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New film portraying life of Franz Jägerstätter is ‘the perfect movie for our moment in time’
For some time now, I have been a great admirer of the director Terrence Malick, especially following the release of his 2011 film “The Tree of Life.” I also count Franz Jägerstätter (1907-43) — Austrian farmer, husband, father and martyr who was beatified by the Church in 2007 — a personal hero. So when I discovered that Malick would be making a movie about Jägerstätter, entitled “A Hidden Life” (2019), it struck me as a marriage made in cinematic heaven. I looked forward to seeing it with great anticipation and with exceedingly high expectations. After departing the theater, I can safely say that those expectations were not disappointed.
I was privileged to get a sneak preview of the movie before its general release on Dec. 13. I went to go see it anticipating a deeply satisfying personal experience, which the movie more than delivered. What I did not necessarily foresee was that I would be watching the perfect movie for our moment in time, but that is exactly what I saw. For the story of Franz Jägerstätter — expressed with the beauty and understated eloquence characteristic of Malick’s style — is a timely antidote to the discouragement that is so pervasive today, both in the Church and the world.
Terrence Malick is the consummate filmmaker, and film, of course, is principally a visual medium. It is not that dialogue, sound and music do not play a critical role in great movies; undeniably they do. It is simply that images always have primacy. And every image counts in a Malick movie; nothing is extraneous or wasted.
So I think it no accident that the images that open “A Hidden Life” are not ones, in fact, filmed by Malick himself, but rather are taken from the most notorious of Nazi propaganda films: Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” (1935). It is also not accidental that Malick quickly transitions from the monumental scale and bombast of Riefenstahl’s depiction of Nazism to the stillness, simplicity and intimacy of Jägerstätter’s life in his beloved village of St. Radegund. Right from the very start, Malick sets about establishing the fundamental dramatic tension that works its way throughout the entirety of “A Hidden Life”: between, on the one hand, the forces of evil that are plunging the world into madness and war, and on the other, the holy, sane and beautiful life shared in the Jägerstätter household, which is increasingly menaced by the viciousness and insanity of a surrounding world rapidly succumbing to lies and the basest of impulses.
How that dramatic tension plays out and ultimately is resolved in “A Hidden Life” makes the film the essential cinematic rebuttal of “Triumph of the Will,” just as the film’s subject — Blessed Franz Jägerstätter — both in life and death served as a quiet yet powerful rebuttal to the malice and deceit of Adolf Hitler, the central figure in”Triumph of the Will.”
The wicked genius of Riefenstahl’s film is the way in which, through the power of grandeur and spectacle, it attempts to beat its audience into submission. With reverent depictions of Hitler and sweeping shots of adoring multitudes, it communicates the futility of resistance: It says in the language of film, this man and the movement he represents are simply too powerful, too strong, too overwhelming to oppose, and that any such opposition can only be fruitless.
The attitudes that such propaganda is designed to produce — subservience and acquiescence — are voiced by many of the figures that populate “A Hidden Life,” who try and persuade Jägerstätter of the pointlessness of his refusal to swear the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, as was required of all those in the German Army. And tragically, as portrayed in the film, those giving voice to this spirit of resignation included in their number ministers of the Church as well.
And yet, unlike those who surround him, Jägerstätter (depicted with unassuming strength by August Diehl) refuses to yield to discouragement, rejecting the fundamental lie that alone can make propaganda efforts like “Triumph of the Will” succeed: if an idea that is false and wrong is either widely held or expressed with great force and frequency, it must finally be assented to in the end. All too many accept this lie as true. What made Jägerstätter’s witness so impressive is that despite the unimaginable pressures compelling him to assent to such deceit, he never did.
And where did that ability to cling to what was right and true come from? Quite obviously, based on biographical details and as shown in subtle ways throughout the film, from Jägerstätter’s faith in Jesus Christ — a faith, it should be noted, nurtured and encouraged by his devoted wife, Franziska (played by Valerie Pachner). It was because Jägerstätter knew in the depths of his soul that Jesus Christ was his rock, his fortress (cf. Ps 18), that he was able to stand strong and not be carried away by the tumultuous waves that crashed over him.
In the end, despite all appearances, it is not Jägerstätter’s actions that proved fruitless, but rather the forces against which he fought: for he now shares in the life of God that never ceases, while what he stood against expended itself in a campaign of destruction and death-dealing, culminating in its self-immolation in the rubble strewn streets of Berlin.
There is always great risk involved when comparing different historical periods, for every time and place is unique. That acknowledged, just as Jägerstätter lived his hidden life in a dark world, so, too, is our time plagued by powerful forces of malice and duplicity, which not only wend their way through the world but sadly through the Church as well. They insist on our capitulation, and in our moments of greatest discouragement, we might find ourselves tempted to give them what they want.
Then a movie like “A Hidden Life” comes along, reminding us in the most powerful of ways that such surrender is never required of us. And that is why it is the exact film we need now: a movie made by an extraordinary filmmaker about an extraordinary man, arriving not a moment too soon.
Father Andrew Clyne writes from Maryland.