Terence Malick’s latest film depicts the true story of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, who refuses to declare an oath of allegiance to Hitler and fight for the Nazis. A heart-wrenching tale of sacrifice and heroism in the face of insurmountable odds and detestable evil, the film displays brief glimpses of brilliance.
Jörg Widmer’s cinematography does much to salvage A Hidden Life and prevents its star rating from plummeting any lower. The luscious green hills of the Austrian countryside are captured beautifully with a Blakean reverence for nature. At times, Widmer’s talent is very effectively employed. One particularly outstanding shot of the Alps is accompanied by the tune of roaring planes from German bombers; Hitler’s fascist war machine ominously hangs over Franz and those he holds dear, corrupting the idyllic landscape.
This sounds like the makings of a truly moving and powerful film. Which is precisely why Malick’s execution is infuriating. All the elements are there: precise filming, actors capable of stirring performances and fantastic sound design placed alongside a heart wrenching score. It is thus frustratingly disappointing that the sum of all these individual parts has become bloated and lacks any real impact.
The immaculate setting of scene and conflict seem to have led Malick into self-indulgence where he has subsequently forgotten to produce a film that carries more than just aesthetics. It is arguably impressive that he has managed to numb the potential effects of Widmer’s outstanding cinematography by drawing out shots to the point of contrivance. The first time we see the Alps shrouded in mist they are a sublimic backdrop to a tragic story, yet after repeated employment of this technique, such moments lose their poignancy. There is no need for A Hidden Life to stretch to almost three hours long, which has resulted in repetition over emotional impact.
For a story about a man staring death in the face as he defies one of the most powerful military forces in human history, there is a distinct lack of tension. Of course, there is no need for the film to be warped into a form of action film or thriller; a slow pace could have indeed been effective if handled correctly, but unfortunately the opposite is true. One painful example of this comes from a poorly executed employment of pathetic fallacy. Dark clouds swarm around the skies of the village as Malick’s clunky assembly of the sequence renders it entirely inauthentic, with the camera remaining too long fixated on poorly directed actors. All that is missing is for the protagonist to narrate to us once again and announce: “hey, bad stuff is gonna happen!”.
A Hidden Life is not an awful film. It may well be worth seeing purely for certain standout moments, yet it rightly deserves criticism for falling so far short of the masterpiece it could have been.
Image: Robert J Heath via flickr