SDG Reviews ‘A Hidden Life’: A Cinematic Hymn of Love and Martyrdom

The life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter offers cinematic giant Terrence Malick his most fruitful challenge in years.

(photo: Fox Searchlight)

The human body, in the anthropology of Pope St. John Paul II, reveals the human person’s vocation to love, to gift of self. This applies, the Pope says, even to the representation of the human body in art. (The topic of art and the body is addressed in a number of the “theology of the body” audiences.)

That may be true — for those with eyes to see. Those with different eyes may see other things.

Few people, carrying scarecrow-like straw dummies at a military base, would playfully hold one over another for an imaginary kiss. Yet the dummies are representations of the human body — and, while they bear only the rudest resemblance to the real thing, there is a non-accidental emotional implication to their form and function.

To charge another human being and drive the point of a bayonet into human flesh requires, typically, a process of desensitizing. Trainees are meant to look at a straw dummy and see an enemy to be killed. But how can one see that when he has already seen in that dummy a fellow human being made for love?

An ecstatic, anguished three-hour cinematic hymn, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life sings the life and death of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter in asymmetrical binary form, in contrasting theologies — theology and anti-theology — of the body.

This means that, like his celebrated The Tree of Life and The New World, among others, A Hidden Life is another reworking of Malick’s signature theme of paradise lost. But such a paradise, and such a loss!

An Austrian conscientious objector executed in 1943 for refusing the soldier’s oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, Jägerstätter was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

The central conflict evokes such dramas of conscience and martyrdom as A Man for All Seasons and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. Like More, Jägerstätter’s essential dilemma was that he would not swear an oath contrary to his beliefs. (As a prisoner we see him vainly urged, as the imprisoned More was urged by his daughter Meg, to say the words of the oath while thinking otherwise in his heart.) And, like Scholl, Jägerstätter was a devout Christian whose resistance to the Nazi horror resulted in his execution by guillotine in 1943.

Yet A Man for All Seasons and Sophie Scholl are cerebral dramas of dueling words, focused from the outset on their moral conflicts. A Hidden Life is a visually lyrical ode to bodies and the worlds they inhabit.

Among our first glimpses of Franz (August Diehl) and his wife, Fani (Austrian actress Valerie Pachner), are their hands and knees side by side in the soil of their farm in the village of St. Radegund in Upper Austria, covering potatoes with earth, hands and arms working together, almost as one body.

Throughout the first act their bodies orbit one another, coming together often in clinging arms and caressing hands. Work, play and rest are the stuff of this life; there is nothing else, except reflection and memory. This is Malick’s paradise at its purest: man and woman in the garden, as it was meant to be.

“I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees — fly away like birds” are the words of Franz’s opening voice-over, capturing in one line both the loss and the paradise.

“How simple life was then … it seemed no trouble could reach our valley,” Fani replies not long after. “We lived high above the clouds.”

Indeed, clouds blanket the lushly forested mountain slopes around their village. A tiered horsetail waterfall tumbles down a rugged cliff wall. A stream churns placidly over rocks. Swelling grassy slopes stretch to distant jagged mountains. If there is paradise on earth, this is a compelling realization of it.

Yet the very first images we see (in pointed contrast to Franz’s opening words over a dark screen) are black-and-white aerial footage that begins above the clouds before descending over the medieval city of Nuremberg, where a Nazi party rally is underway: images from Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous, iconic 1935 propaganda film The Triumph of the Will.

From the outset, Malick establishes that any paradise in this fallen world — even above the clouds — is provisional and qualified.

The early scenes in St. Radegund depict life as liturgy: holy moments in a holy narrative, a sacred story that Franz and Fani tell to one another, beginning with the details of the day they met (Franz the wild one with his motorcycle, Fani shy in her best blue dress, knowing he would be the one).

The household includes Franz’s mother (Karin Neuhäuser), Fani’s sister (Maria Simon) and the couple’s three young daughters. When they aren’t threshing wheat or gathering firewood, there is playful tossing of hay or splashing of water at one another. Franz and Fani play blind man’s buff and other games with the girls and lie together often in the grass.

There are no mundane conversations about daily events, though when Franz is called up to basic training at the Enns military base Fani’s letters keep him up to date on such matters as the buying of piglets and the behavior of their daughters. (Even these details — “We burned the bad weeds” — are potentially fraught with liturgical, parabolic significance.)

After the surrender of France, Franz is returned to farming, where he hopes the Third Reich will continue to consider him of greater service than in uniform. (Diehl played Nazi antagonists in the also very Catholic WWII film The Ninth Day as well as Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist fantasy Inglourious Basterds.)

Yet St. Radegund is no longer the refuge Franz remembers. The mayor rants drunkenly in public about foreigners and lesser races. Neighbors greet him in passing with “Heil Hitler.” To Franz, this is the spirit of Antichrist; he sees National Socialism as a train he once dreamed about barreling toward hell, a train one must jump from whatever the cost.

Worse, he is dispiritingly aware that those who fight have the support of the clergy. His own parish priest (Tobias Moretti) advises him to consider the consequences of his resistance. (Malick’s screenplay notes that the prior pastor was jailed for preaching an anti-Nazi sermon.) When he goes to see the bishop (Michael Nyqvist), Franz is told that he owes obedience to civil authorities.

The story of Jägerstätter’s hidden life was brought to wide attention by the Catholic sociologist Gordon Zahn, whose pioneering 1962 book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars made the case that the Catholic Church in Germany largely enabled and supported the Nazi regime.

It was while researching that book that Zahn encountered Jägerstätter’s story and published it in 1964 under the title In Solitary Witness. Thomas Merton then devoted a chapter to Jägerstätter in his 1968 book Faith and Violence. This attention paved the way for Jägerstätter’s cultus and his beatification by a pope who as a boy sometimes took Sunday walks with his mother to St. Radegund.

Yet when Franz is eventually called up again in 1943 and his defiance leads to arrest, abuse and increasingly dire peril, he has no reason to think his actions will ever make the slightest difference to anyone but the family from whom he has been taken. Indeed, over and over both allies and opponents point out, reasonably enough, that his defiance will change nothing.

Thomas More was an eminent public figure whose very silence spoke volumes. Sophie Scholl and her fellow White Rose conspirators believed, with tragic miscalculation, that their trial would spark riots. Franz has no reason to think that even his neighbors at St. Radegund will ever think of him as anything but a misguided traitor (and, indeed, for decades after the war, that is precisely how he was remembered).

In prison Franz and other prisoners are abused and tortured with idle torments and random cruelties — manifestations of the Nazi anti-theology of the body, of the spirit of Antichrist.

A prisoner is forced to stand endlessly in the prison yard, his shoes dusted with white powder. If the powder is disturbed by shifting feet, he will be beaten with truncheons.

One guard forces Franz repeatedly to sit down on a chair, knowing that the chair will be pulled away at the last moment. Another guard, incensed that Franz has dared to call him “brother,” menaces him in his cell, gloating that he can do whatever he likes to Franz and no one will know or care.

Here, again, the assumption is that, as with Franz’s sacrifice, what goes unnoticed lacks moral significance. Malick’s thesis comes in a closing title from a quotation from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch which proposes that

the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistorical 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 doubtless true, though it could be questioned whether Jägerstätter’s life illustrates this principle. If his heroic example has made the world a better place, is it not precisely because, against all odds, his life did not remain hidden, as this film’s existence now attests? Did his defiance make anything better while it remained in obscurity?

Who can say? A Hidden Life doesn’t gloss over ambiguity and ostensible grounds for despair. “Have the meek inherited the earth?” a fellow prisoner goads Franz. “How far we are from having our daily bread! How far from being delivered from evil! If we could only see the beginning of his Kingdom … but nothing. Ever.”

Indeed, for that prisoner it seems God sent his Son to no avail; Christianity is “20 centuries of failure” in his eyes. “We need a successful saint,” he adds.

If so, Franz is not that saint. He is just another failure, a man taken too early from his wife and from children who grew up with a photograph instead of a father.

His passion is also Fani’s, who endures the contempt and indifference of the community. Even Franz’s mother turns on Fani, at least initially, blaming her for her son’s peril. “He was different before he met you,” she accuses. (Franz’s religious fervor was indeed much influenced by his pious wife.)

For his usual contemplative voice-over, Malick draws significantly from Franz and Fani Jägerstätter’s letters to one another, lending human authenticity to the roles and grounding the drama in their relationship even when they are apart.

The film movingly portrays Franz and Fani’s faith challenged and tested, yet deepening in the process. What is perhaps at first naive confidence that those who are faithful to God will enjoy his protection yields to misgivings, disappointment, desperation, fear, anguish, anger — yet also a growing acceptance that even this can be entrusted to God and that he will make all things new.

Glimpses of grace in extremis are a comfort. Though struggling with the farm in Franz’s absence, Fani offers kindness to neighbors in need, and occasionally this kindness comes back to her.

Malick is a cinematic giant, but the increasing narrative fragmentation of his most recent work has alienated even many devotees. I’ve sometimes wished, on the other hand, he would dispense with narrative entirely, at least for one film.

Yet Jägerstätter’s story poses for him an ideal narrative and thematic challenge — to my mind, the most fruitful he has taken up in over 20 years. I am awed by parts of The New World, The Tree of Life and To The Wonder; A Hidden Life overwhelms me in its totality.

In a thematically telling sequence, while serving as sexton in the village church, Franz assists a painter working on holy images on the walls.

“I paint the tombs of the prophets,” the painter says, a pointed allusion to Matthew 23:29-31, in which Jesus indicts the scribes and Pharisees who “build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’”

In just that way, the painter explains, he gives parishioners in their pews comforting images to look up at, taking for granted that, had they lived in Christ’s day, they would not have called for his crucifixion.

“What we do is just create sympathy, create admirers,” he says. “We don’t create followers.” Lamenting the lack of suffering in his artwork, the painter concludes that someday he will find the courage to “paint the true Christ.”

These words evoke not only the passion theme of the current film, but also Malick’s next project, a Jesus movie called The Last Planet. (Shooting has just wrapped and Malick is now embarking on what will probably be at least a year of editing.)

If the painter’s speech cross-examines Malick’s own work, it also indicts the audience in the theater or on the living-room couch — we who admire and sympathize with Franz and Fani, telling ourselves that, had we lived in St. Radegund, we would not have gone along with the pro-Nazi majority. We would join Franz and Fani in jumping from the train bound for hell.

We would have been abolitionists in 1850. We would have opposed Jim Crow and stood for civil rights in 1950.

Today, above all, we are not the ones of whom future generations, looking back at our time, will say, “I would not have gone along with them.” The religious and civil leaders we look to do not lead us, as past generations at times were led, in the spirit of Antichrist.

Are we sure?

Deacon Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic and creator of Decent Films
He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Newark, New Jersey.


Caveat Spectator: Violence and menace; thematic content. Fine for mature teens.