Terrence Malick Makes a Rapturous Return to Form With ‘A Hidden Life’ 

History that no one remembers is really a history that everyone remembers. Certain people pretend not to know, like they’re simply one moving part of a corrupt prison ward. They are part of the pipes and the plumbing, and water will drip no matter what, same as the morning mist will glide across the mountains.

Writer/director Terrence Malick, famous for his reclusive nature, rapturously artistic eye and overtly poetic tendencies (a.k.a. voiceover whispers), makes a long overdue return to form with his tenth feature, “A Hidden Life,” starring August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II. Diehl gives a heartbreaking performance, bottling up unwavering morality at the possible price of meeting the end of his mortal road. It’s arguably the best film Malick has made since his last WWII drama, “The Thin Red Line,” which was released the same year as “Saving Private Ryan,” which was overshadowed at the time by Steven Spielberg’s incredible achievement. 

Originally filmed under the working title Radegund, the name of the village in which Jägerstätter was born and bred, “A Hidden Life,” begins at the end of the 1930s, at the dawn of battle lines being drawn. Jägerstätter is called up to serve the Reich, and participates in basic training, but after the surrender of France is his sent back to tend to his crops, being reunited with his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner, also outstanding). But the able bodied men of the mountains are soon called again to swear fealty to Hitler, which Jägerstätter will not do.

Fearing that the iron fist of Germanic tyranny will strike their homely existence from the heavens, all of Radegund’s townsfolk beg Jägerstätter to reconsider his position, but his compromise will not waver. Only his wife supports him, knowing the decision may lead him to be executed. Jägerstätter his hauled off to prison, and the lovers correspond through a series of letters, as the villagers plea for Franziska to convince her husband to change his stand, while her husband awaits his inevitably unfair trial under inhumane conditions. 

“A Hidden Life” is an extremely long film (three hours) but much like Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” the power of the piece rests within its cumulation of experiences. A series of expressive, montage-driven sequences, interspersed with reflective conversations on the vitality of existence, must be endured in one sitting to experience their intended emotional impact; similarly to how Scorsese’s pair of framing devices serve as a kind of career confession and elegiac soliloquy that all comes together during the feature’s final stretch. Malick’s style is not for everyone, but will be endlessly rewarding to a precise kind of patient viewer — those who love to watch a visionary paint evocative images on the big screen canvas before their very eyes. 

The power of “A Hidden Life’s” transcendent imagery cannot be overstated, moving between village water spouts, rolling hills of evergreen,wood-chipped fences, and barred correctional facilities, where one can hear the clanks of batons striking handrails just by looking at the arresting visuals on display. Cinematographer, Jörg Widmer has operated the camera for Malick previously, but steps in as his DP for the first time on his newest project, and does exceptional work. Veteran composer James Newton Howard’s score perfectly understates the camera, manipulating sensitivity strings only when it most needs to. The movie also, tragically, features the final performances of European actors Bruno Ganz and Michael Nyqvist, both embodying roles absolutely essential to the film’s artistic triumphs.

Malick’s newest picture will be especially rewarding for anyone who has been disappointed with the auteur’s recent star-driven, experimental efforts (“To the Wonder,” “Knight of Cups,” and “Song to Song”) which some mockingly dubbed “the twirling fish-eye trilogy” due to their excessive style and nonsensical storytelling nature (it’s hard to call any of them a “movie,” really; they’re tone poems). Terrence Malick’s career trajectory is expressly fascinating. He became a towering influence following his first two masterworks: “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” but then retreated to the trenches of hermit-hood until he resurfaced more than two decades later with “The Thin Red Line.” Ever since, the director has been in full on indulgent artist mode — editing numerous cuts of three ambitious epics (“The New World,” “The Tree of Life,” and the documentary “Voyage of Time.”) “A Hidden Life,” is the first film Malick has made since 2005 to feel more in the vein of traditional filmmaking, almost like a halfway house; albeit, one at the height of its meditative powers.

“A Hidden Life” is only willing to compromise up to a point, however, much like the historic figure at its center. Some audiences may find it languorous, but such is the film’s express intention. To compromise loyalty of the self is to break down the fortress of the soul. Terrence Malick only makes movies the way he wants to, but it’s been some time since he’s found a way to channel the commercial sensibilities of a project through his trademark sedate lyricism. Farmer Franz Jägerstätter’s central conflict mirrors its creative arbiter’s moving aesthetic in a telling manner, asking one key question: what gives someone the right to fight against what they believe is truly wrong?

A Hidden Life” opens Dec. 13 in select theaters.