Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life has elicited strong reactions throughout the Catholic (and non-Catholic) media. Franz Jägerstätter’s example of heroic self-sacrifice in the face of great personal risk has inspired many as a necessary antidote to our self-seeking age. TAC readers are encouraged to seek out Chris Byrd’s review of the film in our January/February 2020 issue. To continue the discussion, we offer further reflections from our contributor Robert C. Broker—Ed.
My daughter once commented on years of parish sermons, “Why don’t they say something?” Well, Terrence Malick certainly “said something” with his film about Austrian martyr Franz Jägerstätter, A Hidden Life. I must admit that “saying something” in a movie is a stretch, as I am hard of hearing and dependent on reading the text off the theatre caption wand. Irrespective of this, the film was an experience that tied me to my seat awaiting its foregone conclusion.
For decades, Franz Jägerstätter wandered in and out of Catholic periodicals, catching my fleeting attention. He seemed a lonely cause for beatification, being a married man and neither a bishop nor a founder of a religious society. More well-known were the actions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the evangelical Lutheran theologian and pastor who faced imprisonment and execution in Germany in 1944. Who was this Catholic layman, and who brought him forward for beatification? I looked to Terrence Malick’s cinematic vision to become acquainted with Franz’s story.
Malick shoots A Hidden Life in panoramic, widescreen color, with stunning views of the Alpine mountains. The camera lingers on natural images of the higher peaks, along the green, rocky slopes, and within the dark waters flowing richly along their ancient beds. As such, the film effects a dynamic contrast between the Garden of Eden and the conundrums of Adam, Eve, and their fallen human progeny right down to our time. We are immersed in a multihued landscape contrasted with the black-and-white characters of an intrepid empirical machine.
Franz works the hillside fields with his wife, Franziska, as they rhythmically cut the grass with scythes that needed repetitious sharpening. (There was little automation along these steep hills in the late 1930s.) The husband and wife become a chorus of cooperation as they earn their daily bread with their labor, slowed only by the bells of the parish church tower tolling the daily angelus.
We see Franz loving and laboring during those tense years as Germany unites around Adolph Hitler in 1933, when wars and rumors of wars pressed Austria, still a neutral nation. Then in 1939, Franz feels the fall of the ax as Austria capitulates to Hitler’s demands and Franz becomes wrapped in a new sociopolitical reality.
Is Franz Adam’s son, to be taken down by a human brother? Only a quiet commitment to an old faith sustains him. There are no political compatriots to press the resistance, no comrades in arms, no escape. There is no mother, no priest, no bishop to support his religious commitment to oppose Adolph Hitler. Franz carries within himself the awareness that he might be “called up” to military service.
The letter comes. He obeys the call. Will he swear the required oath to Adolph Hitler? Abruptly, the green-blue background turns to black and white. The German, or possibly Austrian, officers bear all the refinement of civilized men as immaculately dressed officials of the Nazi state. They work through precise legal processes and trials backed up by exacting recordkeeping as they try to move this misguided son of a mistaken Christian commitment off his course.
All the while Franz remains alone. He refuses to take the oath. Harsh prison life fails to yield repentance. The judgement comes. The execution occurs. The morality play ends. The viewer may be unsettled, inspired, or angered. Indeed, Terrence Malick’s film “says something” about the cost of moral choices—choices that received belated recognition in the form of Franz’s beatification.
Weaned on nuclear weapons and the Catholic Worker, Robert Broker has been a promoter of justice in El Salvador, an opponent of the First Gulf War, a proponent of wind energy, and an advocate for people with hearing loss. He lives with his wife, Carol, in Hingham, Massachusetts.