By a strange coincidence, I was halfway through reading my friend R. R. Reno’s Return of the Strong Gods when I went to see A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s new movie about the undertows of the Nazi period.
Reno’s book demonstrates how Western society rewrote its own programs in the wake of World War II to prevent a return to authoritarian rule. Reno cites a cross-sample of such contributions, from Karl Popper, Albert Camus, Friederich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others. He demonstrates how their writings dismantled a culture rooted in strong loyalties—to God, fatherland, nobility, heroism, Being, justice, home—and supplanted them with weak, therapeutic ideals such as diversity, tolerance, equality, and openness, all constructs that inspire nothing but self-interest. According to this postwar consensus, stable convictions and strong passions should be avoided. The West’s leadership class insisted that we be homeless, even as it sheltered itself.
This reminded me of Robert Bly’s line about the old father-organized society, where power exhibited itself in cockaded formal dress: “men in gold braid and wide epaulets getting out of elaborately decorated carriages at the top of high flights of stairs. The citizens look up. The king is there.” In so-called “authoritarian societies,” humanity looked up to strong gods: to the flag atop the flagpole, to the horizon, to the heavens. Nazism was merely a macabre pantomime of these societies, one in which clowns became tyrants and then mass murderers. But its legacy meant, inter alia, that the strong gods must be forgotten.
A Hidden Life portrays the deeper undercurrents of this battle. It is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an “ordinary” Austrian farmer who, called into national service by the Nazis during World War II, refused to swear the required oath to Adolf Hitler and was imprisoned and eventually executed. The title is from a line in 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.”
Franz lived with his wife Franziska (Fani) and three little daughters in the idyllic Austrian highlands “above the clouds.” Franz was a hardworking farmer. We see him lovingly tending his cattle, rhythmically scything the meadow, ploughing the hillsides, picking his potatoes. We see a man whose intelligence is bound up with that of the world itself—earth and sky, bark and clod—with which he strives for harmony and order. In his engagement with the physical world, we observe a different kind of intelligence—a kind that transcends words and concepts to achieve unity with the eternal kingdom.
Franz’s prevaricating about the morality of the war irritates his neighbors, most of whom call him a traitor. Each one, to use Sebastian Haffner’s phrase, becomes “the Gestapo of the others.” This syndrome afflicts especially the women, all of whose husbands are away in the war. Even family members—his mother, his wife’s sister—disagree with Franz. Fani’s sister asks her, “Why don’t you oppose him? Resist him?” Fani doesn’t reply. Her sister fills the vacuum: “You don’t know what unhappiness is.”
An artist who restores frescoes at the local church tells Franz: “I paint this comfortable Christ with a halo over his head.” He ponders how many of those who idly sit in the pews would have refused to participate in crucifying Christ. He does not even know how he himself would have acted, so cannot truly paint Christ’s suffering. “How can I paint what I haven’t lived?” He wishes he could paint the true Christ, the one who faced death alone. “Some day, maybe I’ll have the courage to do it.”
Franz visits his priest, who refers him to the bishop, who equivocates, afraid Franz may be a spy. A neighbor explains: “They don’t dare to commit themselves, or it could be their turn next.” To Franz the theology is clear. “I am convinced that it is still true that it is best that I speak the truth even if it costs me my life. For you will not find it written in any of the Commandments of God or of the Church that a man is obliged under pain of sin to take an oath committing him to obey whatever might be commanded of him by a secular ruler.”
In custody, every voice tempts him:
“He who created this world created evil. Conscience makes cowards of us all.”
“Take care, my friend, the antichrist is clever. He uses a man’s conscience to mislead him.”
No one will know of his sacrifice, he is told. It will make no difference. A fellow prisoner taunts him: “Your god has no pity. He has abandoned us, like he did his son, your Christ.” A lawyer, appointed to represent him, implies he is already compromised due to his mandatory work in the prison. “You shine their shoes. You fill their sandbags. Are you innocent?” Another lawyer places a piece of paper before him. If Franz signs it, recanting, the charges will be dropped. “Sign the paper,” the lawyer says, “then you’ll go free.” “But I am free,” replies Franz.
