I thought we could build our nest high up in the trees.” We hear the voice of Franz Jägerstätter as the Alps soar into a blanket of clouds on-screen. Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer executed in 1943 for resisting the Nazis, lived and died in obscurity. In 2007, he was beatified, and is now the subject of Terrence Malick’s new film, A Hidden Life.
Since 2005, Malick’s films have been impressionistic, featuring non-linear plots, voiceovers, and almost exclusively natural light. A Hidden Life features similar lighting and attention to detail, but has a linear plot. Franz and Fani Jägerstätter live in Sankt Radegund, a village in Upper Austria, where they farm and raise their girls. Their life is close to nature and close to God. Again and again we are bathed in the warmth of hardwood walls and the cool green of misty mountains. We see the fibers of thick wool on sheep, the individual grains on stalks of wheat, water splashing down a mountain and through a wooden trough to a gristmill. Much of the film’s dialogue comes from the Jägerstätters’ letters, which have since been published. I expected the film to be the story of a man, but it was really the story of a marriage: a paean to the beauty of ordinary love and the children that are its fruit—a celebration of the goods of this world and a reminder that they are not enough.
A Hidden Life is also a powerful argument against the modern age. The Jägerstätters’ nest high above the trees is in many respects still part of the old world, on which modernity is ever encroaching. In Letters from Lake Como, the German theologian Romano Guardini revisited the Northern Italian land of his birth. That world, which the Jägerstätters shared, was a world of real culture, of “elevation above nature” due to man’s work, “yet decisive nearness to it.”
Guardini thought that through industrialization, that world of humanity was being replaced by one of inhumanity: “I saw machines invading the land that had previously been the home of culture. I saw death overtaking a life of infinite beauty, and I felt that this was not just an external loss that we could accept and remain who we were. Instead, a life, a life of supreme value that can arise only in the world that we have long since lost, was beginning to perish here.” Malick underscores the way that death is both technological and ideological. As the film progresses, the sound of the scythe is replaced by the sound of the locomotive. The traditional “Grüss Gott” gives way to “Heil Hitler.”
In the film, Franz is the only villager to refuse to contribute to the collection for the war effort (in real life, he was the only member of the town to vote against Germany’s annexation of Austria). The townspeople make arguments that he will hear again and again: His refusal to support the Nazi regime will have dire consequences for the town and his family. Surely he will be shot, and his death will benefit no one. His refusal is an act of pride, a presumption that he knows better than his civic and ecclesiastical superiors.
Franz’s bishop urges him to do his duty to the Fatherland, while his mayor is a good student of Carl Schmitt: You are worse than the Allies, he screams, because they are enemies, but you are a traitor. In due course, Franz is called up to fight, refuses to take the oath to Hitler, and is imprisoned. He offers to serve as a medic instead, but that request is denied.
As he sits in his cell, we hear him and Fani as they pray for the grace to bear their crosses. While Franz is in prison, his family has no one to assist with their work. They are shunned, even at the Corpus Christi procession. Franz writes that he has learned forgiveness and weakness in prison. Fani learns this, too, toiling in the fields with her sister, alone. Despite the distance between them, they remain united in their marriage, which the state cannot unbind until the fall of the guillotine’s blade. Before his execution, Fani and the village priest visit him. God doesn’t care what you say, the priest urges; say the oath and think what you like. His defense attorney agrees: “Sign the paper and you’ll go free.” “But I am free,” Franz replies.
Franz Jägerstätter is held up as a martyr of conscience, and his story calls to mind A Man for All Seasons. Like Thomas More, Franz died because he could not swear an oath. But More was one of the great minds of English history, Franz an unknown farmer from the mountains. Instead of complex justifications, he can only offer a simple knowledge of good and evil and an inability to compromise. Another difference: A Man for All Seasons focuses on More, the individual man of conscience. Malick places the marriage, not the man, at the center. The hidden life of the title is really the life of Franz and Fani together, the story of a husband and wife who suffer as one body even when they are apart.
Despite the betrayal of their clergy, their faith sustains them, even though they do not understand the purpose of their suffering. “When have our prayers not been answered?” Fani asks. “If we are faithful to him, he’ll be faithful to us.” The time will come when they will know what it all was for. Faith is woven into the fabric of the Jägerstätters’ life, as was common in Austria at the time. Theirs was a world in which three-foot crucifixes hung in homes and in shrines along mountain roads, a world of stopping in the fields to cross your children’s foreheads and pray the Angelus. And yet this Christ-saturated culture succumbed to evil. The problem of the Anschluss was less that the Nazis invaded and more that the Austrians welcomed them.
When he visits the bishop, Franz talks with a man painting in the baroque cathedral. The artist tells Franz that he only paints “comfortable Christs.” How could he paint what he hasn’t had the courage to live? But someday, he vows, I’ll paint the true Christ. After Martin Scorsese made Silence, Malick wrote him to ask, “What does Christ want from us?” A Hidden Life is, in part, Malick’s answer to that question: Christ wants us to paint a true Christ. Christ wants us to emulate the martyrs and remember them.
Malick makes Franz an alter Christus, mocked, beaten, and questioned by a Pilate-like judge. He took the film’s title from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
This is all the more so in the mystical body of Christ. The world’s conceit was that Jägerstätter’s life would remain hidden, that his death would bear no fruit. When we honor the martyrs and tell their stories, we give glory to God and make that boast a lie.
Nathaniel Peters is the executive director of the Morningside Institute.
Photo by Birne1967 via Creative Commons. Image cropped.