Terrence Malick has a definitive style, often full of meandering camera, voice-over internalized emotions and images of nature. His films can be sumptuous, they can also be void of a clear narrative. His last few films have been particularly improvised, often leading to nowhere. A Hidden Life finds him returning to a structured story, even basing this on a true story. However, his indulgences that have ruined his recent output still creep in.
A Hidden Life marks Malick's second film set during World War II. It follows Franz (August Diehl), a farmer and soldier who when drafted refuses to take an oath to Hitler. Franziska (Valerie Pachner) is raising their spirited young daughters while supporting her husband. We quickly understand what Franz is sacrificing for his principles. He is giving up an idyllic life in the countryside. He is giving up seeing his daughters grow up. He is giving up being with his mate. The nagging question is why?
On a surface level, we understand that Franz is a man of conviction who feels he cannot defy his own beliefs just to remain in the life he loves. Something in him, a conviction, drives him to refuse the oath. That is about as deep as Malick lets us into Franz's state. This refusal to offer up more leaves A Hidden Life with about thirty minutes of narrative stretched out to a three-hour runtime. Shots are repeated frequently. Shots of wheat fields, the green countryside, and the ominous mountains are shown over and over again. Jörg Widmer's cinematography often makes these images beautiful. At other times, his camera seems to be searching, not in the searching manner that is so prevalent in the superior The New World but in a manner that suggests he is searching for a shot composition. This adds a loose, almost sloppy feel to the film that contradicts the stoic, still nature of the lead character.
Malick uses voiceovers and disjointed dialogue exchanges to help us understand the emotional state of Franz. While these can illuminate whether he is fearful or happy or some other emotion, it rarely helps us to understand why he is so convicted. Perhaps that is the point as faith is an act without reason sometimes. The problem is that the length of the film demands a better understanding of character motivations.
Malick uses an off-putting technique of allowing the sympathetic characters to speak in English while others speak only in untranslated German. It over-simplifies the evil of the Nazis and townsfolk that oppress Franz and his family. One purpose of this technique may be to humanize only the decent people who stood up against evil without any hope of retribution. However, it makes the evildoers a bit cartoonish but reducing them to spitting, angry faces.
Rambling, unfocused, overlong but occasionally moving and often beautiful, A Hidden Life is a step forward for Malick. While it has more of a narrative hook it still refuses to edit itself into something more powerful. There is a great movie in here somewhere.