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    still from A Hidden Life film

    Unto Death

    A review of Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life

    J. E. McBride

    February 5, 2020
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    • Greg

      This was as beautiful as the movie itself. Thank you.

    • Gene Diamond

      Having seen the movie, reflected upon it long and hard, and read many, many reviews, this is the best of them. You’ve captured aspects of the film I noticed and appreciated, but failed to completely synthesize. My compliments.

    • Maggie Hill

      Beautifully and thoughtfully rendered. Thank you.

    They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.
    —Flannery O’Connor

    If you have never had occasion to hear the sound of a scythe swinging through ripe wheat, you may, like I was, be struck by its fullness. Less a hiss than a roar, it evokes the heaviness of the work, the tension of the muscles, the impressiveness of the labor that defined a peasant’s days.

    A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick’s dramatization of the life of Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter, is full of these lost soundscapes. The routines of St. Radegund, Franz’s achingly beautiful Alpine village, are a symphony of them. As melting snow descends the mountainside, the mill resounds with the creaking of its wheel and the pounding of grain. Cattle low soothingly, the tinkling of their collar bells mingling with the deeper tones of church bells marking the noon Angelus. When the wind picks up, heralding a storm, it rustles the fields with an affectionate hand and carries the laughter of children.

    still from A Hidden Life film

    Image from sedonafilmfestival.com

    In Malick’s telling, the arrival of evil, of war, comes also as a sound. Somewhere far above, the guttural drone of airplanes shatters the illusion of bucolic isolation. Soon come the soldiers, high on their new adventure; soon come the drunken ravings against Jews and foreigners at the beer hall. For Franz, devoted husband and father of three young girls, soon comes the inability to put off making a choice: accept his induction into Hitler’s army, or refuse and face the consequences.

    Up until the very moment of Franz’s martyrdom at the hands of the Nazi state, that choice feels provisional. Dying for the truth, as he sees his mission, is not a single decisive act achieved in a frenzy of heroism. It is a grim affirmation that he must make anew each day, each hour, as he is progressively shunned, then hated, then tortured, then cajoled and bargained with. Nor is it a choice he makes only for himself, as his wife and daughters are abused by the patriotic villagers, forced to break their backs carrying on the harvest without help.

    Franz’s dilemma sits at the intersection of many theological conundrums: the problem of an almighty God permitting grave evil to rule the world, the limits of Christian obedience to temporal authorities, the redemptive potential of suffering. Perhaps most of all: what does it mean to follow Christ unto death, without self-deception or false pride? 

    The apparent moral clarity of his refusal to swear the oath to Hitler is constantly challenged by a chorus of opposition that could sound either like base sophistry or solid common sense. Isn’t it true that his stand won’t change anything? Isn’t it true that he has a responsibility to his family? Couldn’t it be true that, in the words of his parish priest, God doesn’t care what we say but only what’s in our hearts? In an echo of the Christians compelled to stamp on an image of Jesus in Shusako Endo’s Silence, could not the greater sacrifice be to take on himself the burden of blasphemy in order to protect others from a worse fate?

    Along with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famously persuasive atheist, Ivan Karamazov, for many the senseless suffering of the world causes not so much disbelief in God as rage at him. “Christ is dead. Forsaken, as you’ll be,” one distinctly Ivan-like character tells Franz in the movie. “You love a ghost.” More subtly, he is warned by another that the Antichrist is skilled at using a man’s virtues against him.

    Underneath Ivan’s rage is a longing: “I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for.” His more faithful brother Alyosha does not offer any answer to the problem of suffering and evil but a silent kiss.

    Malick, a lover of silence, casts a Franz in his image: In the midst of all the noise, the rationalizations, the entreaties, he offers few arguments, preferring calm, dignified defiance. (Some think August Diehl’s portrayal of Franz, hot-headed in real life, is too laconic.) Yet out of the silences, the lingering contemplations of flowing rivers, vast meadows, and blood-soaked jail cells, the workings of grace can be discerned, like a deeper current untouched by raging seas. In his elliptical style, Malick intimates the love Franz summoned for both his captors and fellow prisoners: giving away his last hunk of bread, leading them in prayer, comforting them in the moments before death.

    And his long-suffering wife, Franziska? She infuriates everyone by failing to dissuade him, and is blamed, not least by her mother-in-law, for instigating his unreasonable faith and the calamities it brings down upon them. Far from a case of a single individual against a system, as we may be tempted to see it, Malick recognizes that this is among the greatest of love stories. Perhaps there is a reason why most saints have been unmarried, but Franz and Franziska are joined yet more deeply in what is in truth a shared martyrdom.

    Franz Jägerstätter

    Franz Jägerstätter

    Franz’s death did not end the war, or heal old wounds, or reconcile the Jägerstätters to their neighbors. But neither did it vindicate the Nazi officials who swore his protest would be forgotten. (The film takes its title from the conclusion of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”) Much to the contrary: Gordon Zahn’s 1964 biography brought Franz’s story to the attention of the bishops at the Second Vatican Council, influencing their decision to call on all states to respect conscientious objectors to war.

    Malick’s triumph lies in making us feel each small step that brings Franz to martyrdom, both the beauty of his surrender and the sickening fear of the guillotine. The sheer outrageousness of his sacrifice, like countless others of that war, compels us, believers or not, to find our own sense in it – whether as a courageous dissent, a futile gesture, or a sign pointing past itself to the source of the redemption of all things. The widowed Franziska, who lived to see her husband’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, herself returned to the sounds of the scythes on the wheat full of faith, but also of confusion and sorrow. She rests in a final conviction: “A time will come when we’ll know what all this was for.”

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    Contributed By J. E. McBride J. E. McBride

    J. E. McBride is a writer and editor based in New York. More of his work can be found at jelliotmcbride.com.

    3 Comments