A Hidden Life review: Terrence Malick finds a subject worth getting close to

Dir: Terrence Malick. Cast: August Diehl, Valerie Pachner, Michael Nyqvist, Matthias Schoenaerts, Jurgen Prochnow, Bruno Ganz. 12A cert, 174 mins.

Terrence Malick must dream in fisheye lenses. It’s a filmmaking tool to which he’s become feverishly dedicated over the years, using it to distort reality and cram panoramic views into every frame. When Malick turns his camera on someone, the landscape surrounding them seems barren and infinite – like the character on screen and the viewer off of it are now the last two people on Earth. The connection created can feel disconcertingly intimate. Yet his recent films – Knight of Cups, To the Wonder and Song to Song – have made intimacy feel smothering. He’s trapped his audiences alone with pseudo-philosophers who are blind to their own excruciating privilege.

But with A Hidden Life, he’s found a subject worth getting close to. Franz Jagerstatter was a real-life Austrian farmer who refused to pledge loyalty to Hitler and paid dearly for it. In 2007, he was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI and declared a martyr. As interpreted by Malick, who questions faith here in a way he’s previously shied away from, Franz (August Diehl) is a simple man. He treasures the small paradise he’s built for himself and his family in the village of St Radegund, stealing kisses from his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and playing games with his young daughters. The mountain ranges – magnificently captured by cinematographer Jorg Widmer – embrace them from all sides.

But fascism has reached St Radegund, as signalled by the low hum of Nazi planes overhead. The villagers slowly start to shed their goodwill and spew bitter hatred (this is especially true of the mayor, who drunkenly complains about “immigrants who don’t care for the past”). Franz is left with a troubling question: when evil takes hold of the world around you, what do you do? The camera watches Franz and Franziska closely, as their strained expressions betray the constant spiritual hunger of those set adrift in their own lives. If Franz refuses to pledge the oath, he will be imprisoned and executed. His wife and children will become pariahs.

Malick is notorious for forcing his characters to spout incessant questions, like a toddler on a long car journey. He’s guilty of it in A Hidden Life, too. Franz and Franziska wonder at how “our country, the land we love” could turn so sour, but are never confronted with the structures of power and prejudice that prop up fascism.

The director is happy to dive into other thorny matters, though, pitching a battle between personal faith and religious institution. “You have a duty to the fatherland,” a local bishop tells Franz. “The church tells you so.”

A link is also forged between the idea of shared culpability and the Christian belief in Original Sin. Franz is reminded that, even in prison, he still shines the Nazis’ shoes and fills their sandbags. How does someone retain their innocence in an inescapably dark time? It’s a painful question, but Malick’s film is brave enough to ask it.