The Miracle Of ‘A Hidden Life’
I went this afternoon to New Orleans to see Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, about the struggle of Austrian peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic imprisoned and executed by the Nazis because he refused to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. The film finally arrived within driving distance of me in Baton Rouge, and fearing that it wouldn’t be here long, I drove with a couple of Christian friends to watch it this afternoon.
I am hesitant to write about it now, because the movie is overwhelming. It’s without question a masterpiece, one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen, and to my mind, the best evocation of the Gospel ever committed to film. Nothing else even comes close — not The Passion Of The Christ, nor The Gospel According To St. Matthew, nor Of Gods And Men. All of them are great films, and great Christian films, but this one is in a class of its own.
I would say to people who have decided that they know all they need to know about Christianity, and have rejected it: see this movie. It is a perfect example of what Cardinal Ratzinger meant when he said that the greatest arguments for the Christian faith are the art that comes out of it, and the saints. In this case, it’s art about a saint.
I would say to Christians who think they know all about Christianity: see this movie. There is a moment in the film when Franz stops by the village church and falls into conversation with an older man who is painting frescoes and other images of Bible stories on the church walls. “We create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.”
A Hidden Life points to Christians, and forces us to ask: Am I an admirer of Christ, or a follower?
The old artist also says that an even darker day is coming when men won’t even fight against the truth — they’ll just ignore it. That seems to me to be Malick’s commentary on his own time. That movie line brought to mind the words I heard over and over in my travels through the Soviet bloc last year, for my next book: that the one thing that was better about the Communist times was that the line between good and evil was easier to perceive. As a Slovak priest said, “In those days, the Gospel shone like a light in the darkness. Today, it only hits fog.”
It’s no doubt the case that the people of Saint Radegund, the tiny Alpine village where Franz and his wife Fani work their farm, all would have counted themselves followers of Christ. And then came Antichrist — Adolf Hitler. Malick opens his film with footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s terrifying Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will, which portrays Hitler as a god of a new pagan Germanic religion. When this movie opens, Hitler and Hitlerism seem so very far away from the picture-postcard mountain village. The opening scene of the Riefenstahl film is a shot taken from the plane bearing the Hitler to the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg. The idea is that he descends from the skies like a god come to earth. The sound of a plane flying overhead in Saint Radegund signals that the serpent has invaded the garden. Before you know it, though, the locals are inebriated by Nazism and race hatred.
Franz concludes that he cannot do as all German soldiers must, and swear a loyalty oath to Hitler. To him, that would be bowing down before a false idol. Though he believes the war is unjust, Franz is not a pacifist. For this Catholic peasant, this is primarily a matter of not cooperating with evil. Franz goes to his parish priest for support, but the priest tells him he would be better off not bringing trouble onto his home, where he lives with his wife, his three little girls, and his widowed mother. He goes to the bishop for advice, but the bishop tells Franz that “the Church” tells him he has a duty to the Fatherland. On the way out, Franz concludes that the bishop is scared. Later, we hear it said — maybe by Franz, I can’t remember — that the Catholic leadership is hoping that their silence will keep the Nazis off their back. But that’s not so, because already, says one character, the Nazis are killing and imprisoning priests.
This film is a parable about the meaning of suffering. Though the narrative is fairly straightforward (nothing like the wildly disjoined Malick film Knight Of Cups), its meant to be watched less as filmed drama than to be read like an icon that moves. The real drama here is interior, and symbolic. I’ve read some complaints by reviewers that the village is too idyllic, for example. This, I think, misses Malick’s point. He is not trying to accurately recreate Nazi-era Saint Radegund; he is trying to tell a story about what happens when radical evil intrudes into one’s peaceful, well-ordered life, and takes it over.