During Franz’s trial before a Nazi tribunal, the chief judge pauses the proceedings and asks to meet with him in his rooms. The judge, impressed by the man in front of him, appears to feel a moral weight. The judge asks him, “Have you the right to do this?” Franz replies, “Have I the right not to do it?”
The judge seeks to paint Franz’s argument as morally questionable. His place, he tells him, will simply be taken by someone else—someone who may lack Franz’s virtue. He leaves the thought unfinished, but his meaning is clear: Franz would bring his goodness to Hitler’s army, and as a soldier might be in a position to prevent suffering and barbarism. Then the judge asks a strange, ironic question: “Do you judge me?”
Franz replies that he does not judge anyone, that he understands that people can unintentionally become embroiled in evil in ways they did not foresee. That is why he has sought to maintain his position from the beginning. What Franz says reads as both potential insight into the judge’s life, and also an acknowledgement that he himself is at risk from the same drifts. It is as though he is saying that, once he has let go of the principle, there may be no subsequent point at which he can be certain of arresting his conscience’s collapse. The judge’s wizened face confirms that this description captures in some way his own journey and situation. After Franz is taken away, the judge sits in his chair in the posture of a defendant, as though their roles have been reversed in some higher court.
Recently, I heard an interview with August Diehl, who plays Franz in the movie. Asked about the significance of Franz’s religious beliefs in the film, Diehl hesitated. “I think it’s a big part of it, of course,” he said. “But I see not so much a believer, a Catholic, but much more a child . . . every child knows very well the difference between right and wrong. It’s not even discussable, to kill a person is something bad. . . . only adults can sit at a table and discuss whether it’s a good idea to kill a person.”
But this does not accurately describe the movie, nor does it capture the way Diehl himself plays Franz. It is clear that Franz is a man of profound Christian certainty. A child might well, as Diehl says, adopt the same position, embark upon a comparable path. But it is unlikely that a child could single-mindedly reject evil to the point of his own death, to the point of saying goodbye to his parents and siblings. Franz held firm to his resolve to the final moment—through the final goodbyes to his beloved wife, in a heart-stopping letter to his three daughters. Only through the belief in a concrete higher place could he have done this, and not a flicker of Diehl’s wondrous performance says otherwise.
Franz does not appear to act on the basis of a dogmatic belief, a rule or a simple sense of right and wrong. Franz acts because he knows that what he is being asked to do would be out of harmony with the world as he has come to know it, as he has worked it, as he has loved and been loved in it by his family and his Creator. He has no sense of his own heroism. He writes to his wife from prison: “When I compare my suffering to that of others, I see that mine is the smallest of crosses.” He looks up: He senses his involvement in a higher dialogue in which he suspends his personal preferences, waiting for a deeper certainty to settle upon him. We watch him alive not only in this world but also in a higher one, and in that freest of spaces he has access to a different sense of justice, time, and purpose. He lives within the Truth, and from this gains a certainty that not only enables him to face this horror as a human being, but also to transcend it. The greatest force he comes up against is his love of his wife and children, and only his knowledge of a greater and more permanent love, which includes them also, enables him to endure the fear of losing that.
A Hidden Life’s themes are timely for a world often unable to differentiate between the nature of tyranny and the nature of quite different contemporary movements. In Nazism an ostensibly civilized nation ended up backing the most barbaric regime the world had ever seen. In a parody of logic, many commentators compare Nazi Germany to populist Italy, Brexit, and Trump. But today, the potential for tyranny emanates overwhelmingly from liberal silencing, cancelling, smearing, manipulation of information, and groupthink. It is not the strong gods, but their debased versions (like Nazism) that lead to tyranny—and the weak concepts of social coexistence that replace them often lead to tyranny as well. In a rightly ordered culture, the strong gods are subject to the strongest of all. A Hidden Life shows that, from the perspective of the human heart, all the perverse strong gods can at any moment be overcome by reaching out to the supreme God, the Most High, Jesus Christ.
John Waters is an Irish writer and commentator, the author of ten books, and a playwright.