Review: A Hidden Life (TIFF 2019)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

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PLOT: An Austrian conscientious objector (August Diehl) is imprisoned in Nazi Germany, while his wife (Valerie Pachner) tries to go on with life without him.

REVIEW: It goes without saying the Terrence Malick movies aren’t for everyone. Slow-paced and evocative, he’s always been more interested in atmosphere than plot, although even his most ardent admirers would have to admit that his last few movies, with their almost complete disregard for a conventional narrative, have been hard to sit through. With A HIDDEN LIFE, he tackles his most narrative-driven film since THE THIN RED LINE, and many critics that have come close to writing him off over the last few years are saying this is his best work in a long time.

Indeed, A HIDDEN LIFE offers Malick’s most compelling story in years, although the snail’s pace will still put off anyone fooled into thinking this might be a more user-friendly film. Based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, played here by August Diehl, who was a simple Austrian farmer who paid the ultimate price for staying true to his morals, which wouldn’t allow him to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler.

Played by August Diehl as an almost holy character, the first hour of the film is easily its most compelling. We follow the good-humored farmer as he goes about his life in his alpine village, Radegund, where he’s a well-liked pillar of the community. He has a devoted wife and three adorable kids, and while a man of faith, he’s not particularly austere, being quick-witted, keen on motorcycles and thoroughly modern in many of his attitudes, with his wife and her sister being his partners on his farm.

a hidden life august Diehl Terrence MalickDiehl evokes a kind-hearted family man, and its a testament to the power of his acting that when he’s given the option of giving in (over and over again) part of us wants to see him give in just so that him and his family will be spared, even though we know his moral stance against the Third Reich and Hitler is exactly right. We follow him as he’s forced into the army, where footage of the desolation the Reich is causing forces him to question the beast that he’s serving, while back home his fellow farmers are being radicalized by their loud-mouth, Nazi mayor.

All this leads up to a lot of suffering for Jägerstätter and his family, and it’s here that Malick’s film begins to wear a little thin, as at this point it seems like we’re heading towards a conclusion. Instead, there’s another two hours to go. From there, Malick starts to repeat himself, with more figures showing up to try and convince Franz to go along, including a bishop (Michael Nyqvist in his final role) and a surprisingly even-tempered officer (Matthias Schoenaerts) white he’s abused by the guards at his prison camp. Meanwhile, we see his wife being shunned back home. This is all well and good, but it’s a film unto itself, taking up a huge chunk of the running time. Had Malick opted for a less punishing length, this might have gone down as one of his better films – but alas he serves his muse.

To that end, it’s hard to fault the film too much, as knowing Malick you know exactly what to expect. As always, the visuals are drop-dead gorgeous, with Jörg Widmer’s cinematography good enough you’ll be glad Fox Searchlight is going theatrical with this after Malick’s last two went VOD. The acting is excellent, although one questions the wisdom of shooting the film in English, as it certainly wasn’t for commercial reasons given the pace. His use of old Third Reich footage is intriguing, with color footage of Hitler and his inner circle clowning around particularly striking, as its stuff we haven’t seen before. In the end, A HIDDEN LIFE won’t win over those who aren’t fans of Malick's to start with, but it may indeed win back the ones who checked out somewhere around TO THE WONDER, as it’s his best film in years. It’s authentically Malick through-and-through, and while it’s sometimes tedious, it’s still striking and a worthwhile film to see for patient audiences.


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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.