Walking the Path of Suffering
A Hidden Life, 2019. Directed by Terrence Malick.
War films often begin with scenes of remembrance. These serve to set the stage, calling to mind those momentous events in human history when the specter of war and the prospect of impending violence was of such intensity as to demand a moral response: a challenge which all that is courageous and righteous in humanity must step up to. A common presupposition for such films is that conflict and violence, whilst regrettable, are what provide opportunity for acts of moral heroism, or that freedom and moral goodness are most apparent when prompted by evil.
Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life opens with black-and-white newsreel footage of a sputtering German war plane, its menacing shadow falling over densely packed streets lined with swastika-waving crowds, extending their arms in deferential salute to the passing Führer. Yet, as with many of his films, Malick’s depiction of the evils of Nazism defies convention.
The grainy footage immediately transitions to a clear, panoramic shot of luxuriant mountain pastures and the mist-rimmed peaks of the Austrian Alps, before coming to rest in an intimate, domestic space. In a warmly lit room, Franziska Jägerstätter (Fani), seated across from her husband, Franz, asks him: “Remember the day when we first met?” He responds, “You were shy like now,” and then gives space to her recollection:
I remember that motorcycle.
My best dress.
You looked at me,
and I knew.
How simple life was then.
It seemed no trouble
could reach our valley.
We lived above the clouds.
My sister came to live with us.
We had our home.
Franz’s response to his wife’s question was simply: “You were shy like now.” While her softly spoken words invoke a scene of remembrance that lays out the themes of Malick’s depiction of conflict, this war story may not, in fact, be about war at all. What it honors and calls to mind is something much more subtle and fragile. Something much different from the story of earthly powers, tyrants, and their regimes. Fani’s poetic words invoke an image of the eternal.
The film is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, his wife Fani, and their family, who lived and worked as farmers in the picturesque village of St. Radegund, Austria at the outset of the Second World War. Franz, a devout Catholic, was conscripted to the army and given preliminary training before returning home to await his call to service. Malick shows how, having witnessed first-hand the cruelty and injustice of the German campaign, Franz is led to contemplate refusing the required oath of allegiance, even whilst knowing that such defiance would almost certainly result in his imprisonment and execution; that it could prove to be the ruin of his family.
Amidst his deliberation, Franz is beset on all sides by pragmatists: his fellow townsmen goad him over his betrayal, the mayor reviles and shames him, the village priest implores him to “consider the consequences” of his actions. Even the bishop, fearful of Franz being a secret Nazi collaborator, exhorts him to recall his “duty to the Fatherland.” Fani alone remains quiet and composed, even amid the suffering caused by Franz’s decision. Through this woman’s deference to her husband’s interior struggle, Malick conveys the sanctity and inviolability of the human conscience: its freedom with respect to the self-justifying moralism that arises in every age.
This theme of speaking versus silence pervades much of the film, most notably in the contrast between the coarse ranting of Nazi guards, and the quiet resolve of Franz’s continued defiance. But Malick also portrays silence as a weapon of the enemy, such as when a disheveled Franz is depicted plodding listlessly around an enclosed prison yard before an interior wall inscribed with the words Sprechen Verboten: “Speaking is Forbidden.” The scene speaks to the threat posed by isolation, and how conscience is compromised when no longer connected to the human community.
However familiar such tropes might feel to a Western audience, there is something entirely unfamiliar in Malick’s portrayal of Franz. From the very beginning of the film one gets the sense that Franz’s strength as a conscientious objector does not lie in his own heroic resolve, or even in his unwavering commitment to some political or religious cause. Whilst Franz’s constancy and fortitude are admirable, one gets the sense that his decision was always one made for him. This is masterfully conveyed by the film’s camerawork, which, when presenting Franz in the midst of the twisted moral logic of his oppressors, bobs and weaves as if struggling to find purchase and perspective. By contrast, for the scenes of beauty—the wind-swept fields of wheat, sun-speckled mountains, flowing alpine rivers, the interior façade of a richly painted church, the moments of spousal intimacy, the fulfillment and pleasure of vocational work, or the children tumbling gleefully down grassy hills—the camera remains steady. Something permanent and timeless is being conveyed.
Throughout the film Franz is imbued with this goodness, bound to these visions of eternity. While tortuous, Franz’s decision is not something precarious or uncertain. Indeed, when compared to these images of constancy, it is the evil of war that is exposed in all its unnecessity and fragility. Malick frequently portrays the perpetrators of Nazi ideology as insecure, feverish, and almost comically small, as if unable to bear the simple commitment of Franz to the true and the good. This contrast is vividly apparent during the most arduous moment of Franz’s torment, when the enduring beauty of his inner life interjects itself into his prayer of resistance:
You, my strength.
You show me the path.
You, our light.
Darkness is not dark to you.
Bring us to your eternal light.
The never failing light.
To you I cry.
Give me strength.
To follow you.
It is at this point that the brilliance of Malick’s vision shines through. Franz could never be comprehensible as a political activist: instead, this simple farmer takes on the unsettling form of the saint and martyr. It is Malick’s commitment to this witness that allows him to craft a war movie without brutality, a romance without vulgar eroticism; a story of sadness untouched by despair, of heroism purified of pride. A Hidden Life is certainly a story about brutal conflict: but it is not the conflict of war. It is the conflict brought about by remembering the goodness in a world of beauty, and obediently walking the path of suffering that we do not choose of our own volition, but that has been chosen for us.
David Henderson is the assistant editor of ArteFact and a Ph.D. candidate at the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.