Alone in the Clouds: Malick’s “A Hidden Life”

Brad Miner | January 6, 2020

Franz Jägerstätter was an Austrian farmer who refused to pledge allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was guillotined by the Nazis on August 9, 1943. He was beatified as a martyr by Benedict XVI in 2007.

His life is worthy of a major motion picture, and I was genuinely excited to see A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s new biopic about Bl. Jägerstätter. If you’ve never seen Mr. Malick’s 1978 film, Days of Heaven, you should, and you’ll be impressed by the look of it, although much of the credit for that belongs to Nestor Almendros, one of the finest cinematographers of the last century. In any case, Malick’s films have ever since been notable for their visual beauty.

But, Mr. Malick, although something of a visionary, is not a particularly accomplished entertainer, a consequence of which is that his films lack the humanity that arises from vivid characterization and language, and this is especially true of A Hidden Life, which has very long sequences in which the film’s characters say nothing or next to nothing and don’t do much either. It’s rather like a perfume commercial.

Jörg Widmer’s camera work on A Hidden Life is very good, if somewhat static. It’s like sitting in a medical office, waiting between the nurse’s visit and the doctor’s arrival, and staring at an HDTV screen as one high-definition photo after another cycles through: mountains and rivers and lakes. In A Hidden Life, it’s the scenery of Italy’s Tyrolean Alps (standing in for Austrian mountains), but scenery it is, interrupted only now and then by human faces, usually shot in tight to show human feeling: joy or sorrow, apparently the only emotions there are. Sometimes these humans talk to one another, although much of the narrative is accomplished in epistolary fashion: letters between Franz (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner).

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