Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Real American arthouse: The brilliance and beauty of Malick’s ‘A Hidden Life’

In a season when Scorsese’s extra-long, extra-dramatic, CGI-tainted Irishman is the foremost topic of conversation among U.S. cinephiles, it has been both reassuring and instructive to see an epic-length American film that is both “smaller than life” and possessed of a singular poetry. Terrence Malick — he who endlessly frustrates the folk who want simple, linear, multiplex-safe narratives — proves he is “as tough as Bresson” (Scorsese’s own stated goal, which he hasn’t come near since the Eighties) with his latest, visually sumptuous film that concerns a moral dilemma and has a foregone conclusion.

Both Malick and Scorsese are products of the sublime “maverick” era in early Seventies American cinema. Scorsese has since reinvented himself as a new-model “Arthouse Lite” version of the old Hollywood studio system director. As he has grown older, Malick has becomes even more of a maverick, making lengthy features that have generally eschewed linear plotlines for an assemblage of striking images and slices of life that convey a mood and a rhythm rather than a storyline in the standard Spielberg/Tom Hanks/Marvel mode.

Malick (right) is as different in his approach and goals from Scorsese as he is from David Lynch (with whom he has shared a common production designer, Jack Fisk). Even though his films are lengthy, they are indeed smaller than life, in that he favors character, behavior, and setting over plot. His work draws on the avant-garde American tradition, foreign cinema (Tarkovsky, among others), and a knowledge of both fine art and philosophy (he worked as a philosophy prof before becoming a filmmaker) to offer a collage of elements that conveys characters’ inner lives, while showing them moving toward often melancholy conclusions.

His latest feature, A Hidden Life, is his first film since The New World (2005) to have a linear plotline — perhaps the experimental structures of Knight of Cups (2015) and Song by Song (2017) revealed even to the filmmaker himself the negative aspects of fragmenting characters’ lives too much.

A Hidden Life is the real-life story of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian who refused to sign a loyalty oath to Hitler during WWII. The film is narrated by three characters: Franz, his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), and his mother (Karin Neuhäuser). It is “a message picture,” but Malick isn’t Stanley Kramer (nor is he Spielberg, an early adapter of “production design cinema”). As a result, the film moves through the plot while also emphasizing moody moments in Franz’s life, and Fani and Franz’s moments of happiness and separation.

Malick has injected Christian themes into his films since The Tree of Life (2011). He is, however, a more subdued Christian than Scorsese, whose recent Silence (2016) and The Irishman (2019) have cringeworthy moments where the Catholic faith is depicted as the one right, unassailable position. For his part, Malick is intent on depicting lowercase “c” Christian behavior more than doctrinaire belief, so here Franz and his wife are seen helping other people while they are being persecuted by the Nazis.

Along these lines, a priest (Michael Nyqvist) is a prominent supporting character. He is on Franz’s side, but he serves as a devil’s advocate as well, asking Franz what he is really achieving by refusing to sign the loyalty oath — the Nazis won’t be affected in the slightest and, most importantly, Franz’s small family (wife, her sister and his mother, and their two children) will be left alone to run the family farm.

The priest’s supremely logical argument is taken up later by Franz’s lawyer and the head of a Nazi tribunal (the superb Bruno Ganz, in his last movie role; above). Franz is reminded that war is about to end shortly and it’s possible to secure him a position as a medic in the Army, so that he is taking no part in Hitler’s destructive activities. Franz holds fast, though, and his moral stance is shown to be a completely private decision (supported by his wife) that is the only path which the headstrong and resolutely moral Franz can take.

Images in Malick’s films are everything — he is a modern American master of dreamlike montage — but here the “forward thrust” of the plot does give a greater importance to the dialogue. In Knight of Cups and Song by Song, the dialogue was poetic but ornamental. At various points here, Franz spells out his beliefs with simple phrases, especially when pressed by the other characters. When he is told that signing the loyalty oath will set him free, he responds with beatific calm, “But I *am* free…”

Malick is indeed so “imagistic” that one can sometimes forget the fine work done by his actors. Diehl is excellent in the lead, conveying Franz’s rigid morality as both a sort of selfishness and a deep caring for others. Neuhäuser is also excellent, as the film is as much Fani’s journey as it is her husband’s.

Hidden Life is not the usual WWII drama. It was ignored by the Oscars for obvious reasons — there’s no conventional uplifting finale, it’s profoundly moral but not preachy a la Spielberg, and it’s not “production design cinema,” of the kind that Scorsese and Tarantino now make. Sympathy for the lead character is not even elicited (as it would be in a Best Picture Oscar-winner) through violence. Malick in fact abstracts the little violence we see through montage and slow motion. American viewers need and want clear cut heroes and villains and things to be outraged about, even in a fictional context. A film about memory and choice rather than suffering isn’t a “satisfactory” WWII story for most audience members.

Malick was recently included in the newly written (in 2018) foreword to Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer by Paul Schrader, who himself proved his work was “as tough as Bresson” in the very Bressonian First Reformed (2017). Schrader labels Malick a practitioner of “dream cinema” in his (Schrader’s) chart of “slow cinema” filmmakers. Malick is in the “Tarkovsky ring” (meaning his films play in theaters, not just at film festivals and at museums) in the “Art Gallery” designation.

Ever the minimalist, Bresson would’ve frowned at Malick’s reliance on professional actors and the length of his films, as well as their intentional non-linearity even in chronological works like Hidden Life. However, Malick is very similar to the French master in his ability to depict — Schrader’s favorite phrase — transcendence. Bresson’s final films ended pessimistically, with little hope for mankind, while Malick (now age 76) has remained a hopeful, upbeat artist. Who thankfully continues in his senior years to craft indelible images and create work that challenges viewers.