Directed by Terrence Malick
After seeing Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) I suddenly wished to see what her version of Into the Wild might’ve looked like. It’s her stark, unromantic approach to her characters and worldview that I wanted to see layered onto other movies that I felt perhaps watered down or otherwise distorted the essence of their stories.
I feel similar about Terrence Malick, that I would love to see his version of any number of films. Hell I’d love to see Terrence Malick’s version of Superbad.
So with A Hidden Life Malick is very much being Malick, with all the easily parodied wide angle photography and breathy voice over. This time it’s brought to a gorgeous, mountainside village in Austria in the 1940s, following with care a protagonist who refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler.
A Hidden Life is so much like The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, but I think it’s much better than the latter two. His films, especially in the last decade, are so specific and uncompromising. Some people love ’em, some hate ’em, and while I think his style can wear thin at times, so long as it’s justified I find that it works quite well.
His camera sees the world as if for the first time. Everything is in wide angle, often looking up as if through everything you can just glimpse the heavens. There are many a sunrise and sunset and a variety of shots in which people as silhouettes flicker and frolic through the sun.
In short, everything is beautiful.
In The Tree of Life that style seemed to work because his main characters were children. Because of the improvisatory nature of his films there are so many plotless moments of people gazing out at something or running their hands along an object, experiencing it with as many of their senses as possible.
With children there’s a certain logic to it, though in something like To the Wonder it can be a bit off-putting to watch adults Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams playing in a pile of leaves.
His characters ache, and the films ache with them. If you’re not with them in the first ten minutes, you might never catch up.
So A Hidden Life, I’d say, works with an internal logic similar to The Tree of Life. His main character is very much an adult, but he is burdened by his refusal to bow down like everyone else around him. His defiance, he understands, will kill him, and he seems to know before anyone else does that this won’t end in any other way.
So the entire film becomes a eulogy, framing everything and every moment with the same attention you would give something were you confident it’d be the last time you laid eyes on it.
So where The Tree of Life saw the world for the first time, this one sees it for the final time.
Inside of that is the same unbridled joy and ache of other Malick films. His characters engage with the land and each other, they observe everything and in this case deal with a good deal of glaring coming their way.
It’s a film full of hatred featuring many a shot of a screaming Nazi, and yet it remains contemplative. There is a dreamlike haze over all of this, no matter how beautiful or ugly the scene at hand.
It’s a beautiful film whose length, as with The Irishman, I believes serves it well. You’re meant to sink into its rhythms and learn not to put up a fight. Sometimes that just takes time. In other words I don’t believe this story could be told in ninety minutes.
And if it was told in ninety minutes it’d be a much different, less nuanced film. The villains may still be villain-like but there’s something kind of beautiful about them too.
Because the entire film is so abstract with just the barebones plot necessary to move the story forward, characters feel much more like ideas than real people. They become hate personified, and because of how it’s all framed, scored and edited, it feels like you’re bouncing around the inside of any human’s brain, watching their destructive impulses interact with the life-giving ones.
We see how some form of this is inherent to our lives, our history and each of us ourselves. So in this one story there is something so universal and personal, something we can’t really hide from. It’s the side of our shared history we want to forget and parts of ourselves we’re reluctant to broadcast to the world. Within that, however, the goodness remains, in some balance.