#2 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Terrence Malick is a genius. This is the first time since The Tree of Life that Malick approached a project with a completed script that everyone got, and this is the first time since The New World that he tells a story linearly. His experimental phase is over, though it does inform his technique here. In the end, Malick came back from his experimental phase with one of his most affecting and devastating films that is deceptively small but betrays much larger ambitions along the way.
The true story of Franz Jagersttater, an Austrian conscientious objector during World War II that the Catholic Church beatified in 2007, A Hidden Life contains many of the hallmarks of Malick’s entire filmography. We start in an Eden on Earth that will come apart. We have voiceover. There is twirling, though there are few curtains. At the same time, there are interesting variations on it all. The Eden comes crashing down exclusively from outside forces, not because of an inherent flaw of those within it. The voiceover is heavily derived from the real life letters that Franz and his wife Fani wrote to each other. The twirling is about a family of five, including three daughters, rather than just one or two people exploring each other.
Franz, like all Austrian men, is eligible for conscription into the German army, but he cannot perform the oath to Hitler, seeing him as an evil man. This opinion, one of goodness, is what starts to tear down Eden around him and Fani’s little paradise in the beautiful Austrian north country. The people turn on him. Even the church, represented by the local priest and bishop, are too scared to offer any help, even at the spiritual level, for the poor young farmer wrestling with his conscience. When Franz does get called up, he refuses to take the oath and is immediately arrested when he starts a four month process that leads to his death.
Now, I adore this film, but I do think that it’s overlong at the same time. If this movie didn’t hit me as hard as it did in the final act, I’d think that the overlong first and second hours would be enough of a real problem to knock my rating down a half star. This movie could have preserved the emotional punch of its final half hour by cutting as much as forty-five minutes from the first two hours. However, that emotional punch is still there, and it’s the kind of punch that Malick gives me at the end of The New World. So, despite my understanding of the criticism of the film being too long, I both agree and disagree. The overlong sections are mostly derived from the small town’s treatment of Franz and Fani after Franz’s small act of disobedience becomes public knowledge. There’s a good chunk of this footage that could have been cut without sacrificing much.
That being said, the movie’s power extends from the contrast of its voiceover and the images. I don’t think Malick has used voiceover as well as he does here. The voiceover of the final half of the film is mostly just letters that the real Franz and Fani sent each other at the time, and they’re full of tender love and concern for the other. This is contrasted with the images of the small cruelties that both husband and wife are suffering at the same time. He suffers the indignities of prison life under Nazi rule including abuse from his guards. She struggles to keep their farm operating along with her sister and small children. They share their hopeful feelings towards each other in their letters, she telling of little stories of their children, all while we see their lives degrading.
There are three people after Franz is jailed who directly tempt him with just taking the oath and ending his prison sentence. The first is the attorney at the first prison, urging him to take the oath and do his service. The second is the German official played by Bruno Ganz, looking at this little farmer with pity. The third is Franz’s own priest, just before Franz’s execution. It is only Fani who decides that Franz must follow his conscience, even if she doesn’t quite understand it. What ultimately sells that decision on Fani’s part to the audience is those letters of such quiet and humble love that she and Franz share through both of their sufferings.
The greatest strength of Malick’s production methods is that the individual moments he captures end up feeling so very real on their own. When combined with everything else around them, they help to create a distinct emotional reality for his characters, acting as the prism through which the audience feels the same emotions as his characters. He’s gotten really, really good at it, too. The opening is idyllic and beautiful, and we can see and understand the genuine affection that Franz and Fani have for each other as they build their lives together. We see their suffering and feel it the same way. Establishing these characters and having them go through their trials in this improvisational mode with a strong script to carry everything else along adds another dimension to Malick’s work not quite present in his previous three films (no matter how much I appreciate and even love them). Malick seems to enter another level of emotional storytelling when he rests his production methods on a script. That may seem like some sort of underhanded compliment, but it’s just that I think he’s so good even without a script.
The final motions of this film had me in a puddle. Malick took this small, nearly forgotten story of a hidden life (a phrase taken from the ending of Middlemarch by George Eliot) and demonstrates the cumulative power of those little actions that make up the world. For any other director this would be a crowning achievement, but for Malick this is just another remarkably great film in a remarkably great career.