Film & TV

Film Review: ‘The Hidden Life of Trees’: The Science of the Ents

TIMEJanuary 7, 2022

PG | 1h 41m | Documentary | November 2, 2021- United States|

Based on German conservationist and author Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 bestselling book of the same title, the slow-paced but info-packed “The Hidden Life of Trees” very quickly makes one thing abundantly clear: J.R.R. Tolkien got it right. Trees are basically Ents.

treetops in The Hidden Life of Trees
Interacting tree branch systems in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

Wohlleben himself is the main subject of the film. Presenting us with his biological, ecological, and academic expertise that’s grounded in a deep, Teutonic matter-of-factness, former forester Wohlleben explains that trees are sentient beings. They talk to each other, share nutrients through their intertwined canopies and root systems, have complicated social networks, take care of and feed their kids (seedlings and infant trees) with liquid sugar, and outwit pesky insect infestations by, for example, timing their blossoming to produce bumper crops that will outstrip the local fauna’s ability to gobble up all their seeds.

deer and trees in The Hidden Life of Trees
Deer looking for acorns in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

Some species can protect themselves from burrowing insects; most trees use fungi as a “wood-wide web”—basically an Ent-Internet. Trees feel pain from saw cuts and insect mandibles, but can heal themselves over time—sloooowly.

mushroons in The Hidden Life of Trees
Mushrooms and many forms of fungi are used by trees as a form of computer network in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

All this reminded me of the American gypsy moth infestation of the mid-1970s, where mass human hysteria set in due to the hordes of crawly, web-spinning caterpillars everywhere, with people thinking that their forests and well-appointed backyards were history. Scientists, however, revealed that trees had responded by simply putting out more tannic acid in their leaves the next summer, causing the moth-mischief to implode.

autumnal trees in The Hidden Life of Trees
The occurrence of fall foliage is much more complicated than we think, as explained in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

All this tree culture, naturally, takes centuries—millennia even—to establish, but trees in the past had lots of time to do their thing. Along came humans, who eventually started using the world’s wood for heating homes, fires for cooking, and so on—sort of like another critter infestation. Except humans are the world’s most effective, unstoppable predatory species in every regard and the trees don’t stand a chance.

This hits home when we witness a “tree feller” in action—those mechanized megasaws on the end of backhoe-type arms that cut down, strip, and section trees into logs with an efficiency that turns the stomach in a similar fashion to witnessing the efficient machines utilized in livestock slaughterhouses. Sawdust is easier to deal with than blood, but there’s something wanton, revolting, and horrendously disrespectful in the split-second destruction of a life-form that stood and witnessed life around it for centuries.

tree under stars in The Hidden Life of Trees
An ancient tree in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

Woodlore

The directors follow Wohlleben around, filming him lecturing to students of conservation, being a television guest, and leading a show-and-tell nature walk with a Korean group. He explains in detail why the flora monoculture foisted by logging plantations upon forest areas is unhealthy, and why clear-cutting destroys the potential of young trees: They start growing too fast, and a healthy tree is a slow-growing tree.

He also explains how the sheer tonnage of heavy foresting machinery devastatingly and irreversibly compacts minuscule life-forms down to eight inches beneath the soil surface. And while that information does not particularly surprise, the fact that this action causes such destruction that it will take until the next ice age to undo it, and that it cuts trees off from water, does. Wohlleben describes what a real forest is, and does, and why preserving the world’s forests is absolutely vital to the planet.

man and tree in The Hidden Life of Trees
Peter Wohlleben and the world’s oldest tree, Old Tjikko, in the background in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

We get to see “Old Tjikko,” at almost 10,000 years—the world’s oldest tree. Old Tjikko stands alone in a field in Sweden, surrounded by an unseen, massive root system. It’s been around since the Ice Age. It’s seen Vikings, maybe even saw the Norse all-father god Odin ride his eight-legged steed across the night sky. It’s seen blood and wars and the rise and fall of civilizations. Tolkien was probably aware of its existence. Maybe it’s the inspiration for Treebeard.

trees and deer in The Hidden Life of Trees
An old-growth forest in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

The Trees Go—We Go

There are photos of smoke and flames, and statistics about British Columbia’s wildfires. The magnitude of the damage is staggering. While the concept of climate crisis is still controversial, our need to preserve old and slow-growth forests is not.

The film is an uncritical adaptation of Wohlleben’s book and doesn’t deal with controversy over his approach, which some biologists feel is a bit woo-woo and anthropomorphizes the science. However, this criticism is just a prolonged state of ostrich-head-in-the-sand obstinance. Rigorous scientific research by top-notch botanists has been going on for decades and has scientifically proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, with all the required science boxes ticked, that plants are sentient beings with sensory organs and emotions.

Tree roots in "The Hidden Life of Trees."
Tree roots in “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

Overall, while the pacing is sometimes not ideal in terms of allowing for the absorption of large amounts of information by viewers (the result of which is that it’s easy for some facts to slip by), if you’re a “Lord of the Rings” fan, you might enjoy this movie. It will enhance your appreciation of the scene where, during the Ent gathering, Merry is pulling his hobbit hair out with impatience. After waiting all day long, he thinks that the Ents have finally come up with a plan of action to deal with Saruman’s treachery, but Treebeard tells him that the Ents have only just finished saying “good morning.”

Trees are slooooooow, but very, very wise. Just as Ents are tree shepherds, humans, in their finest role and which has been demonstrated ad infinitum by “primitive” cultures the world over, are earth stewards. We need to get back to that, and quickly.

The film is in English and German languages, with subtitles.

movie poster for The Hidden Life of Trees
Movie poster for “The Hidden Life of Trees.” (MPI/Capelight Pictures)

‘The Hidden Life of Trees’ (‘Das geheime Leben der Bäume’)
Documentary
Directors: Jörg Adolph, Jan Haft
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG
Release Date: Nov. 2, 2021 (United States)
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.