Note: I watched this film back in April 2020, and wrote most of this then.
A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refuses to pledge loyalty to the Nazi party in World War II. He does so for reasons of personal conviction and at great cost to himself, his wife Fani, their children and other family members.
The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, is beautiful and quite moving. Like a true Malick movie, there is not much dialogue between characters, but instead the film is stuffed with picturesque cinematography of the Austrian countryside, along with the actors engaged in the relatively mundane aspects of their daily life, with voice-over narration of their thoughts, prayers, and letters to one another. This may be Malick’s most narratively straightforward movie since The New World, and it’s still more fluid than concrete with its structure. While I cannot recommend this movie more highly, I do caution that you have to be prepared for something that is much different from a “normal” movie watching experience.
At times, the film seems to be in an argument with itself. Is it right for Franz to sacrifice his life for his conscience? What of his family? Who will care for them? Who will even know his story? Will his sacrifice even make a difference? Over the course of the first two acts of the film, these questions are the sole focus, and there are no easy answers. The pain of Franz’s decision weighs on every character, no matter their worldview. But Franz cannot relent and neither does Malick. He does not give the audience a way out of the story with subplots, comic relief, or even moral platitudes or “this is all for a purpose” filmmaking. He merely shows the events unfold with their painful ramifications.
One fascinating aspect of A Hidden Life is the way the priests and bishops of the church interact with Franz and his convictions. They want him to survive, and they want to spare his family the pain and consequences that will occur if Franz goes forward with his decision, and that aim overtakes all others. Not only that, but they don’t see the point in holding to one’s conscience or convictions under such circumstances. The very people Franz seeks out for spiritual guidance and hope are incapable of providing either to him because to them, suffering seems greater than truth or conviction.
It’s not fair to judge them in the harsh light of hindsight, but it is clear that their motivations are self-preservation and institutional preservation and not holiness. And in my opinion, holiness is what the film really has on its mind. What does it mean to be holy, set apart, in a society that is telling you what to think and do with dire consequences for those who don’t step in line.
In a world where we pledge our allegiance to the flag daily in classrooms, it may seem silly to abstain from an oath to a country or party. But that is the battlefield Franz confronts. And the question for us, especially those of us of faith, is where are we giving our allegiance for personal or institutional survival?
In my lifetime it has seemed that the American church has used politics as a way to assert power and influence, not as a way to care for the needy and marginalized. From the moral majority to the culture war, the church has exerted its influence to mold the country into something that suits itself, to fight against the things deemed immoral. But, in that war, has the church stayed holy, set apart? Or has it wrapped itself up in the very culture it says it’s warring against?
And now it seems, as influence and power are waning for christians in America, concerns have shifted to religious liberty. Religious liberty is an admirable aim, however it shouldn’t be the sole aim, the main goal. In seeking religious freedom and the influence and power that is required to attain it, many in the church have forgotten that following Jesus isn’t about being comfortable within our place in society.
The goal, as Franz exemplifies to the astonishment of those around him, is holiness. It is to be unstained by the world. It isn’t power to shape the country or world into what we think it should be, but to shape our hearts and lives in ways that honor the God we say we love and are devoted to. It is to lead hidden lives of faith, to love those that are marginalized, needy, poor. To consider others’ needs greater than our own. To hold steady to our convictions, even if that steadiness advances no causes, and costs us a great deal.
I had never heard of Franz Jägerstätter before seeing Malick’s film. There are likely millions of faithful Christians throughout time just like him, quietly and faithfully going about the mundane lives they lead, hoping to just live a life worthy of Him who called them. Hidden from influence, notoriety, fame; but, before the face of God.