‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ Review: Magic Kingdom

In his best-selling book, “The Hidden Life of Trees,” the German forester Peter Wohlleben drew in millions of readers with a tantalizing hypothesis: that trees are social, sentient beings, who talk to each other, feed and nurse their young, sense pain and have personalities. While Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic language and seductive blend of science and speculation rankled some professionals, this was precisely the selling point for lay readers: an opportunity to see how trees share some of our own traits, and are worthy of our empathy and care.

Directed by Jörg Adolph, the documentary “The Hidden Life of Trees” uses the sensorial capacities of cinema to thrillingly visualize Wohlleben’s observations. Jan Haft’s camera peers deep into tree bark, and the entire universes of organisms therein; it captures the blooming of plant life in rapturous time-lapse shots; it lovingly traces the outlines of rustling, sun-kissed canopies. All the while, the voice-over reads snippets from Wohlleben’s book, letting us into the secrets of nature that lie beyond human vision and temporality.

These scenes are interspersed with Wohlleben’s field trips and lectures, and as in the book, his accessible style and infectious passion is the main draw here. What the film successfully imparts is not so much scientific certainty as an affecting sense of curiosity and reverence, which Wohlleben deploys to a pragmatic end: to argue for the ecological management of forests, which would ensure their communal health and longevity, and therefore that of humankind. Crouching next to a 10,000-year-old spruce, Wohlleben reminds us of man’s comparative insignificance as well as power. “The only thing it cannot withstand,” he says of the spindly tree, “is a chain saw.”

The Hidden Life of Trees
Rated PG. In German, Korean, Polish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. In theaters.

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