In the years following his 2011 Palm d'Or-winning and Oscar-nominated triumph 'The Tree of Life', legendary auteur Terrence Malick seemed to leave the principles of narrative filmmaking behind. That's not to suggest that narrative had previously been Malick's major concern - as his body of work moved from his debut 'Badlands' (1973) towards 'Tree of Life', his storytelling had certainly become looser, less fixed, and more intuitive rather than intellectual, but there had always been even a basic narrative on which the film could rest. From 'To The Wonder' (2012) through to 'Song to Song' (2017), his work began to have an almost stream-of-consciousness quality, with each moment or image moving to the next with a thematic pursuit rather than narrative. I suspect that his move to and the freedom of digital film and editing accounts for this more esoteric period in his practice, as well the speed and frequency with which he suddenly released his films. The response from critics and audiences to these films were mixed, leaning towards the negative, many commenting that the once-mighty poet of the cinema seemed to have retreated too far into his own head.
Which brings us to his latest film, 'A Hidden Life', a work that sits somewhere between the sweeping masterpieces of the first act of his career and the more experimental films of the second. All of that context is important in approaching the film in order to understand artistically where Malick has landed, and in some cases returned. While still pursuing his interest in thematic and emotional logic, the film is based on a true story, working from an exchange of letters between Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl, 'Inglorious Basterds') and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) during the Second World War, when Franz was imprisoned as a conscientious objector to the Nazi regime. It would be easy to consider this some kind of "return to form" for Malick - 'A Hidden Life' is certainly his most affecting, accessible and impressive achievement since 2011 - but that would be dismissive of the influence of his experimental period on the film. Rather than this film being a return to form, it feels like the first step in a new act, where the previous two find harmony with one another.
'A Hidden Life' has all the hallmarks of a Malick film - poetic voiceover, the dominance and beauty of the natural world, human beings in harmony or at odds with the environment they occupy. At its heart though, the film is a story of love - not just between two people, but between a citizen and their country. Franz is committed to the small town of Radegund in which he lives, to the soil he toils and protects, to the home and family he has built for Fani and their daughters. The landscape itself is staggeringly beautiful, with Malick and cinematographer Jörg Widmer finding a careful balance between a spontaneous and frenetic immediacy he has recently explored and classical compositions of human figures against the backdrop of natural wonders we remember him for.
From the moment the film begins though, a weight begins to threaten the stability of Franz's home and everything he loves. Malick doesn't hammer the Nazi presence down on us, instead introducing it in careful drips (the sound of distant planes we never see, the presence of a few Nazi officials whose uniforms clashes horribly against the rustic tones, a message boy on a bicycle smiling vacantly). This built-in tension takes a long time, but that doesn't make it any less palpable, and this mechanism in Malick's storytelling allows the threat to feel more organic, even though we know it's coming. The true horror of Nazism and the greater threat to Franz and Fani comes not from some external forces but from their friends, neighbours and family, infected by the cancer of fascism and the dazzling lights of Hitler, and willingness to turn on anyone who thinks otherwise. Even with the enormous mountain canvas, you can still feel the walls closing in on them; the chance to escape and save themselves diminishing, until Malick builds literal walls around them when the final act moves to Franz in prison. After nearly two hours of the sky and the grass and the mountains, cruel stone and cement feel like a tomb, and Widmer's camera races to capture any potential moments of beauty.
'A Hidden Life' is an unrelenting emotional experience, but Malick is careful not to fall into the trap of indulging in his depiction of fascist cruelty. There's a great violence to the film, but almost no violence is ever explicitly depicted, with Malick instead showing us the spit seconds before and after violence. This might seem like a compassionate gesture, and in many ways it is, but it also denies us the catharsis that may have come from witnessing the cruelty inflicted on Franz and Fani. We instead have the anticipation and devastation, our imaginations filling in the blanks. We also don't need to see it - we've seen this period of history depicted so often and so explicitly that perhaps Malick doesn't feel that showing the physical cruelty would add anything. His interest is in the experiences of the soul, and as a consequence, its violence comes in the manipulation, dismissal and terrorising of human beings. As with many of his other films, he plays with the contrast of man and nature. Both have violence and cruelty, but where one commits it unknowingly as the natural order of things, the other does so with intent.
There's a deep cry at the heart of this film, an attempt for a country to comprehend their complicity in the horrors enacted in their midst and in their name.
This, however, isn't the central concern of the film. Despite being set in maybe the darkest period of human history, this is a film about the good in us, and how small acts of kindness can hold out against the darkness. These small acts occur throughout the film, and never with any fanfare. They act in quiet contrast to the cruelty and violence, in that goodness doesn't need to be heard where wickedness demands to be to assert its existence. This is reflected in the beautifully subdued and heartfelt performances from Diehl and Pachner, finding the quiet dignity in Franz and Fani to hold to their convictions in the face of something they know to be evil. Malick's narration, mixing his own writings with their original letters, often guilds the lily in this respect in the way his narration often does, but it also provides startling moments where the calm optimism of their letters clashes against the emotional horror we are seeing on-screen. Even when things are at their worst, this deeply loving couple cannot bear to make the world of the other any darker, and this makes their relationship more moving, their political stance the stronger and the film itself ultimately more powerful.
In a very similar manner to Luca Guadagnino's remake of 'Suspiria', 'A Hidden Life' also taps into the deep national pain in the landscape and people that existed under willing Nazi occupation. It's easy to forget how recent this history is, and for many of the actors, the trauma of this period is woven into their DNA. There's a deep cry at the heart of this film, an attempt for a country to comprehend their complicity in the horrors enacted in their midst and in their name. 'A Hidden Life' may be beautiful to look at, but that hurt is deep within it, especially in Rehman Nizar Ali, Joe Gleason and Sebastian Jones' often jarring and disorienting editing. They make the film feel immediate and dangerous and on the verge of collapse, like the world it depicts. That pain is also in James Newton Howard's breathtaking score, his best since 'The Village' (2004), a powerful and sorrowful piece of composition. The ghosts of the past haunt this film in every frame. It's in the stones and the soil and the desperate screaming in the eyes of those who remember it.
Terrence Malick is a filmmaker whose primary concern is the sanctity of the human soul, and in this instance, he has chosen a time and a place where that sanctity was under tremendous threat, and a story of two people sacrificing themselves to protect it. 'A Hidden Life' is a remarkable and uncompromising film, a work of hope and sorrow and belief in the human spirit. Even with the foundation of a true story, Malick still continues to experiment, to follow his instincts and find a thematic journey more important than a narrative one. At nearly three hours, with almost no dialogue, a slow and considered pace and Malick's propensity for aesthetic indulgence, it certainly won't be a film for everyone, but those able to tap into it will find a deep and profound experience. 'A Hidden Life' isn't Terrence Malick returning to form. It's another step in the evolution and exploration of one of the most singular filmmakers the cinema has ever seen.