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On Not Getting Malick’s Masterpiece

Failure to understand the language of 'A Hidden Life' is sign of a darkening time
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Last night I saw Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, about the anti-Nazi Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter, and as you can see from my initial remarks, I was blown away by the movie, which I consider to be a miracle, and the finest evocation of the Gospel ever committed to film.

The more I think about it, the more frustrated I am by the inability of many secular critics to understand the film. I am not saying “like” the movie; I’m talking about simply understanding what Malick is trying to say here. It’s perfectly fine to dislike a film, even as you understand clearly what the filmmaker is saying. I’m saying that Malick is speaking a language that modern people in this post-Christian culture simply do not understand (and I am including some Christians in this complaint too). There is a profound lesson in this for all of us. Bear with me here.

There are quite a few such reviews, but I’m going to let Peter Travers’s negative take in Rolling Stone stand for all of them, as his take is in line with most other negative reviews. Excerpts:

Cue the storm clouds and the Nazis who, in 1940, demand that all able-bodied Austrian men must join the war effort and take an oath of loyalty to Hitler. The village mayor (Jürgen Prochnow) drinks the Kool Aid. Franz is not so sure, but reports to military training as directed. Still, when the time comes to go to war, our hero resists on moral grounds and is hauled off to prison. Meanwhile, his wife and children are treated as pariahs in the village. You’ll wait in vain for the moment when Franz, the good Christian, explains himself. Malick, always stingy with dialogue, simply observes as the character holds to his principles and everyone from the local bishop (Michael Nyqvist) to a pair of oddly sympathetic Nazis, (Matthias Schoenaerts and the late Bruno Ganz), urge him to sign the oath that will free him at the cost of his conscience.

The real Jäggerstätter was beatified as a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, but the role as conceived by Malick gives the willing and able Diehl very little to help us understand the man behind the saint. And the sweeping, suitable-for-framing vistas provided by cinematographer Jorg Widmer only add to the frustration. Malick has created a war film without a single scene of war, of Jewish persecution, of the thought process that helped Franz hold steadfast. It’s one thing to fashion a film about one man’s blind faith; it’s another to keep audiences in the dark about the fundamentals that made him human.

To be fair to Travers, I think more than a few Christians would come away with the same general take. And, to be honest, this is a genuine problem with Malick’s film: it is not widely accessible to a post-Christian audience — including post-Christian Christians.

Here’s what I mean. Malick is an extraordinary poet of cinema, and like the best poets, he calls his reader out of himself in an attempt to understand his art. Watching a Malick movie is not an easy experience, in which everything is explained for the viewer. That is not to say that his meaning is obscure! It’s only that it is buried deep within mystery, and can only be experienced indirectly, sacramentally. You never once hear the word “Jesus” in this film — yet Christ saturates this picture! There is not an altar call, nor is there a straightforward apologetic explanation from Franz of “this is why I am doing what I’m doing” — yet every word and every image conveys the message to those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

But we are deaf and we are blind. I say that not as a criticism (except of Christian viewers), but as a descriptive observation. For example, when the Austrian villagers are working their wheat fields together, there is a moment in which one of the outcasts, Fani’s sister, stands among them winnowing grain with a basket — that is, separating the useful part of the wheat from the worthless bits. To the eyes of a Peter Travers, this is just one more picturesque, pointless digression: oh look, one more boring shot of peasants at labor. But a Christian formed by the Bible will see this and instantly be reminded of Matthew 3:12, the word of John the Baptist at the River Jordan, before Jesus presents himself to be baptized:  

“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

This was the prophet’s description of what the coming Christ will do: sort the good from the evil. And this is what the drama taking place in that village is doing too: the reaction of the Christian people of that town to the evil of Nazism is testing their faith. Franz and his suffering family are the wheat; the villagers who despise them for their anti-Nazi resistance are the chaff.

Within living memory, I believe, educated people would have understood the reference, even if they didn’t hold the faith. To live in a Christian culture is to grasp the stories, the symbols, and the phrases that tell us who we are. The “wheat and the chaff” metaphor is something that almost everybody, from the simple believer to an unbelieving New York critic, would have understood in, say, 1940. But not today, because we are no longer a Christian culture, in the sense we no longer see the Bible, and the deep themes of the Bible, as telling us who we are. “Tell me what your story is, and I’ll tell you who you are.” Well, the inability to understand this movie is a pretty good sign of who we aren’t.

Another scene: when Franz goes before the Nazi tribunal for his trial, he refuses to defend himself. This is what Jesus Christ did at his trial. Franz isn’t falling mute out of a lack of courage. It would not have been un-Christian for him to defend himself, either. I would have loved to have seen a vivid courtroom clash between Franz and his Nazi persecutors. That Malick leaves Franz silent here is a sign to those who know the Passion account that Franz is walking in the way of his Lord. This is — or ought to be — perfectly clear to Christian viewers. And again, it would have been to non-Christian viewers of an earlier time.

Travers (and others) don’t get why this “war film” shows no battles and no Jewish persecution. Because it’s not a war film! It uses the historical circumstances of the Nazi period, and the war the Nazis started, as the backdrop for an exploration of the questions: How should a good man behave in an evil time? How can a man know what is the good? Does suffering have ultimate meaning? Malick could have explored these timeless philosophical themes in any number of dramatic and historical settings — for example, during the American Civil Rights movement. He chose the Nazi period, in part, I think, because it is so close to us, and in part because we all think we know how we would have behaved back then — and we are lying to ourselves.

This is not a movie about war; it’s a movie about religion. Malick starts the movie by positioning Adolf Hitler as a false god, and those who follow him as idolaters. How was it that these simple peasants, Franz and Fani, had what it took to grasp what was happening, and to commit themselves to suffering to bear witness to the truth, when most other villagers either didn’t get it, or were too afraid to say what they were really thinking? I think it’s fair to wish that there had been more exposition, more dialogue in which the couple talks about this, but the truth is, they don’t really know either. They have a good sense of it, but it is not crystal-clear what is to be done. The village priest is not a Nazi, and his advice to Franz to keep his head down to protect his family is all too human. The bishop signals that he knows what is happening is wrong, but he believes that he can better protect his flock by cooperating with the Nazi authorities. We know in historical retrospect that this was the wrong stance to take, but these flesh-and-blood people were not living today; they had to live right then and there. In a sense, Malick’s refusal to put clearly articulated theoretical answers into the mouths of Franz and Fani highlights the power of faith and their formation leading up to this moment of testing.

A Hidden Life helped me to understand better how heroic the anti-communist Christian resisters I met last year in the Soviet bloc nations were — and how they got to be that way. It didn’t come from nowhere. It came from a life of faithful discipleship. When the artist painting the church in the Malick film laments that we make “admirers” of Christ, when what He really asks for is “followers,” this is a powerful indictment of the failure of the Church, and of ourselves (because we too are the Church), to live by habits of discipleship that work the Christian story into our bones. I am sure that Franz and Fani understood more clearly than the film indicates why they did what they did, but it is quite powerful nonetheless that Franz’s refusal to capitulate and burn a pinch of incense to the Nazi Caesar comes from a place deep inside him that he doesn’t put into words, or cannot.

Think about it like this. You know in the Book of Daniel, in the Hebrew Bible, when the three Hebrew youth — Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego — who serve the Babylonian King refuse to obey him and worship the golden idol? And their obstinate refusal causes them to be thrown into a furnace, where God miraculously preserves their lives? Daniel gives us no theological explanation for why and how they refused. We ask ourselves: how did those three men live their daily lives, such that when the time of testing came, they were willing to die as martyrs rather than betray God? That’s what A Hidden Life asks us to consider about Franz. It is no accident that an image of bread being put into the village’s collective oven, as well as coal being shoveled into furnaces to fuel the Nazi death machine, are contrasted in Malick’s film. He is showing us that fire can transform wheat into the bread of life, but fire can also be a means of death. No one in 2020 needs to be reminded of what else the Nazis did with fire and ovens. When you consider that fire is a classic Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit, the visual contrast between Christ and Antichrist is made even more profound in this Malick film.

Do you see what I’m getting at? A Hidden Life presumes a certain level of cultural literacy about Christianity. But Malick is certainly not being deliberately obscure, and taunting the rubes. In this answer to the New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who did not like or understand the movie (and who forthrightly confesses his inability to grasp why Franz did what he did, Alan Jacobs (who has called the movie “a great, great masterpiece”) offers something worth pondering. In his review, Scott said his own biases “give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit” — as if what Franz did was simply aesthetic or spiritual in a way disconnected from politics and history. Excerpts from Jacobs’s reply:

There are no Jews in A Hidden Life because in the Hitler era there were no Jews in remote Austrian mountain villages. And yet the ultimate demand of Nazism — its demand for unconditional and unquestioning obedience, as manifested in a spoken oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler — reaches even there. The craving of the totalitarian system for power, its libido dominandi, has no terminus, and its administrative and technocratic resources are such that it can and will find you and order you to bend your knee. So if Scott wants “historical and political insight,” there it is.

But that’s not where the story of A Hidden Life ends, that’s where it begins. What do you do when you are confronted with that absolute demand for absolute obedience? What do you do when the administrative extensions of Hitler’s will send you a letter that calls you to serve — when your Mortall God, as Hobbes named it, requires your obeisance? Maybe, if you’re a Christian, you’ll hear a voice in your head: “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” And then what?

Behold, I tell you a great mystery: Some people heed that voice rather than the voice of their Mortall God. A. O. Scott doesn’t get it — “Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better” — but then, who does? St. Paul famously speaks of the mystery of iniquity, but the mystery of courage and integrity may be greater still.

Yes. Terrence Malick doesn’t try to explain all this to you. His characters are not walking theses. He shows it to you. If you want to preserve the peace and harmony of life in your beautiful Austrian mountain village, then you can go along with what the Antichrist asks of you. But what if something deep inside you, something you can’t quite articulate to yourself, screams: “No!”? How do you hold onto that, even though your love for your wife and children, and all the people you know, and respect, are telling you its madness to walk the narrow and treacherous road?

I would imagine that the rapturous beauty of your home village, and your life there with your wife and children, would go through your mind a lot, as you contemplated trading that for shackles and a prison cell, and ultimately the executioner’s blade. This is what Malick shows us.

At one point, Franz sits with his arms in chains before a Nazi judge who can’t figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. Don’t you want to be free? asks the Nazi.

“I am free,” says the prisoner.

Is he? If he were free to lope through the wheat fields back home, and embrace his wife, and do all the things he could do in his former life, he would not be free: he would have purchased that appearance of freedom at the cost of enslaving his soul. Here is the paradox of Christianity: Jesus trampled down death by death, he set the captives free. But just as His kingdom is not of this world, so too is the freedom he promised not the same as earthly freedom. This is the great mystery. And this is why, after Franz is led away, the old Nazi judge sits in the chair where he had been, places his hands on his lap, and contemplates them. The look in his eyes conveys what words do not: that he, the old man, knows that he has made himself captive to evil, and he knows that the freedom of his body comes at the cost of his soul’s liberty.

This is what totalitarianism is! The villagers who know what Hitler really means, and who despise him, but can only say that to Franz in hushed, terrified voices — they show us what it means to live in totalitarianism. Hitler doesn’t demand simply your obedience; he demands your soul. This is the significance of Franz’s refusal to take the loyalty oath to Hitler. He gets it. People keep telling him that nobody will see his sacrifice, that it won’t change anything. Franz persists not because he expects favorable consequences from his sacrifice, but because he is convinced that it’s the right thing to do, and that he will be held responsible before almighty God for his choice.

Franz could have come down off that cross. At every point, he is offered freedom, if only he will sign the loyalty oath. It’s just a piece of paper, says his lawyer. Think of your family. Had the real-life Franz Jägerstätter done that, he might have gone home after the war to a long life with Fani and their children, and one day grandchildren. Who could have blamed him? He suffered greatly in prison, which was a lot more than most Austrian Christians did. His wife would have had a husband, his children a father. The outcome of the war didn’t depend on what this one Austrian peasant did.

But that’s not how Franz and Fani saw it. In the film, a large, clean, beautiful image of the crucified Christ hangs on their wall, as surely it does in every other farmhouse in their village. The crucifix was not something to be admired for the Jägerstätters; it taught them how to live and how to die. Whether they realized it at the time or not, they were absorbing the lesson of the crucifix, so that they could live in imitation of Christ. I thought as I watched Fani last night about Kamila Bendova, the wife of the late anti-communist dissident Vaclav Benda. The communist Czech government put Benda, a faithful Catholic, in prison for his dissident activities. They might have shot him. At some point, they offered to set him free, in exchange for his agreeing to leave Czechoslovakia with his family, and move to the West. Who could have faulted Benda for taking that offer? But Kamila, who was burdened with raising their six kids alone, in a time when the totalitarian state targeted their family, wrote to him and said no, we need to stay here with our people. We have to bear witness to the truth — and our family’s willingness to suffer is how we do that. Be at peace, husband; I’ve got everything at home under control.

The Bendas also have a large crucifix on their living room wall, in Kamila’s Prague apartment, where she and her husband (who died in 1999) raised their children. Here’s a photo I took when I visited them in 2018:

That Christian family saw — they do see — Jesus as not someone to be merely admired, but also to be imitated, to be followed. And they did it. I think of these words from Lutheran pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a survivor of the Romanian gulag:

“I have seen Christians in Communist prisons with fifty pounds of chains on their feet, tortured with red-hot iron pokers, in whose throats spoonfuls of salt had been forced, being kept afterward without water, starving, whipped, suffering from cold–and praying with fervor for the Com­­munists. This is humanly in­explicable! It is the love of Christ, which was poured out in our hearts.”

This is a mystery of faith! As Alan Jacobs said, you can’t explain it, but you can show it. I count it as a straight-up divine grace that I saw A Hidden Life on the evening before I was to sit down and write my forthcoming book’s chapter on the role faith plays in resisting totalitarianism.

One more thing, and then I’ll stop. Here’s Alan Jacobs on the final scene in the movie:

Again, this is a great mystery. But the film holds another one, and this may require still more courage to portray. “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” The film ends not with Franz’s death, but with Fani’s devastated grief for him; and as she weeps and rails — and tries to learn to face a life raising her children without her beloved husband in a village that has almost unremittingly scorned him and, because of him, has shunned her and her daughters — she takes desperate hold on her own faith. She receives, or by some inexplicable strength of will conjures up, a vision. And this is not merely the usual hope for being reunited with one’s departed loved ones, though it contains that: it is, rather, a vision of the New Creation, the καινὴ κτίσις, the restoration of all that has been defaced, all that has been shattered, by the evil of men. It is, in the closing moments of the film, a confession of trust in the promise of the scarred and wounded King who sits upon the throne he has gained and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

St. Radegund, the little village defiled by its embrace of Nazism and its spiteful treatment of the Jägerstätter family, is, in the eschatological vision of Christianity, and of the Christian believer Fani Jägerstätter, in the fullness of time restored and redeemed. The lion lays down with the lamb. How many critics who saw this film understood the connection between Franz and Fani’s faith, and this vision of a world restored by the grace of God — a grace embodied in this world by a farmer’s martyrdom, in imitation of the Messiah’s martyrdom two millennia earlier? How many Christian viewers caught that?

Look, I’m not saying you’re a bad person, or a bad Christian, if you didn’t like Malick’s film. He is a difficult filmmaker, and not for everybody. Maybe you see clearly what Malick is doing, and just don’t think he succeeds. That’s fair. I’m not even saying that you are a bad Christian if you didn’t understand the movie, or that the failure to comprehend it will damn you. Franz and Fani lived in a world that was vastly more literate in Christian culture, Scripture, and symbolism, yet they understood Christianity not. But I’m saying that the failure of so many to grasp the language of this film is a sign of the times. And this: An artist who fails to communicate his meaning must at some level bear responsibility for that failure, but there can also be a failure on the part of audiences who want everything explained to them without mystery. Who do not understand what it means to (in Emily Dickinson’s phrase) “tell the truth, but tell it slant.” Our own salvation story is fading into the mists of history, by our own indifference. The inability to understand the Malick movie is an example of what the theologian Robert Louis Wilken was talking about in his great 2004 essay “The Church As Culture”. Excerpts:

In my lifetime we have witnessed the collapse of Christian civilization. At first the process of disintegration was slow, a gradual and persistent attrition, but today it has moved into overdrive, and what is more troubling, it has become deliberate and intentional, not only promoted by the cultured despisers of Christianity but often aided and abetted by Christians themselves.


Nothing is more needful today than the survival of Christian culture, because in recent generations this culture has become dangerously thin. At this moment in the Church’s history in this country (and in the West more generally) it is less urgent to convince the alternative culture in which we live of the truth of Christ than it is for the Church to tell itself its own story and to nurture its own life, the culture of the city of God, the Christian republic. This is not going to happen without a rebirth of moral and spiritual discipline and a resolute effort on the part of Christians to comprehend and to defend the remnants of Christian culture. The unhappy fact is that the society in which we live is no longer neutral about Christianity. The United States would be a much less hospitable environment for the practice of the faith if all the marks of Christian culture were stripped from our public life and Christian behavior were tolerated only in restricted situations.

If Christian culture is to be renewed, habits are more vital than revivals, rituals more edifying than spiritual highs, the creed more penetrating than theological insight, and the celebration of saints’ days more uplifting than the observance of Mother’s Day. There is great wisdom in the maligned phrase ex opere operato, the effect is in the doing. Intention is like a reed blowing in the wind. It is the doing that counts, and if we do something for God, in the doing God does something for us.

Read it all. I am much, much less concerned about secular film critics not understanding the grammar of A Hidden Life than I am about Christians not getting it.

In A Hidden Life, an elderly artist tells Franz that an even darker time is coming, when people don’t even fight the truth, but remain indifferent to it. From a Christian perspective, we are in that time today. Every single Christian who sees A Hidden Life — and really, I cannot emphasize strongly enough the need to do so; here is great Christian art of our own time — must ask himself: Am I a follower of Christ, or merely an admirer? Do my children know the Christian story in their bones? How will they preserve the faith — and their own immortal souls — in time of persecution if they do not?

As I said in yesterday’s post, A Hidden Life helps me explain The Benedict Option more clearly to people. It is not, and never has been, about heading for the hills to escape the trouble of the world. The trouble of the world will find you, even in your faraway Alpine village. The Benedict Option is about living in such a way during times of peace that when the Nazis come to your door and ask you to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and everybody else in your village, even your pastor, says this is the right thing to do, you have the inner strength and vision to say: No, no matter what it costs. If a simple Austrian peasant family can do this, why can’t we?

UPDATE: Oh wow, a reader points out that Malick, who was trained in philosophy as a graduate student, must have gotten the “follower” and “admirer” distinction from this passage in the Christian existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s book Training In Christianity:

It is well known that Christ consistently used the expression “follower.” He never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for. Christ understood that being a “disciple” was in innermost and deepest harmony with what he said about himself. Christ claimed to be the way and the truth and the life (Jn. 14:6). For this reason, he could never be satisfied with adherents who accepted his teaching – especially with those who in their lives ignored it or let things take their usual course. His whole life on earth, from beginning to end, was destined solely to have followers and to make admirers impossible. Christ came into the world with the purpose of saving, not instructing it. At the same time – as is implied in his saving work – he came to be the pattern, to leave footprints for the person who would join him, who would become a follower. This is why Christ was born and lived and died in lowliness. It is absolutely impossible for anyone to sneak away from the Pattern with excuse and evasion on the basis that It, after all, possessed earthly and worldly advantages that he did not have. In that sense, to admire Christ is the false invention of a later age, aided by the presumption of “loftiness.” No, there is absolutely nothing to admire in Jesus, unless you want to admire poverty, misery, and contempt.

What then, is the difference between an admirer and a follower? A follower is or strives to be what he admires. An admirer, however, keeps himself personally detached. He fails to see that what is admired involves a claim upon him, and thus he fails to be or strive to be what he admires. To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except that, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only all too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. As such, they refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended at him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amounts to being up for examination. Even though he “says nothing” against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs. And Christ’s life indeed makes it manifest, terrifyingly manifest, what dreadful untruth it is to admire the truth instead of following it. When there is no danger, when there is a dead calm, when everything is favorable to our Christianity, it is all too easy to confuse an admirer with a follower. And this can happen very quietly. The admirer can be in the delusion that the position he takes is the true one, when all he is doing is playing it safe. Give heed, therefore, to the call of discipleship!

If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, who can doubt that Judas was an admirer of Christ! And we know that Christ at the beginning of his work had many admirers. Judas was precisely an admirer and thus later became a traitor. It is just as easy to reckon as the stars that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Admiring the truth, instead of following it, is just as dubious a fire as the fire of erotic love, which at the turn of the hand can be changed into exactly the opposite, to hate, jealousy, and revenge. There is a story of yet another admirer – it was Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1ff). Despite the risk to his reputation, despite the effort on his part, Nicodemus was only an admirer; he never became a follower. It is as if he might have said to Christ, “If we are able to reach a compromise, you and I, then I will accept your teaching in eternity. But here in this world, no, that I cannot bring myself to do. Could you not make an exception for me? Could it not be enough if once in a while, at great risk to myself, I come to you during the night, but during the day (yes, I confess it, I myself feel how humiliating this is for me and how disgraceful, indeed also how very insulting it is toward you) to say “I do not know you?” See in what a web of untruth an admirer can entangle himself.

Nicodemus, I am quite sure, was certainly well meaning. I’m also sure he was ready to assure and reassure in the strongest expressions, words, and phrases that he accepted the truth of Christ’s teaching. Yet, is it not true that the more strongly someone makes assurances, while his life still remains unchanged, the more he is only making a fool of himself? If Christ had permitted a cheaper edition of being a follower – an admirer who swears by all that is high and holy that he is convinced – then Nicodemus might very well have been accepted. But he was not! Now suppose that there is no longer any special danger, as it no doubt is in so many of our Christian countries, bound up with publicly confessing Christ. Suppose there is no longer need to journey in the night. The difference between following and admiring – between being, or at least striving to be – still remains. Forget about this danger connected with confessing Christ and think rather of the real danger which is inescapably bound up with being a Christian. Does not the Way – Christ’s requirement to die to the world, to forgo the worldly, and his requirement of self-denial – does this not contain enough danger? If Christ’s commandment were to be obeyed, would they not constitute a danger? Would they not be sufficient to manifest the difference between an admirer and a follower? The difference between an admirer and a follower still remains, no matter where you are. The admirer never makes any true sacrifices. He always plays it safe. Though in words, phrases, songs, he is inexhaustible about how highly he prizes Christ, he renounces nothing, gives up nothing, will not reconstruct his life, will not be what he admires, and will not let his life express what it is he supposedly admires. Not so for the follower. No, no. The follower aspires with all his strength, with all his will to be what he admires. And then, remarkably enough, even though he is living amongst a “Christian people,” the same danger results for him as was once the case when it was dangerous to openly confess Christ. And because of the follower’s life, it will become evident who the admirers are, for the admirers will become agitated with him. Even that these words are presented as they are here will disturb many – but then they must likewise belong to the admirers.