We make our choices. And our choices make us.
Sure, biology, heredity and environment all play their part. But ultimately, we choose who we are. The decisions we make declare and reinforce our desires, ambitions and values. We may say, Family is the most important thing in my life, but do our lives reflect that? We may declare, I love God above all else, but do we mean it? Regardless of what we say, what we do speaks louder. Our choices tell the tale.
And sometimes those choices—even the right choices—exact a staggering cost.
Franz Jägerstätter did not choose to be born in Austria (then Austria-Hungary) in 1907. He certainly would never have chosen Austria’s fate in the 1930s: to be tied at the ankle to Adolph Hitler and pulled into his vision of a united Nazi Europe.
Indeed, many would say Franz had little choice at all. His tiny village of St. Radegund had largely embraced Hitler’s vision; and even if it hadn’t, it didn’t matter. Every able-bodied man was expected to serve in the military and swear personal allegiance to Hitler. Certainly, not everyone in the Nazi army was a zealot for the Führer. But they took the pledge all the same: They had wages to earn, families to feed and duties to honor—if not to the Third Reich, then at least to their homeland.
And, after all, the pledge was just a bunch of words, right?
For Franz, it’s not so simple. A fervent Catholic, he’s troubled by Hitler’s regime—his discriminatory policies; his pugilistic drive; his insistence upon absolute, undying loyalty. But Franz sees the man not as some sort of Teutonic savior, but as a demagogue who’s dangerous and perhaps evil. Franz watches as Hitler’s hateful rhetoric twists his village into something unfamiliar: a place of anger and intolerance. Even before the horrors of the Holocaust came to light, it was clear—at least to Franz—that Hitler was dangerous. Perhaps evil. To pledge personal allegiance to this man feels wrong.
“If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do, what we fail to do, aren’t we?” a troubled Franz asks the presiding bishop. “I want to save my life, but not through lies.”
The bishop—fearful, perhaps—disagrees. “You have a duty to the Fatherland,” he tells Franz. “The Church tells you so.” He quotes Paul, and how important it is to submit to the powers placed in authority. And he adds (stifling what might be a sob) that the cathedral’s own bells are slated to be melted into bullets.
But the bishop’s logic doesn’t convince Franz. His mother’s disapproval and grief don’t sway him. The village’s leaders plead with him, then curse him. And though a farmer’s exemption protected Franz in the early part of the war, he knows he could be called up any day.
That day comes in February of 1943. He reports for duty, as required. He lines up with the rest of Hitler’s future soldiers. But when the time comes to raise his hand and pledge his fidelity, Franz doesn’t move.
He’s made his choice.
All that’s left is for him—and for his family—is to pay the price.
I think most of us would like to think we’d take the same principled stance if we stepped into Franz’s shoes, especially with the benefit of historical hindsight. I’m not so sure how many of us would actually do so, however. And, of course, we must remember that Franz wasn’t just risking his own well-being by standing against an immoral regime: He was risking his family’s, too.
As such, Franz’s wife, Franziska, shows just as much courage in her own way. When Franz refuses to bend the knee to Hitler, Franziska—whom Franz just calls Fanny—suffers. No one outside her family will help her with the farm—a difficult job made more so by Franz’s absence. Neighbors and former friends ignore and openly berate her. People throw things or spit, and the family’s three little girls are treated with just as much scorn. Many tell her that she must get Franz to change his mind. Some (including Franz’s own mother) blame Fanny for her husband’s unyielding anti-Hitler stance in the first place.
But Fanny’s response is, dare I say, downright biblical. The movie doesn’t give us a ton of insight as to what she would do in Franz’s place, but she’s quite clear about her own choice: She will support her husband in whatever he chooses. If he holds true to his commitment and refuses to swear allegiance to Hitler, she’ll love him through all the turbulence and tragedy that decision might bring. If he recants and salutes, she’ll still love him. Throughout it all, their love for each other is powerful and tangible.
