A Hidden Life Suffers from Hollywood’s Moral Crisis

Armond White

Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is the wrong film for this moment in social history. The steadfast Christian goodness that Malick observes in the prelapsarian life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), a German pacifist caught between world wars, is mocked by today’s ruthless public figures who assert false righteousness, claiming to “pray” for individuals they assail, and professing religious belief even as they offend the tenets of that doctrine and support fashionable forms of sacrilege.

It would be ideal to announce that Malick’s movie transports us to a different era before these treacheries occurred — or that the period story of Franz’s travails showed his/our suffering in a clarifying light and gave hope. Franz, his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and their towhead daughters are simple, devout people, close to the earth until the Third Reich jolts their peace and the film becomes All Quiet on the Western Front 2.0. Franz is jailed, then executed for refusing to fight another war.

But how can A Hidden Life instruct us when it shares the culture’s current confusions? (Is this ode to pacifism left over from Malick’s Vietnam-era ideas?) Malick demonstrates the same interplay of banal citizenship and banal spirituality that blurs straight thinking and stymies good faith today. No wonder secular critics love it.

Whether or not A Hidden Life was conceived in response to the current madness, the conditions under which a serious American artist must now operate (conforming to the dictates of the crudest, insensible production codes put in place by Titanic, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel franchise, HBO, and Netflix) make it nearly impossible to overcome the culture’s moral and intellectual breakdown.

A Hidden Life is lofty and bloated, like The Irishman, its sin-celebrating counterpart. Malick’s three-hour narrative is too long and repetitive to communicate as a work of popular culture should, and as some of his previous films — especially The Thin Red Line and The New World — used to, even without topical relevance.

Scenes of bucolic farm life, townfolk vulgarity, then politics-invading-Eden suggest a twisting, solipsistic vortex; Malick spins his same limpid nature photography and voiceover contemplation that always express agape, wonder, supplication, and invocation. Yet these mannerisms — rituals — fumble the film’s issues: Franz reproves “improvised fanaticism” among those who follow the Nazi drumbeat, but isn’t his own pacifism fanatical? Mel Gibson dramatized this dilemma better in Hacksaw Ridge. Malick’s pattern of interpolating the story with abstract, devout ruminations has the effect of turning prayers into rhetoric. Franz prosaically asking “Is this the end of the world, the death of the light?” feels less trenchant than Wim Wenders’s sci-fi, metaphysical contemplation in Until the End of the World.

Whatever personal intellectual process is expressed by editing color home-movie footage of Adolf Hitler into Malick’s buoyant steadicam études doesn’t come through; recorded history juxtaposed to imaginative history seems like a stunt rather than a shock of contrasting realities.

Despite his cult status, Malick is not constantly discovering new means of cinematic storytelling. His methods are sometimes laughably familiar — especially in this “second wind” phase of his career and the rush of rough-draft material edited in the mode of poetic observation/introspection.

It’s unfortunate that Malick resolved his creative block during Hollywood’s leadership crisis, an era without dramaturges or artist-producers who could help shape and refine his exquisite explorations — those truly inspired images and vibrant sound details such as a cut from mountain peaks to cathedral arches that is worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.

But when Malick’s exalted panoramas are mixed with lines such as “Better to suffer injustice than to do it,” or “Don’t they know evil when they see it?,” all that implied sophistication seems trite.

Among the struggling believers Franz encounters are artists who testify “We create sympathy,” “Someday I’ll paint a true Christ.” Much as they represent Malick’s own agenda, Sweden’s nature-poet Jan Troell already achieved everything Malick attempts here, especially in Hamsun (1987), about Knut Hamsun, author of The Growth of the Soil, whose ambiguous artistic and political beliefs were more troubling and fascinating than Franz’s martyrdom.

The attempt to film a person’s inner life comes from George Eliot’s Middlemarch, quoted in Malick’s epigraph. Owing to his unstructured filmmaking, A Hidden Life expands almost intolerably, as if it were a literal adaptation of Eliot’s ideas about “the varying experiments of Time . . . human hearts already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them . . . passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life.”

These days, godless Hollywood stretches even the mangiest movie to “an epic life.” Malick’s lofty try for a new Middlemarch doesn’t work for an era estranged from the spiritual and artistic ambitions that Middlemarch represents and defiled by heretical politicians. Scorsese’s The Irishman also defiles those ambitions, and A Hidden Life is so detached from our spiritual and political needs that it feels similarly useless.

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