time in Terrence Malick’s body of work that his main character presents no existential evolution. He has doubts yes, but nothing happens that could change the way he sees the world. We’ve always loved how the director would put his characters face to face with various paradigms and would let them seize opportunities to become better (think of the magnificent conclusion in Knight of Cups). Committed to his own Stations of the Cross, Franz thinks himself as a Christ-like figure who will uphold his convictions to the very end. Fair enough, but how could such a character justify Malick’s longest film to date? If he had avoided repeating various scenes and motifs, the director could have certainly made his film more intense, especially given his capacity to flesh out characters and stakes in just a few seconds. As it stands, the final act is a lot less compelling than it should have been when compared to the opening scenes. The idea is indeed remarkable and the execution brilliantly handled: as Franz speaks to the Nazi judge (Bruno Ganz’s superb final role) overseeing his trial, the latter reveals his humanity within the intimate space of an office, before announcing the sentence in an incredibly lapidary manner. All the elements required for a great emotional crescendo were there (just like in The Thin Red Line), but because the point is so diluted and the arguments are made so redundant, this climax never reaches the heights it aims for.

A Hidden Life is undoubtedly an impressive cinematic achievement. It is the work of a great artist who showcases an unrivalled mastery of picturesque images. But it is also a film that would have needed to be more concise.

Directed by Terrence Malick
With August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Ganz

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