I do not wish for the long holy poem A Hidden Life to have been kept out of reach of so many theaters, but it does mean that for me, I had to go out and meet it. I drove 45 miles outside of the city to a town I’d never seen, in order to have an experience. Because even if it had been playing just down the street, you have to go to A Hidden Life. You have to say, I have come to be here, and I will be for three hours of noble, shattering beauty. I have come to be dragged over the stones and the mountains. I have come to be here for three years. For three years I will stand swaying in the grass, and witness. I have come here, to hear a song that has been playing for three hundred years, and you can only hear it in bells, in cow bells and bells on woolly sheep and above churches for saints’ days. I have come to see a canonization, and I know that these things hurt. I have come to be here.
Franz Jägerstätter was a man with a hidden life, which has been made into a hidden film. He was a faithful farmer from a village in the Austrian Alps, and he would not swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler. He was jailed for conscientious objection to the war and its leader, and he was executed in 1943. He has been beatified twice, in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2019 by Harvard- and Oxford-educated philosophy scholar turned meditative American filmmaker Terrence Malick.
A Hidden Life is about resistance, faith in God, and the strength needed to endure both. The evil that Franz objects to is actually rendered as more of an abstract concept of ‘war’ in general, perhaps oddly removed from the antisemitic specificity of the Third Reich. Hitler is shown on archival footage and mentioned specifically by name at several and key points, Heils are thrown, but in the three hours of this movie, Jews are never once mentioned. In fact, based on what we see of his life, Franz doesn’t even know that the Holocaust is taking place. We watch some undistinguished grainy black & white footage of battle alongside Franz at the military training camp he attends early on in the movie, and later he says that he believes the countries they are fighting did nothing wrong, that they are killing innocents. The mayor of Franz’s little town shouts transposition-ready xenophobic views about immigrants coming in to take their jobs, but nothing more precise. Concentration camps are mentioned once, but only as a possible fate for any priests who would publicly oppose the Führer.
It is probably a testament to how little seen A Hidden Life has been that I haven’t witnessed any discussion about the appropriateness of making a WWII movie about Christian martyrdom. But I think it’s possible, I think I do believe, that Franz’s moral resolve to oppose fascism so deeply and urgently, even in obscurity, is such a powerful and challenging thing to watch, that the value of this story overrides some oddness with the context in which it is situated. We feel with him the weight of his choice, as he gradually lifts it and takes it upon his shoulders, carries it through prisons and courts, even when they attempt to wrest it from him by cruelty and by force. You cannot help but confront whether you would have the conviction of soul to do what he does, to do what is good even when it will make no difference, as Franz is repeatedly reminded by others. That his sacrifice won’t stop the war. That all it will do in the only future he can know certainly, is leave his beloved family in misery and hardship. This movie makes you question why it is we actually do what is right. What does it matter versus what does it mean. I wrestled with this in my heart the entire time. I still am.
And Malick, damn him, makes the desire to simply stay alive so compelling, when Franz’s life before he is called up to the war is depicted with some of the most beautiful filmmaking I have ever seen. Their farm in the mountains is breathtaking, so green, soaring grey peaks, up above the wisps of clouds. Every scene there is a new adorable farm animal—a sweet brown cow, a furry donkey, a gaggle of ducks. Three little girls scramble over the fresh slopes like little mountain goats in their sweaters and boots. And Franz and his willowy wife Fani are deeply, completely in love. They both behave like they could press their heart into the other by clutching them close, frequently overcome by the need to just wrap each other in their arms under the open sky. There is such lyrical movement in this film—harmonious limbs working at tasks, hair blowing in Alpine winds, a bicycle messenger winding down a green path. The edit too is so fluid, long but dancerly. The story progresses chronologically but there’s often these little moments in conversations that are slightly ajar in time, a beat of a look on someone’s face that must be from just a bit earlier, or later, or just within. A lot of what is spoken is in voice-over, a Malick hallmark. Those parts are always in English. But sometimes, characters speak in the actors’ own German, particularly in scenes of casually chattering background talk, or shouting. This is never translated for the English-speaking audience, it just becomes part of the score, which could break your heart with its classical wind-blown beauty.
Mine did. Franz’s execution was laced with a faintly surreal fright and bracketed by sudden tenderness, that together cracked me in two. I broke down crying, tears falling down my cheeks as my chest was wracked with sobs I desperately kept silent in the dark of this theater I’d traveled to, like it was some sort of rite, that I must try, try not to make a sound. I don’t know why. It felt, in the moment, so important. I tried to hold so still.