Terrence Malick's latest film is based on the true story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, who resisted the Nazis.
A year before he died, Roger Ebert named Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Lifeone of the 10 greatest films of all time alongside classics like Citizen Kane. (As fate would have it, the very last film Ebert reviewed was To the Wonder—another Malick film.) And while critical enthusiasm for Malick has cooled in recent years, he remains one of the most talented filmmakers—and arguably the greatest spiritual filmmaker—working today.
And he shows no signs of slowing. His beautiful and gripping new film A Hidden Life is based on the true story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who refused to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler or fight in the Nazi army during World War II. A simple man who lives and works with his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner), his mother, and his three daughters in the rolling hills of Sankt Radegund, Jägerstätter is called up for basic military training, and takes it in stride. But he is more and more convinced that what Hitler and his regime are doing is evil, and that the war they are launching is unjust. And even though the consequences were dire, and the pressure to give in immense, he courageously follows his conscience.
Jägerstätter’s nonviolent resistance to the Nazis, and the unyielding marital love behind it, would have been enough for a compelling movie. But what makes A Hidden Life especially powerful is the deep religious faith that propels that resistance. This is not the story of a man with a passion for country or family, even though he loved both dearly; it’s the story of a man with a passion for God.
We see this passion first and foremost in an atmosphere of prayer. Malick is renowned for the inherently prayerful quality of his films, and A Hidden Life is no exception, particularly as the camera soaks up the quiet, subtle mysteries of the Jägerstätters’ bucolic life. There is an openness and reception to transcendence in and through creation and the everyday joys and difficulties of life. But we also hear voiceovers of Franz and Fani’s internal prayers to God; we see Fani and her sister pause during their work in the fields to pray the Angelus; and in one climactic scene, as Andrew Zwerneman points out, we hear Franz reciting the “Our Father” in German.
We also see it in the film’s profoundly biblical imagery. Christ often taught his disciples using parables about farming, making the Jägerstätter farm life a big thematic opportunity—and Malick does not squander it. He lets the camera linger on cultivated fields, the sowing of seeds, wheat and chaff, leavened bread, and a stored-up barn—all images in the New Testament. But to me, the most striking biblical visual comes in the form of an animal. We hear Fani reading a letter to Franz, and as she says the word “Papa” (speaking of how the children are missing him), we see her and her sister shearing a silent sheep. The scene seems to interpret Franz, who himself is silent much of the movie, in light of Isaiah’s Christological prophecy of the “suffering servant”: “Though harshly treated, he submitted and did not open his mouth; like a lamb led to slaughter or a sheep silent before shearers, he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Lastly,we see a passion for God in Jägerstätter’s devout Catholic faith. A large crucifix hangs in the family home, and Franz diligently works as a sacristan at the local church. Their Catholicism is not ostentatious or self-conscious—it is the very air they breathe, the blood that courses through their veins. And indeed, in June 2007, Benedict XVI declared Jägerstätter a martyr, and later that year, he was beatified (the last step before sainthood) with Fani present at the ceremony.
But Jägerstätter’s passion was a passion for the God fully revealed in Christ. And it was Christ who said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:37-39). This is the drama at the heart of A Hidden Life. Jägerstätter’s passion leads him to a deep rumination, which in turn leads him to a firm conviction; and holding to that conviction tests his mettle like nothing ever could. It brings him, in short, into a participation in the very Passion of Christ.
The Nazis eyeball him; his small town mostly turns against him; and the local priest and bishop both try to dissuade him—a terrible failure on the part of the institutional Church. (The priest does, however, stay by their side in the long run.) And this is just the beginning. Jägerstätter is eventually detained, as his family becomes increasingly isolated and vulnerable. He is gradually subjected to all kinds of physical, mental, and even spiritual pressure. Does he think he knows better than everyone else? Is he that proud? Doesn’t he see that as he does this for God, God is abandoning him? That this could end in his death, and the destitution of his wife and children? That no one will know or care what he’s doing? An out is repeatedly offered to him: if he just signs this paper, if he just agrees to this compromise, he will go free and it will all be over.
His response? “But I am free.”
His words are few, but his expression says it all: at times, he plows forward with fierce, if exhausted, determination; at others, he looks utterly doubtful of himself and worried for his family. This long, grueling test reaches its peak when a scared and weary Fani arrives in Berlin to meet with her husband in person. The priest and lawyer imploring him on her behalf means nothing; but it’s not unthinkable that if she herself were to beg for him to come home, he might just do it. But Fani too has a passion for God; their love and their lives are not theirs to keep.
It seems impossible for Malick to cinematically surpass what he accomplished in The Tree of Life. But A Hidden Life is a masterful film and easily one of his best. It is also destined to be listed alongside classic Catholic films like A Man for All Seasons, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Becket. A Hidden Life follows these films in offering a haunting challenge to every Christian: How much are you willing to lose for his sake?