It’s rare to find a film that chooses a modest but thought-provoking story and stays true to that commitment for a full 3-hour feature film. Trusting in the ability of its audience to see the value of the tale it wishes to tell despite the ethereal nature of the spiritual adventure it portrays. In 2019, though, the film “A Hidden Life” was bold enough to do this. The focus of this tale is the life of an Austrian farmer who conscientiously objects to fighting for Hitler in World War II. The consequence, he is imprisoned and later killed. His wife and children left behind to fend for themselves and utterly rejected by the community in which they live. A story of the great sacrifice that the truth can ask of us and the people who rise to that challenge. Perhaps the most astonishing thing about this story is that it is true. Franz Jägerstätter, was the name of the faithful catholic farmer who was later declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 (more can be found here).
The film explores many important Catholic ideas throughout. Most explicitly is of course that of duty, obedience and conscience. Early on in the film we see after Franz has done his initial military training in the army his conscience begins to draw attention to him the reality of the Nazi regime. While visiting his small church in the Austrian Alps where he lives, he is drawn deeper into the mystery of the incarnation of Christ and the implications of his death upon the cross. The Cross of Christ sticks out to Franz and constantly reminds him of his duty to obey his conscience and ultimately God. At this stage in the film he has struggled to find support and guidance in the church. Both his local priest and his bishop have reluctantly told him that he must obey the state but even then it seems unclear as to the right path forward. The Catholic Church in Germany had of course already condemned the Nazi party multiple times by this stage. The clearest example of this was the unprecedented encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” written in German condemning Hitler and the Nazi party. Encyclicals released by the Popes’ are ordinarily written in Latin and so this is the only case in history in which an encyclical was first written in a foreign language. This was done so that the letter could be released quickly and read in all German churches to try and combat Hitler and the Nazi parties’ egregious attacks on the human person. That said things weren’t always clear cut. The priests often had little power and the government had the capacity to seize control of churches by force. Stuck between a rock and a hard place many priests struggled to know what was the correct way to act. To try and resist in secret, to take a public stand or to help people see the error of their ways by drawing them back into the faith through the sacraments.
While this aspect of the official Catholic resistance to the Nazi’s is not present in this film we do see the work of the Church through the holy spirt in the resistance of Catholics like Franz. Despite everything around him appearing to push him towards accepting the Nazi’s and supporting them. He continues to resist. His conscience being prompted by the presence of the church, particularly through its art and iconography. He sees the sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross. A death in obedience for the sake of love. Guided by the holy spirit Franz continues to resist.
The director Terrence Malick cleverly induces in the audience the growing tensions that exists in the mind of Franz and his family by early on making very clear to us what the consequence of Franz’s disobedience will be. In so doing, he creates a sense of inevitability
about the oncoming terrors and tribulations. Combining this with the beautifully haunting music of Avro Pärt and Henryk Górecki to amplify this sense of the inevitable and add a growing sorrowful aftertaste to the sweet things Franz currently enjoys and is soon to never experience again.
Malick’s use of silence and space helps to open up the moments of peace that one ordinarily feels in the natural open-air spaces that Franz inhabits to the piercing sounds of Arvo Pärt’s and Górecki’s music. Even when the music is no longer playing it’s ghost remains and there is a constant sense of the evil that awaits Franz pressing down on him incessantly. The natural life that once guided and sustained Franz now seems to be transformed into a cruel companion failing to comfort or console him. Here the Cinematography plays an excellent role in growing this feeling. The dull and dreary pallet of the film darkens the character of the beautiful natural environment. Yet at certain key moments this darkened pallet is broken through with light. Moments of hope and grace are coloured with this light and brightness granting the viewer with the sense of relief and consolation that Franz is given by the grace of God.
As the film progresses, the world around Franz appears to fade away and the inevitable persecution that he is to face draws nearer. His interior life grows more and more. The films title “A Hidden Life” plays on the double meaning of these words. Representing both his hidden sacrifice by dying out of the limelight and unknown but also representing the truth of the great life that lived within Franz. That hidden life which those around him struggled to see.
After Franz has now been arrested, he is thrown into jail where he awaits his inevitable execution. During this time he faces some of his greatest trials. His body fails him, his mind is tempted. What is it in Franz that allows him to stay true to what is good? Here we see the working of God’s grace. The indwelling of his holy spirit in Franz which builds upon what is found there naturally. We see in the final act of the film how God’s grace works in Franz through those natural experiences and desires that he has by purifying them and growing them into something that transcends them.