Occasionally we also see moments of quiet kindness and charity outside the story’s central couple. A miller gives Fanny more grain than is warranted. When Fanny’s cart breaks down in the middle of town, an older woman helps her pick up her scattered produce and helps her fix the cart as well. And Fanny, too, gives when she can. When a hungry woman comes by her farm, Fanny gives the obviously grateful woman a few vegetables.
What does it mean to follow God? And what will it cost? These questions sit at the very heart of A Hidden Life, and I could spend thousands of words unpacking the film’s thoughts. But for now, I’ll try to keep this (relatively) brief.
Early on, Franz listens to an artist who paints religious figures on the inside of the local church. The artist mulls the disconnect between his work and his life: “I paint all this suffering, but I don’t suffer myself,” he says. He says, too, that while his paintings serve a purpose, they don’t show the reality of faith. Indeed, he doesn’t have the courage to paint Christ as He truly is, the artist admits. If he (the artist) painted truth, the parishioners would “just ignore it.”
That conversation lays the groundwork for the difficult days that follow for Franz and his Fanny. While the artist says that his work helps people “look up from those pews and dream,” the real work of following Christ can be difficult, dangerous and dispiriting in hard moments.
Still, Franz and Fanny are people of deep faith. Franz sweeps the local church and rings the church bell. The letters he exchanges with his wife are filled with Scripture and spiritual references. Their belief in God powers them—and sometimes leaves them with perplexing questions.
“Why have our prayers not been answered?” Fanny writes. “If we’re faithful to Him, He’ll be faithful to us?” In another letter, she expresses hope that the Almighty will deliver them from this ever-present evil. “Greetings in God, who will make everything right again,” she says. And again, she expresses what increasingly feels like a naïve belief that “no evil can happen to a good man.” She pours out her faith, both on paper to her husband and in prayer to God (and the moviegoer), expressing hope and conviction that God will fix things.
But the burden she bears grows heavier, and Franz’s chances of salvation grow dimmer. “Lord, you do nothing,” we hear Fanny say. But eventually, Fanny accepts things she can’t understand. Someday, she says, “We will know what all this is for. No mysteries. We will know why we live.”
Meanwhile, Franz’s tribulations feel like an echo of Christ’s own, in a way. He’s shuttled between prison cells and courts, as some around him try to “save” him from himself. A military judge, who holds Franz’s life in his hands, meets with Franz privately: You get the sense that he, like Pilate with Jesus, knows that Franz is “innocent.” And the judge doesn’t understand why Franz doesn’t just recant.
Both Franz and Fanny are explicitly tempted to abandon both the cause and the underlying faith they have, and Director Terrence Malick seems to stick Mephistophelian characters in where he can. One of the most powerful of those is a fellow prisoner, who whispers to Franz in a jail yard. “He who created the world, He created evil,” the man hisses. “We all have blood on our hands. No one is innocent.”
And the Catholic Church—which Malick paints as well-meaning but, in this instance, weak—encourages Franz to recant, too. “God doesn’t care what you say!” a priest tells him, trying to save his life. “Only what’s in your heart!”
[Spoiler Warning] Franz successfully navigates these many temptations, in the movie’s estimation. He does not waver. In his last letter home, Franz writes to his children, “My dear ones, don’t forget me in your prayers. I pray for you on the other side.”
We see Franz and Fanny in happier times. They’re deeply in love, and their every action together seems to express it. They dance passionately in the local gathering hall, kiss passionately when they’re reunited after an absence and, let’s be frank, have a hard time keeping their hands off one another. But while their marriage produced three children, we never see anything approaching sex or lovemaking here, and everyone’s clothes stay prudently on.
We hear that Resie, Fanny’s sister who’s come to live with she and Franz, was deserted by her own “man.”
We see some pretty graphic black-and-white war footage depicting human corpses and the bloated remains of animals.