A Hidden Life is powerfully affecting in its depiction of the confusion Franz and Fani (because this is her story as much as his) live through in those days. They’re simple country people. Suddenly, the people that they’ve lived with all their lives have either given themselves over to Hitler, or are cowed into silence. The villagers turn on them. The official Church is no sure guide. There are no sources of alternative narratives to Nazi nationalism. They only have God and each other. How do you think you would do if everybody you knew and loved (aside from your spouse) turned against you as a traitor, a fool, or both? Would you be able to see clearly through that fog? Really?
Franz is not called up to service because he has a farmer’s deferment, but eventually he is drafted — and that’s where his road to Golgotha begins. Someone warns Franz about interrogation: “Be careful. Antichrist is clever. He will use your virtues against you.” Early in the film, in this scene, Franz approaches his parish priest to tell him that he cannot serve in the army. The priest tries to dissuade him, telling Franz, “Think of your family,” and saying that his self-sacrifice won’t matter in the grand scheme of things. These two arguments come up later in the mouths of interrogators and Franz’s lawyer, along with the accusation that he is prideful. Franz’s humility and love for his family really are his weak spots. If his potential sacrifice will not stop the war, or even be noticed by anybody, and it will bring potential ruin to his wife and children, why do it? His lawyer says he could probably manage to get him a job as an orderly in a military hospital to fulfill his service duties, so he doesn’t have to shoot anybody, and could go home alive after the war.
Franz won’t compromise at all. There is no earthly rationale for his behavior.
There is only one reason: his love of Christ, and the faith that it is better to die than to betray Him by yielding to evil. Malick’s framing Franz’s choice as between Christ and Antichrist is exactly correct for the religious message of the film. Again, Franz is a simple man. He doesn’t know political theory. But he knows the devil when he sees him.
Take a look at this clip; this is the kind of temptation an incarcerated Franz faces:
Here is a clip that sets the scene for the idyllic word in which they lived, far away from the world:
Still, the Nazis found them. You might say, “Ah ha, you see? Those Christians didn’t have to head for the hills to get away from the Nazis; they already lived in the hills — but the Nazis got to them anyway. So much for the Benedict Option!”
To which I patiently respond: “The Benedict Option was never about finding or building a place where the world’s evil can’t penetrate. The Benedict Option is about building a way of life such that when the world’s evil comes to town, you will have made a habit of the piety and courage it takes to be Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. When the time of testing comes, you will find out if you are an admirer or a follower. Pastors, teachers, parents: are we making Christ-admirers or Christ-followers of our Christian students? How about of ourselves?
There’s a lot more to say about the movie, but I’m very sleepy. Real quick, though, I want to say something about an unkind review of A Hidden Life that’s been on my mind since I read it, but that I didn’t want to reference until I’d seen the film. It’s this one by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody.
A heck of a lot of the picture passed right over Brody’s head. Why? He’s a smart critic. I think for two reasons. First, the film is deeply Christian in its words, its gestures, and its framing. If you don’t know who the Antichrist is in the Bible, then you will miss that the core of the conflict between Franz and Hitler is religious. We are watching two gods fighting over Franz’s soul. And, if you aren’t aware that Christianity historically teaches that suffering for the sake of Christ is redemptive in the next life, then you will puzzle over why Franz suffers, even if there is no effective protest his suffering might make. Brody, I think, is as clueless as the Germans and Austrians in the movie who try to talk him out of it by saying that he would be dying for no reason, because nobody would see it.
But God would see it, and that’s what counts.
Brody seems to believe that A Hidden Life is a Nazi movie. It’s not. It’s a movie about the meaning of suffering, especially religious suffering. The final scenes are like no other I’ve seen in film. They are eschatological, and they are a preview of paradise.
Do go see this movie. It will be out on DVD soon enough, but you really want to see it on the big screen.
Oh, one more thing: why does this simple farmer do the right thing, but no others do. What was it about him that made that happen? He lived a pious life, but there’s something else going on there. Malick leaves it mostly a mystery, just as the reason why God allowed him to suffer and die is a mystery. Fani accepts that, and looks forward to the day when all will be known. We don’t know who are the sheep and the goats, the followers and the admirers, until we are all put to the test.