Authentic being, leaps of faith and mortality haunt every frame of Terrence Malick’s latest opus, A Hidden Life (aka Radegund). Basing his new film on the life and death of WW2 conscientious objector, Franz Jägerstätter, the reclusive American auteur is unlikely to win over detractors, but true believers will swoon.
In 1939, Austrian yokel Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is called up to fight for the Fatherland. Reluctantly, he heads off to basic training but is later sent back home, to help with the war effort in his role as a farmer. Recognising Nazi demagoguery is a poison spreading in the world, he begins to resist further associations with Hitler’s regime, setting off a chain of events leading to a date with the guillotine.
Working from a script (which he hasn’t done since The Tree of Life), with dialogue poignantly sourced from letters sent back and forth between Franz and his wife, Malick’s film will be conveniently hailed as a ‘return to form’ by those who lost patience with him from The Tree of Life onwards, but then its three-hour runtime could equally further accusations of pretentiousness and self-indulgence. If you’re an admirer of Malick’s poetic investigations into the mysteries of existence, faith and our tragic disconnection to the natural world, A Hidden Life will leave you enraptured and profoundly moved.
There are intriguing parallels to glean between The Thin Red Line and A Hidden Life, going far beyond the wartime settings they share. Eden sullied by the bestiality of war is one, religiously devout men seeing past the panacea of organized worship and its corrupted teachings is another. Franz and The Thin Red Line’s Private Witt have “seen another world” and as beings-towards-death (to use the phrase coined by philosopher Martin Heidegger), they overcome the deep-seated existential crisis fear of the big sleep brings. They triumph over death because they are not afraid. “I’ll see you there, in the mountains,” Frau Jägerstätter (Valerie Pachner) tells her deceased husband, a line recalling Private Bell’s promise to his wife back home: “I’ll meet you there, on the other side of the dark water.”
Both films feature poetic elucidations, obsessively so, on light and dark, our conceptions of good versus evil, which push the material into Manichean territory. “Is this the death of light?” Franz asks, in voiceover. Call it a return to a conventional narrative, if you want to, this is still 100% Malick. Not a retreat or a return to the old days, but a definite continuation. Awe-inspiring, triumphant and as majestic as cinema can possibly get.
The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.
Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn