The film begins as a rural idyll, showing the simple but contented life Franz shares with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) and their family in the Austrian village of St Radegund (the filming locations were in Northern Italy, with an international cast speaking English almost throughout). Once again, those wide-angle lenses are put to work, making the surrounding valley seem immense yet cosy: fields stretch out to distant forests with mountains on the horizon, as if everything were held in the palm of a giant’s hand.
Following the outline of the facts, the narrative is a series of stations of the cross. Franz refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler, is increasingly ostracised, and eventually goes to prison while Fani struggles on back home. The running time of nearly three hours makes for a great deal of repetition: time and again Franz is asked by authority figures, religious and secular, what he hopes to gain through his protest, and can reply only that he has no choice.
Despite the intermittent stylistic thrills, the film feels like an opportunity missed. Though Malick’s latter-day earnestness might seem to preclude irony, some of his best work has centred on destructive, deluded characters viewed with mocking fascination: the spree killer (Martin Sheen) in his 1973 debut Badlands, or the bullying father (Brad Pitt) in his 2011 magnum opus The Tree of Life.
More than most filmmakers Malick seems capable of imagining what it would mean to be a Nazi – a true believer in racial purity, strong leadership, and the defence of a beloved homeland against invaders. However, conveying the charisma of evil isn’t on his agenda: the case for Hitler finds no spokesperson more compelling than the town’s mayor (Karl Markovics), immediately recognisable as a drunken buffoon.
Consequently the drama lacks inner tension. Rather than wrestling with himself, as other Malick heroes do, Franz remains a noble waxwork helplessly true to his own convictions. Fani is no less resolute, though her inner monologue doesn’t entirely clarify her motives: how far is she a free thinker in her own right, how far simply standing by her man?
As in all Malick’s films, much of the art here lies in details snatched away almost before we have time to register them, much less analyse their meaning. Characters perform odd impulsive gestures or break into little jigs—and there are pregnant glimpses of the natural world, such as a shot of a furry caterpillar crawling over papers on a desk.
Going by accounts of Malick’s working methods, these touches are often dreamed up while shooting rather than scripted, the point being to capture a reality separate from anything imaginable in advance. Yet much of A Hidden Life is conventional and even techniques meant to undercut convention have hardened, to some extent, into a personal formula.
Malick has always been a grandly Romantic artist, in the sense of Romanticism defined by the 19th-century critic Walter Pater: “the addition of strangeness to beauty”. By now, though, some of the strangeness has faded—and some of the beauty as well.