In his bestseller “The Hidden Life of Trees”, German forester Peter Wohlleben has attracted millions of readers with a tantalizing hypothesis: that trees are social and sensitive beings, who talk to each other, feed and nurse their young, feel pain and have personalities. While Wohlleben’s anthropomorphic language and his alluring blend of science and speculation angered some professionals, this was precisely the selling point for lay readers: an opportunity to see how trees share some of our own traits and deserve our empathy and care.
Directed by Jörg Adolph, the documentary “The Hidden Life of Trees” uses the sensory capacities of cinema to visualize in a fascinating way Wohlleben’s observations. Jan Haft’s camera deeply examines the bark of trees and the whole universe of organisms therein; he captures the flowering of plant life in delightful time-lapse shots; he lovingly traces the contours of the rustling and sunny awnings. Meanwhile, the voiceover plays excerpts from Wohlleben’s book, immersing us in nature’s secrets that lie beyond human sight and temporality.
These scenes are interspersed with field trips and lectures by Wohlleben, and like in the book, his approachable style and infectious passion are the main draw here. What the film manages to convey is not so much a scientific certainty as a touching feeling of curiosity and respect, which Wohlleben deploys with a pragmatic goal: to advocate for an ecological management of forests, which would ensure their health and their collective longevity, and therefore that of humanity. Crouching next to a 10,000 year old spruce top, Wohlleben reminds us of the relative insignificance of man and his power. “The only thing he can’t resist,” he says of the spindly tree, “is a chainsaw.”
The hidden life of trees
Classified PG. In German, Korean and English, with subtitles. Duration: 1h25. In theaters.