Terrence Malick’s new film ‘A Hidden Life’ tells the story of a man who made the ultimate choice
"A Hidden Life," set to premiere in theaters on December 13, 2019, depicts the life of an Austrian farmer who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II.
By Christian Caryl
The Washington Post / Dec. 9, 2019
Andrei Sakharov could have stuck with the privileged existence of Soviet scientist. Mahatma Gandhi could have opted for the quietly prosperous life of a British-educated lawyer. Malala Yousafzai could have contented herself with the certainties of the traditional role of a Pakistani woman.
Yet all three of these exceptional individuals chose to follow their principles, instead — at great personal cost. Though they gained fame as a result, that wasn’t in the cards when they started out. All of them faced persecution. Sakharov endured official vilification and banishment. Gandhi spent repeated stints in prison and died at the hand of an assassin. Yousafzai has persevered despite vicious harassment and constant threats to her personal security (including a 2012 shooting that nearly took her life).
Franz Jägerstätter was born into life as a simple farmer in an idyllic corner of the Austrian Alps. He, too, could have taken the easy way out — the path of accommodation chosen by almost everyone around him. Yet he found himself compelled to reject the criminal regime that descended upon his country in 1938, when it was absorbed into Nazi Germany. His Catholic faith, as he understood it, forbade him to accept allegiance to Adolf Hitler.
Terrence Malick’s beautiful new film, “A Hidden Life,” vividly depicts this terrible dilemma. Drafted into the German military, Jägerstätter refused to take the required oath to Hitler. At first he paid for this act of disobedience with prison; in 1943, he was executed for it, leaving his widow and their three daughters to a life of poverty and ostracism.
Almost no one in the world — outside of his community, the remote and tiny village of Sankt Radegund — noted his sacrifice at the time. Yet Malick’s film shows why his example continues to resonate. (Jägerstätter was beatified by the Catholic Church in 2007.)
In material terms, Jägerstätter (magnificently portrayed in the film by August Diehl) gained nothing by his stubborn rejection of the ruling system. For years he and his young wife (played by the equally marvelous Valerie Pachner) lived a happy and idyllic life in a beautiful place — just the sort of life, in fact, idealized by Nazi propaganda, which liked to depict mountain peasants as the noblest kind of German. (Malick deftly interweaves his shots of glorious Austrian scenery with contemporaneous film footage, including shots of Hitler’s Bavarian mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden, not that far from Franz’s village.)
On the face of things, Jägerstätter’s decision to refuse his allegiance to the regime is almost inexplicable. Almost everyone around him is Catholic, too, but none of them see fit to follow his example. Some of his neighbors agree with him, but only in whispers. Women who have sent their own husbands to fight in the war throw rocks at his kids. The village’s Nazi mayor accuses Franz of betraying the memory of his father, who died for the Fatherland in World War I. Still others point out that he’s visiting catastrophe on his own family, including his elderly mother.
There is no apparent upside to Jägerstätter’s stubborn act of resistance. Celebrity is not even remotely in the offing. He saves no one, least of all himself.
Hollywood likes to make films about Nazis because they’re the ultimate bad guys. In “Schindler’s List” (an undeniably great movie), the hero’s decision to save innocent lives is grounded in the unavoidable confrontation with Jewish suffering: the ghetto and the concentration camp are right there in front of him. There can be no mistaking the evil, even if the film acknowledges that resolving to combat it requires an act of heroism.
Malick’s film takes a different and more confounding tack. Nazism comes to Franz’s world in the form of distant rumors, newsreel images projected on a bedsheet or the sound of unseen planes flying above the clouds. There are no Jews or Communists around in the village to dramatize the effects of Hitler’s ideology on its victims. Yet Jägerstätter still manages to recognize its sinfulness.
During my career as a journalist, in various places around the world, I’ve been privileged to meet people who felt called to fight injustice. I’ve always been fascinated by the conundrum they present: Why do these rare individuals make the choices they do at such a high price to themselves or their loved ones? Why do they follow causes that directly contradict their own material interests? Why do they reject the comfortable path?
Malick’s film contains at least one obvious nod to our modern-day politics of xenophobia, when his Nazi mayor rails about the “foreigners” swarming over European streets. We may be comforted that we can spot the darkness behind the sentiment. But society doesn’t always make our choices clear, especially when the consequences can include death or torture or the destruction of your family. Our noble ideals — derived from faith or passionate political views — don’t always lead us to noble conclusions.
“A Hidden Life” challenges us to confront the problem. Not all of us can follow the example of a Franz Jägerstätter — or a Sakharov, or a Gandhi, or a Yousafzai. But no one who pretends to have a conscience should be able to ignore them.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs