I had the grace to attend the Toronto International Film Festival this month and screen “A Hidden Life”--the life of Austria’s Blessed Franz Jagerstatter and his wife—exquisitely handled by the masterful Terrence Malick. Malick’s last masterpiece was 2011’s “The Tree of Life,” also 3 hours in length and also a deeply contemplative experience. However, “A Hidden Life” does not involve the surreal (levitation, dinosaurs and the afterlife). It is a sequential, slightly impressionistic telling of an extraordinary-ordinary man’s existence and resistance to Hitler. It’s coming to theaters in December and I beg you to see it on the big screen. Even if you’re not a Malick fan, you should be a Jagerstatter fan and a fan of this film. It will take its place alongside all the great World War II films and will rival “A Man for All Seasons” as a film about conscience. (However, unlike MFAS, HL explores in depth the arguments for and against doing one’s conscience when it can mean death, a "useless sacrifice," and possible retribution for one’s family.)
SPOILER ALERT: Blessed Franz Jagerstatter was put to death by the Nazis at 36 years old for refusing to swear the oath to Hitler as all conscripted soldiers were required to do. Jagerstatter died a conscientious objector and martyr.
Like all Malick’s films, you are in for an immersive atmospheric and sensory experience. In particular, the audial experience with its perfect soundtrack hovers just below the level of our awareness and contributes to the seamlessness of “A Hidden Life.” The film begins with a blackened screen and we hear birdsong, wind, cowbells and human farm life before we see anything. Malick is attuning us. No one blends nature cinematography and human drama better than this auteur of the visual storytelling art form. The beginning of the film situates us in an idyllic Austrian mountain village with all its glorious vistas, rolling weather and intimate social charms and traditions. The Catholic Faith is as ingrained in the consciousness of the people as the furrows in the soil behind the ox-driven ploughs. Jagerstatter’s voiceover tells us that he wanted nothing more than to live an obscure life as a farmer, husband and father. But it was not to be.
Everyone’s life is a battle of good vs. evil. There’s really no place for any of us to hide. The Nazi web spinning out, suffocating, poisoning and decimating Europe lost no time in annexing adjacent Austria for “the fatherland.” Many Austrians didn’t mind the nationalistic fever and influx of prosperity. Others saw it for what it was: a war of aggression, an unjust war, a dictator, a madman causing untold horror and suffering to the innocent. But very, very few had the courage to dissent, to actually defy, to give up their lives for their disapproval and disagreement. One of these Austrians was Franz Jagerstatter, a former motorcycle-riding bad boy, a player who already had one daughter out of wedlock. However, Franz’s wife, Franziska, put a joyful end to Franz’s aimless rebellions. Joyful?
The entire initial twenty minutes of the film is nothing but marital and pastoral bliss as Mr. and Mrs. Franz and Franziska romp about in the meadows and fields with the three girls they bore together: working, playing and romancing. This is my only criticism of the film. Twenty minutes worth? It’s lovely, but we get it already! The overkill makes their relationship look impossible, pollyanna, maudlin, saccharine. Of course, it is setting up a major contrast for the ending of the film.
In fact, Franziska did such a good job on Franz, turning him into a devout Catholic like herself, espousing Catholic values and principles, that she was ultimately blamed for Franz doing his conscience to the end. We agonize with the couple as Franz does what he can to avoid the unavoidable. Although the film is about Franz, his wife is in almost every scene and has many scenes alone. This is really a film about a couple. The love story is palpable. We see an authentic, natural, wholesome, strong, undying love between a man and a woman, a husband and wife. A portion toward the end of the film is narrated by the actual letters that traversed between Franz and Franziska while he was imprisoned and forceful attempts were being made to make him recant his opposition or simply dissemble and save his life.
Malick presents the facts of Jagerstatter’s life very accurately. I was thrilled to see so many details of his story brought to life. At the film festival, we got to speak to one of the American producers of the film who gave us some inside scoops on both Jagerstatter’s life and some of the “making of” the film.
Did the bishops/priests counsel the people to join Hitler’s army and save their lives? Yes, they did. (Malick graciously gives them a bit of an excuse in the film. In real life, Franz was inspired to resist till death when he heard of an Austrian priest who did so: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Reinisch.) Jagerstatter was the odd man out in every way. Many of his own townsfolk (whose men went along when they were “called up” to serve/fight) considered him a traitor.
“A Hidden Life” is so substantive. There is so much to unpack that I could write on and on. The dialogue is as keen and thoughtful as “A Man for All Seasons,” though not witty. But I’ll let you discover and experience it all for yourself IN THE THEATERS THIS DECEMBER. I BEG YOU TO SEE THIS FILM ON THE BIG SCREEN AND TAKE ADVANTAGE OF “THE WONDERFUL GIFTS” OF MODERN FILMMAKING TECHNOLOGY that can make the past present.
The prison scenes are quite moving. It’s not only about the brutality and deprivation, but the fear, the not-being-able-to-do-otherwise. But they are also filled with Jagerstatter growing very close to God who is the Light. (I remember in my reading about Franz that at one point he asked not to have any more letters or visitors so he could prepare himself for death with an uninterrupted colloquy with God.)
I went into the film knowing a fair amount about Franz. In fact, he has long been one of my heroes and I often recount his story to groups of teens at Confirmation retreats. To applause, I might add. His story is incredibly captivating. I used to end my oral retelling with: “Jagerstatter’s grandchildren could be ashamed of their grandfather and never talk about him. Or they could say: ‘Well, he did what he had to do. He did what everyone did at the time.’ But they don’t have to do either. They can hold their heads high and say: ‘My grandfather is Franz Jagerstatter.’”
--The original name of the film was “St. Radegund,” the name of Jagerstatter’s town.
--I was skeptical that Malick was the one to do Jagerstatter. I am a skeptic no more.
--Incredible “karmic question”/wisdom figure of an elderly artist painting images of Jesus in the village church. He said he doesn’t have the courage to paint Christ as He really is. He said, I just make admirers of Christ, not imitators or followers of Christ.
--So often Jagerstatter is challenged by others: “Do you think this sacrifice of yours is going to help anyone? Matter? Make a difference? Change the course of history?” (And a kind of breaking of the fourth wall question: “Do you think anyone will ever hear of you?”)
--It’s not in the film, but my favorite quote from Jagerstatter is: “Just because a man has a family, I don’t believe he is dispensed from doing his conscience.” (People told him he was being selfish. That his family would suffer so that he could do his precious “conscience.”) So. Many. Arguments. From. All. Sides. To. Give. In. Like. Everyone. Else. (E.g., “You are actually forcing someone else to take your place.”)
--I have so many favorite scenes that pop up in my head randomly constantly. One is when he is staring the nature of his death square in the face (don’t want to give this away) and what the other prisoner says to him to give him hope.
--Malick’s films don’t “haunt,” they “linger.”
--The mise-en-scène is a threefold interspersion: Creation, Actual Nazi German Expressionism Propaganda Reels, Malick’s Impressionism.
--Franz may have remained unknown, except for a book entitled “In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter,” by Gordon Zahn. Thomas Merton also included a chapter on him in one of his books.
--Franz was beatified in the cathedral of Vienna by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, with his wife and all four daughters present.
--There is a commemoration at Franz’ grave every August 9.
--During the film I thought of the 1960’s dictum: “What if there was a war and no one came?” The actor who played Franz mentioned this also at the Q & A.
--Franz wants his wife to plainly and simply tell the children what happened to him and that he is now praying for them from the other side and they should pray for him. He doesn’t want his wife making up stories.
--The actor and actress who played Franz and Franziska did a Q & A after the film at TIFF and said the hardest thing was learning to do farm work: milking cows, churning butter, etc. Although there was a script and dialogue, Malick let the camera run for 30 minutes at a time and gave the actors great freedom to contribute to each scene. He was basically waiting for them to forget the camera and for some real life to occur. :) They said Malick gave them philosophers and Psalms to read each morning, but they didn’t discuss them: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche. They also had to read the letters of F & F. Often after doing a scene with dialogue, Malick would have them redo the scene in silence. The actor who played Franz explained: “In TM’s films, the bigger the character, the more silence. Franz’ resistance after all was a silent resistance. The movie was shot in a chronological way. I became more and more silent as we went along. Interiorly also.” The actress who played Franziska: “Our themes were love, faith and resistance. If we have free will, were responsible for what we do and don’t do. That’s always the way it is. We took a very grounded approach, very attached to the land.”
--What comes home in this film is what Bonhoeffer decried: Hitler destroyed true German culture.
--If you’re worried about this film dragging? It does not. It’s deceptive. There’s a meditative tone, but there are plenty of quick cuts and moving of the story forward with a jaunty but never jarring pacing.
--So many delicate little details that bear a second viewing.
--Malick has struck his golden vein yet again!
--“Darkness is not dark to you.” “You are the light.” “Lead us to your eternal light.”
--Old man in town who agrees with Franz’s opting out: “It is an oath to the Antichrist!”
--Screaming Nazi voices grow louder and louder in the background of the film, juxtaposed with the loving voices of Franz and Franziska.
--Nazi to Franz: “Do you judge me?” Franz: “No. I simply cannot do what I believe is wrong.” Nazi: “Do you have a right to do this?” Franz: “Do I have a right not to?” SO MANY QUOTABLES LIKE THIS AND THIS ISN’T EVEN THE BEST ONE.
--Franz’s Nazi interrogators give him reason after reason to withdraw his opposition.
--A few whispered prayers to God as in “Tree of Life.” Franziska: “Where are you?” “Why did you create us?” “What is this life for?” “The time will come when we’ll know what all this is for, why we’re alive. We’ll come together and build the land back up. I’ll meet you in the mountains, Franz.”