Anger sometimes spills into scuffles and fights, where the participants have to be pulled off one another. In prison, Franz is beaten badly (though because we see the attack through Franz’s own eyes, we don’t see the blow or resulting bruises). Nazi guards beat other prisoners for small or even pretended offenses, and off camera we hear a gunshot. A guard pulls Franz off a chair he was standing on, then repeatedly pulls that same chair away when he makes Franz try to sit on it. Another guard smashes Franz’s sink.
We see a Nazi guillotine behind a black curtain: A small, lidded bucket is lifted, suggesting that the head of the guillotine’s last victim is rattling around in there. A man discusses the skill of the Nazi executioner—how he makes his cut before the victim even knows what’s happening.
None—at least none in English. The dialogue occasionally slips into German and Austrian without the benefit of subtitles.
The Mayor champions the Nazi cause during an outdoor gathering where the beer is flowing—and the guy may be a bit tipsy himself. He toasts Hitler, knocking his mug of beer against Franz’s, which remains unheld on the table. The toast knocks the glass over and spills Franz’s beer. Other villagers drink elsewhere, often in the background of celebrations. One or two folks smoke cigarettes.
The movie drives home the painful cost exacted by Franz’s and Fanny’s principled stand. As we’ve mentioned, many of their neighbors and, presumably, former friends, turn their backs on them.
It’s hard to do the right thing. It’s even harder when it seems as though there’s no possible benefit for doing it. And even though many of Christians would reject prosperity-gospel theology, we might still subconsciously believe in it. We believe that when we do the right thing and follow God, we should be rewarded. Blessed.
Franz had little hope of reward, little illusion that his family would be blessed. Those around Franz warned him of this outcome, then cursed him. His accusers implored Franz to stop his foolish protest—to just say the words and be done with it. You will go free, they tell him. His stance is not good for anyone, least of all Franz and his family. It’s not just hopeless: It’s utterly meaningless.
“No one will be changed,” a Nazi judge tells him, not without sympathy. “The world will go on as before.” Indeed, no one will even know what Franz is doing, or why. He’s told that his stand—righteous or not—will never be known outside the prison’s walls. He and his principles will vanish from history.
But no act of faith is wasted in God’s creative calculus. And sometimes, even hidden lives, hidden sacrifices, are eventually revealed.
Franz Jägerstätter was a real conscientious objector to Hitler’s Third Reich, and he suffered because he believed that faith called him to resist a wicked ruler. And while the Catholic Church of his time begged him to recant, the Catholic Church of ours beatified him. Pope Benedict XVI declared him a martyr in 2007.
Franz’s letters home, and Fanny’s letters to him, preserved his life story and the lessons we can learn from it. And Terrence Malick’s beautiful film will help communicate his remarkable faith, integrity and bravery to a new audience.
Malick’s movies aren’t as accessible as, say, your typical romcom or Marvel superhero flick. He leans on breathtaking scenery and almost stream-of-consciousness plotting, giving his movies a hazy, dreamlike quality. He might wait for hours for just the right light to strike a scene, and he’s been known to toss out the script entirely, relying instead on his and his actors’ instincts—how they might respond in the moment. He also pushes heavily into spirituality, embracing a strong sense of the transcendent (even though that doesn’t always point explicitly a Christian understanding of God).
But A Hidden Life features Malick as tightly structured as he’s been in years. And that makes this movie, in spite of its more than three-hour run time, a Malick flick for the rest of us.
Despite its difficult subject, Malick’s movie avoids crass content, so much so that even the PG-13 rating might—if you tabulate the sex and violence we actually see here—seem rather churlish.
But we don’t watch movies to avoid problematic content. We watch them to be moved. And this movie moves powerfully, sweeping through the jagged green Austrian mountains to the gray walls of Nazi prisons. If the dialogue is sparse, our players speak volumes through their eyes: the joyful, dancing eyes of fond embraces; the terrified eyes shifting and darting; the haunted, tortured eyes of those condemned.
A Hidden Life is a beautiful, memorable mixture of art and faith. And for Christians in our own time wrestling with the same sorts of questions of doing what’s right regardless of cost, it’s a powerful reminder that what we do—what we stand for—matters.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.