It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses
Owen Gleiberman for Variety
Visually, the film is extraordinary. Much of it was shot in the Austrian countryside, where Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), the farmer who refuses to enlist in Hitler’s army at the outset of World War II, works the land in a place that looks like the opening sequence of “The Sound of Music” as painted by Bruegel. But that’s because Malick uses his camera as a virtual sensory heightener, transforming this land of mountains and grass into the Garden of Eden as seen through a wide-angle lens.
And the film’s meaning is rooted in that splendor. This, “A Hidden Life” tells us — this beauty, this paradise, this heightened vision of what all of us call home — is the place Franz has been blessed with, and the one he will now leave, through his willingness to die. Every caress of Malick’s camera eye says (or, rather, forces the audience to ask), But how could Franz leave this place? The world that Malick presents is, in a way, too sublime for self-sacrifice. Yet that becomes the measure of Franz’s radicalism. He will leave this beauty behind because, and only because, he glimpses a mirror of that beauty on the other side. His life will end, but his love, like that land, is eternal.
All of this hinges on our grand immersion in the world that “A Hidden Life” shows us. The movie is cinema at its mightiest and holiest. It’s a movie you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter, like a cathedral of the senses. Some, in fact, will prove resistant to it (it was not universally beloved), but “A Hidden Life,” as much as any film I’ve seen in the 21st century, is totally contingent upon the big screen. It needs to be bigger than you are, because it’s about bigger things than you — or anyone else. It’s about how the quietest acts of resistance are part of what save civilization.