Cannes 2019: A Hidden Life review - An exquisite work of genius

Terrence Malick’s first five films, up to and including The Tree of Life, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011, are transcendent masterpieces. The three features he has released since then have alienated even his ardent fans: beautiful people prancing about feyly, the actors themselves clearly not knowing what story they are in, while whispery voiceovers ask God naive questions about the meaning of life.

For A Hidden Life, Malick announced that he was at last working to a well-ordered script once more, to tell the true story of an Austrian conscientious objector in the Second World War.

Franz Jägerstätter was a farmer, married with three daughters, who steadfastly opposed the Nazis. When he was called to active service he refused to take the Hitler oath, and in 1943, at the age of 36, he was guillotined. His story was not well-known until a biography appeared in the Sixties. In 2007, he was beatified by the Catholic Church.

A Hidden Life does indeed observe chronology and people here do act and speak together — yet Malick has not at all abandoned his distinctive late style, so rhapsodic and prayerful, such an incantation of nature.

The village life of Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and their children is a pastoral paradise. They live in nature, amid flowery meadows, waving corn and bountiful orchards — an agile camera, literally looking upwards, to them, to the trees and the sky, seeking the light (in Malick’s cinematic language, it’s bad whenever the camera looks down).

The wooden interiors of the farmhouse and outbuildings are exquisite too, and the mountainous landscape awe-inspiring. In contrast, in prison Jägerstätter is trapped in ugliness.

Although ravishing, at just short of three hours it has to be admitted that A Hidden Life is too long. Its profundities start to feel repetitious (“Where are You? Why did You create us?” God is asked again). Jägerstätter’s stand is more presented than explained but then this extraordinary movie is scarcely intended as drama at all, more an image of faith — or even itself an act of worship. As such, A Hidden Life is a work of genius, at last a justification of Malick’s late style.