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London Film Festival 2019 Review - A HIDDEN LIFE

a hidden life review
Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter faces the threat of execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II.


Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Starring: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Bruno Ganz, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Nyqvist

a hidden life poster



20 years after The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick returns from the present day back to the Second World War to recalibrate his focus on nature and grace, this time with a much more intimate, focused perspective than the scattered ensemble storytelling of his most recent works. A Hidden Life is the mesmerising rumination on life and the Lord that we’ve been waiting for since The Tree of Life.

While probing the vapid celebrity lifestyle explored in Song to Song and Knight of Cups did no favours for Malick’s sensibilities, the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, who’s portrayed by Inglorious Basterds actor August Diehl, works wonderfully well with his style and thematic interests. Jägerstätter was an Austrian conscientious objector who refused to take the Hitler oath, an openly anti-Nazi farmer who only wanted to live in peace with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and his three daughters in his home village of St Radegund.

a hidden life review
I’m sure Radegund (quiz trivia: 'Radegund' was the film’s original title) is as gorgeous as it’s presented here but Malick doesn’t film on location, rather remaking the setting in the German-speaking South Tyrol province of Northern Italy, a ravishingly verdant spot for any filmmaker.

As every Austrian man over 16 years old was conscripted to fight for the Wehrmacht, there was only so much Franz could physically do before needing to complete military training at the garrison in Enns, maintaining his distance from combat as a pacifistic person, offering to serve as a paramedic before being arrested for his stance on the war and sticking fervently to his beliefs throughout the trial.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - Color Out of Space ]

It’s the filmmaker’s most linear narrative since Days of Heaven, and you get the sense that he can't get too indulgent with the imagery due to paying tribute to the real man whose life is the basis here. In one of the most interesting stylistic differences to his previous WWII movie, while The Thin Red Line began with the symbolistic image of an alligator slowly bathing into a river, this begins with archival footage of Nazi Germany marches before cutting to the tranquil village, a juxtaposition that promises a clearer structure to his movie. All that considered, however, your mileage will vary depending on your disposition to enjoy Malick - it’s a fairly cyclical tale which, at three hours long, may be an endurance test for some.

a hidden life review
Malick hasn't lost his knack for poetic writing, penning dialogue wherein the characters one up each other with moralistic and spiritual stances. "How do you know what is good and what is bad? Is it coming from heaven? Is there a voice in your head?" asks Captain Herde (Matthias Schoenaerts) in rapid succession while holding Franz in custody. The mayor of the village tries to brainwash Franz by appealing to his religious side, stating that not fighting for his country is a sin.

[ READ MORE: London Film Festival 2019 Review - The Irishman ]

As deeply concerned with spirituality as ever, the meditation on faith is particularly potent for this Hacksaw Ridge / Unbroken-esque study of a soldier surviving in the most difficult of times. The other characteristic of Malick-ian expression that’s remarkably effective here is the narration. The characters speak from the heart, blurring the line between speaking a letter to a loved one or saying a prayer to the Lord, sharing intimate thoughts with spare words and lyrical delivery, accentuated by heavenly choral music.

a hidden life review
Always one to shoot when the sun is low, Austria's golden hour isn't as golden as the USA's, though it may have been a deliberate choice by the DoP to avoid embellishing the appropriate natural greyness for such a bleak story. Like with Roma, Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki hasn't returned to work with one of his friends - facilitating the camerawork instead is Jörg Widmer, who has been working as a camera operator on all of the director’s features since The New World.

So, having studied directly under the masters, Widmer confidently replicates the style, rotating between a gimbal and Steadicam for medium shots, ignoring that the zoom button exists by simply moving the camera forward for close-ups, and shooting everything with the highest f-stop so that everything is in focus, from the mournful faces to every grass haulm on the distant meadows. Rest assured, the cinematography here is as beautiful and swooping as it is in any Malick film. And, rest assured, A Hidden Life is as beautiful as any Malick film.

A Hidden Life is in UK/ROI cinemas January 17th, 2020.




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