Saturday 18 January 2020

Peak Malick: "A Hidden Life"

After a run of contemporary caprices (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, Song to Song), A Hidden Life returns Terrence Malick squarely to the realm of history: this is the story of Franz Jägerstätter (played here by August Diehl), a devout Austrian farmer from the small mountaintop community of St. Radegund who stood almost alone among his neighbours in becoming a conscientious objector after his countryman Adolf Hitler assumed power. From that brief synopsis, you may already sense that the new film benefits from restoring that which was missing from Malick's movies about Californians undergoing hard times in the entertainment industry. Palpable peril and jeopardy; a narrative backbone to which this filmmaker's signature dreamy-swoony images can be connected; all those elements that allow a film to stand upright, and which one would have thought are crucial to telling stories about defiance, have resurfaced. One could argue Malick has spent the twenty years since 1998's The Thin Red Line searching for something to stand for; his most recent films were all too clearly the work of a West Coast liberal adrift in the privilege that follows whenever a filmmaker enjoys a couple of early hits. The real-world resurgence of the right looks to have reminded him what the counterculture was always taking up arms against: oppression, and oblivion. Like the thin figures embodied by Sean Penn in The Tree of Life and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups, Malick was wandering in the L.A. desert, beset by spiritual malaise; with this out-of-nowhere masterpiece, one of American cinema's most gifted and idiosyncratic imagemakers finds his way back to the light.

It's a masterpiece founded on simple contrasts, granted. The harsh facts of Franz Jägerstätter's historical moment (set out in black-and-white newsreel, and clips from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will) are framed as a crime against the nature Malick continues to hymn like nobody else; the world up there is set against that down below. An economical first act sketches Radegund as a typically Malickian paradise, a greener variant of the Texas this director filmed in 1978's Days of Heaven, in which Franz and wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) tend the fields and their young family alike. Something in German Romanticism speaks to Malick as it did to Riefenstahl, but he's not as seduced by it as his predecessor was. For starters, there's a nasty surprise in how swiftly Nazism creeps up this hill - as quick as it takes the postman to arrive bearing call-up papers - and how firmly it takes hold. The Radegundians may have thought they were above it all (Franz's own letters home from Army training suggests he found it a bit of a lark); it turns out this community was as exposed as any other. What Malick's interested in - to the extent he devotes three hours to it - is how hard it was for Jägerstätter to hold out. Easy to walk away from the town's ranting Mayor (Karl Markovics) after he's sunk a few biers too many; tougher, I should imagine, to live among the contempt of your flag-flying neighbours once it's been established you're not like them; brave to report for military service and then refuse, as Jägerstätter did, to give the required salute, ending up a political prisoner on your first day in barracks. Recognisably the work of a creative who spent two decades resisting the lures of Hollywood, A Hidden Life may be the most sublime film ever made about stubbornness: Jägerstätter turns himself into a mountain the Nazis couldn't move, and in so doing, he changes the historical landscape in some small yet significant way.

That stance has occasioned a subtle shift in the way the director himself looks at the world. In his recent US movies, Malick gave the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki free rein to gawp at the world and its wonders - an extraordinary thing for a movie to do (I write as one of very few critics who had kind words to say about Knight of Cups, one of recent cinema's great feats of looking), but also a privilege liable to be indulged and abused, and to wear thin through repetition. (Hence all those reservations about the maleness of the gaze in Cups, and why its follow-up Song to Song, which hewed to similar tactics, felt thinner still.) The world of A Hidden Life is sparer; it offers no stars, and scant material riches, for anybody to gawp at. Instead, Malick enlists the cinematographer Jörg Widmer (who shot Wim Wenders' Pina in 3D, and also worked on The Tree of Life) to tie the Jägerstätters to their surroundings, and set their actions in context. Very little here might be deemed and dismissed as free-floating. The space Malick has traditionally directed into his films is very sharply defined (I could sketch from memory the angle Franz and Fani's home sits at on the mountain, and the dimensions of the prison cells the former finds himself in) and, crucially, politicised; it's most obviously contested in those early scenes where the director asks Diehl and Pachner to stay put - to plant their feet - while the other actors either come at them or drift away from them. What the film describes most vividly are those wars fought within a war: Franz's letters home feel like a subversion of those penned by soldiers to their sweethearts, the thoughts of a man off fighting for the right not to fight, dispatched to a wife becoming the scorn of neighbours whose men are enthusiastically doing their bit. Intercutting between these two lives throws up a tremendous irony. The home Franz dreams of is revealed to be fraught and fractious; it's paradise, but only up to a point, as so many of us are finding out about our own homelands.

You may still have reservations, although I must confess to leaving mine behind somewhere in the film's foothills. Whatever one may say about the running time, it allows A Hidden Life to accumulate a weight of thought, gesture and theme that was some way beyond Malick's recent films. As to the decision to recruit German and Austrian actors to play Germans and Austrians who speak only in English, this would, I suppose, allow Malick to hear and correct any false notes: important, given the extent to which the drama and emotion is carried by Franz's letters and words home. And while I wonder whether hardened atheists will take against the emphasis Malick puts on Jägerstätter's faith, Diehl's deeply felt performance - one of the few acting contributions in recent Malicks to feel more than skin- or costume-deep - leaves us in little doubt that, yes, this is what sustained and guided this man at this moment. (There may well be something to be said for clinging to a good book in times of political and spiritual turmoil, especially one that urges its readers to love their neighbours, and not to kill; it's what distinguished Franz Jägerstätter when so many of his countrymen were wilfully throwing their books and principles on the fire.) That we get past some or all of these reservations is down not just to the power of this story - what it tells us about what it is to resist - but the renewed force of Malick's storytelling. Late on in A Hidden Life, one character, mulling over Franz's actions, posits that "a time will come when we know what all this is for". For the first time in a long while, Malick - a man who knows more than most creatives what it is to be a man out of time - comes to resemble an artist of the present century, the present moment; by pulling himself out of his creative funk, he here counters the Nazis' triumph of the will with a rather more elevating, soaring, one would hope inspiring triumph of the spirit.

A Hidden Life is now playing in selected cinemas.

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