Malick portrays this through dreamlike visions. While locked in his cell, Franz seems to be almost mysteriously transported back to the great expanses of his homeland. One of these religious experiences occurs as he is being beaten by a guard in the prison. We find after experiencing the beatings quite literally through the eyes of Franz with a clever use of a point of view shot. We awaken in the arms of Franz’s beloved wife. We see her tenderly caring for him and sustaining him. While they may be apart physically, they are brought together through the natural bond as husband and wife which is seen in a supernatural way through their faith. The love that they have for each other is not just a natural one now but can be seen to be supernatural through the pure spiritual love that they have for each other. A love that mirrors the love of Christ for his church. When he is no longer physically near, she still longs for him. Even though supporting him means encouraging him to pursue a decision that will lead to suffering. She helps him and encourages him because she knows he is doing it for the sake of the good. She truly wills his good and desires his sanctification through the union with that good.
Here I think the film did a fantastic job of both recognizing and exploring the incredible and heroic work of Franz’s wife. It was in fact his wife who brought him closer to God and the Catholic Church in the first place. Earlier in Franz’s life, in a time before what is shown in the film, Franz was a bit of an unruly man and was in fact the first in his village to own a motorcycle. After marring his wife Franziska, he grew in his faith under her encouragement. We see throughout the film her devotion and love of God is revealed in supporting Franz through his trials. While Fani wishes that he escape all harm she accepts and supports his decision to give everything for God. The final act of the film shows how she suffers for the sake of Franz. Labouring in the fields without him. Raising the children and trying her best to fill the gap that lies in their family now. Praying for him and the strength he needs to endure these trials.
These visions show the natural experiences and relations that Franz and Fani have for each other which have now been elevated through the indwelling of God’s grace. This is emphasised by the contrast between these visions set in the great hills of the alps and the confined environment that Franz finds himself in. In these visions we see the natural has now become supernatural by virtue of God growing it and sustaining it where it should not be found.
The final vision that Franz has as he waits for his death. Is him riding his motorbike through the hills as his wife speaks to him. The sound of wind and the soft music is all that can be heard. The light once again reappears and leads Franz in his final moments to commit himself wholly to God. Sustained by those prayers of his wife. The motorbike itself perhaps hinting at the work that God’s grace has done in changing that unruly life into a powerful fire that could be a source of light in this darkness and sustain him. Now in Franz’s life this motorbike shows the freedom and great desire that Franz has as he races towards the light of Christ.
Just as has occurred before during the beating of Franz. Malick shows us being brought into the room to be guillotined with a free moving camera giving us the same visual experience of Franz as he went to his death. Malick wishes for us to experience martyrdom with Franz.
The camera cuts to black and then the sound of water fades in as a river is revealed. A reminder of the waters of baptism in which we die to sin and are reborn in Christ. Now through the baptism of blood we see a natural image to remined us that Franz has been baptised and reborn in Christ. The camera cuts to a man from Franz’s village who walks into the church to ring the church bells telling of his death. Everyone including one of the Nazi officers take their hats off in remembrance. As the camera fades out from this scene. It leaves us with an image of the church bell clapper swinging but no longer hitting the bell.
The film is not yet done. For through marriage two have become one and so the story is not yet over. The final moments of the film show Fani working on the farm. A tenderness and softness fills these scenes. Fani speaks her final words. A testament to the hope within her.
“A time will come when we will know what all of this is for. And there will be no mysteries. We will know why we live. We’ll come together. We’ll plant orchards, Fields. We’ll build the land back up. Franz. I’ll meet you there. In the mountains.”
She speaks of the hope of the life that is to come and her hope in the risen Christ. She shows that the sacrifice that Franz has made makes clear a radical choice that all of us must make. Without faith the death of Franz is the end. The film refuses to end at his death though. It shows the faith of his wife and shows us how Franz’s life is not the end but only the beginning. The ending shots of beautiful nature direct us towards that hope of the life to come. Showing us the beauty of God’s creation and his goodness. That all the unnatural and grotesque things we have seen before are privations of this. There will be a time when all will be revealed. God’s grace will elevate all that exists in creation to it’s proper place with him; and the faithful shall rejoice.
The film ends with a quote from the final lines of George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch. Itself inspired by Colossians 3:3.
“… for the growing good of the world is partly dependant on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owning to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
These final words sit with us giving expression to the core of the entire film. It leaves us reflecting on the goodness that exists in our life that has been brought forth by those good and humble men and women who faithfully sought the goodness of God. Those many uncanonised saints that in allowing the Holy spirit to work through them brought God’s goodness into the world for the sake of others. They remain unrewarded in this life yet sit in eternal glory in the life to come.
There are many other great moments in this film and interesting themes that I have sadly not even had a chance to touch upon in this short piece so I highly recommend you watch the film for yourself if you have yet to see it. While the story may seem dark. It acts as an excellent contemporary memento mori which draws us more seriously into questions about life and death, hope and despair and many other essential but often neglected questions which are foundational to understanding our humanity. A tough film but well worth the work and perhaps especially appropriate during this Lenten season.
Franz Jägerstätter pray for us!
(If you enjoyed this piece you may also be interested in our review of the film "The Mission" which similarly explores martyrdom and sacrifice)