A Hidden Life Hides Too Much of Franz Jägerstätter's Life


While researching in Germany in 1956 for what would become his book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars, the Catholic scholar and WWII conscientious objector Gordon C. Zahn uncovered some initial details about a Catholic farmer from Austria named “Franz.” The farmer conscientiously objected to Nazi conscription and was executed by guillotine on 9 August 1943. In 1961, Zahn traveled to the remote village of Saint Radegund, Austria and discovered that virtually no resources of a documentary nature about this man existed. Zahn then dutifully set out to reconstruct this entire chapter of history. Over June and July of that summer, Zahn conducted interviews, researched and assembled a remarkable story which he published in 1964 as In Solitary Witness: The Life & Death of Franz Jägerstätter.

A year later, the Servant of God Dorothy Day reviewed Zahn’s seminal book in the June and July editions of The Catholic Worker. Dorothy began her reflection on the Jägerstätter text by calling to mind the words of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux: “It is all God’s doing . . . When God wants a saint, He makes one.” Dorothy acknowledged, “Of course the person in question has to give assent,” and mused “I wonder how many there are who have been ‘called to be saints’ and have refused because the price was too great?” Dorothy was so moved by Jägerstätter’s witness that she even gestured in the direction that the costs associated with the canonization process would be justified in this case of Jägerstätter, concluding, “We need such saints today, to be held up for public veneration, raised to the altars so that we ask their intercession with God in these times of terror, with the threat of nuclear war hanging over us.”

Dorothy continued, “If St. Radegund does become a place of pilgrimage it will be thanks to this book of Gordon Zahn, who has not allowed the story of Franz to be forgotten. He too was called to perform a task, and we can be deeply grateful to him for also being a witness, and in a way a solitary witness.” Zahn’s incandescent work and serious commitment to the Christian vocation to peacemaking, helped make Jägerstätter’s witness more widely known. Zahn wrote, traveled, and lectured, even sharing the story with bishops during Vatican II. Archbishop Thomas Roberts brought the Jägerstätter story to the Council during the drafting of Gaudium et spes, influencing the composition of GS §79. 

In 1965, Fr. Thomas Merton reviewed In Solitary Witness for the PAX Bulletin in a piece entitled “An Enemy of the State,” and the piece reached a wider audience when Merton included it in his 1968 book Faith and Violence. Merton observed that Jägerstätter’s witness raised the question of “the Church’s own mission of protest and prophecy in the gravest spiritual crisis man has ever known.” In the years and decades that followed the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Peace Fellowship (of which Zahn, Day, and Merton were all board members), and others would continue to call to mind the enduring significance and relevance of the Jägerstätter story.

Jägerstätter’s influence would also extend beyond the Church with Muhammad Ali and Daniel Ellsberg citing that reading In Solitary Witness and considering Franz’s stand emboldened them to take the stands they did during the Vietnam War.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI, who was born in German Bavaria not far from the village of Saint Radegund, declared Jägerstätter a martyr and Franz was beatified in Linz in October of that year. In his Angelus address in the days just after, Benedict fixed the Church’s gaze on several martyrs, including Blessed Franz. The Holy Father reminded the Church that the example of a martyr like Jägerstätter, “testifies that Baptism commits Christians to participating courageously in the spreading of the Kingdom of God, if need be cooperating with the sacrifice of life itself.”

He acknowledged that while “not everyone is called to martyrdom by bloodshed” there is a “a non-bloody ‘martyrdom’” which is equally significant, and to which all other Christians are called, naming the “silent and heroic witness of so many Christians who live the Gospel without compromise, doing their duty and dedicating themselves generously to the service of the poor.” Benedict underscored that this “martyrdom of ordinary life constitutes a particularly important witness in the secularized society of our time,” stating that it “is the peaceful battle of love which every Christian, like Paul, must fight without flagging: the race to spread the Gospel that involves us until our death.”

2007 was also the year that producer Elisabeth Bentley began working on bringing the story of Franz Jägerstätter to the silver screen. In 2009, Orbis Books published a luminescent, new volume entitled Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, painstakingly edited by Erna Putz, reverently translated with commentary by Robert Krieg, and lovingly introduced by Jim Forest. With the rights to both books and the blessing of the Jägerstätter family, Bentley began collaborating directly with the Blessed Franz’s widow, Franziska, on the screenplay in 2010. Bentley brought Terrence Malick onto the project in 2015, and after photography in 2016, the film was completed and released in 2019 as A Hidden Life.

The film takes its name from a passage from another work that considers life in community and the complicated nature of human motivation: George Eliot’s novel 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.

A Hidden Life is an “achingly beautiful” film as Dan Hitchens so aptly puts it in his important article: “Does Malick’s new film show the real Franz Jägerstätter?” It is arguably Malick’s finest film since Days of Heaven (1978), and certainly his most praiseworthy work since The Tree of Life (2011). Malick has a phenomenological approach to filmmaking and his pictures are often characterized as dream-like, impressionistic, cinematic poems that, at their peak moments, gesture towards a kind of prayerfulness and invite audiences to contemplate transcendence and ponder life’s mysteries.

With a running time of nearly three hours, A Hidden Life is a film that requires a considerable degree of surrender and trust on the part of the audience. One must submit to this film and be prepared to ruminate on it. Given that much of the film’s three movements take place in rural and mountainous countryside, churches, and prisons, this can be all the more daunting and challenging to people of this frenzied, distracted, and technocratic age. 

Working mostly with available natural light, the film’s director of photography, Jörg Widmer, renders some of the most tender, intimate, personal, and awe-inspiring cinematography one could hope to see. Widmer’s camera work captures and shares imagery to be dwelt upon, inviting meditation upon a number of themes including the care and tending of the earth, technology and enframing, family life and the covenant of marriage, listening and conscience, and the living of life in community. Widmer’s images celebrate the quotidian and the goodness of the earthly, but also manage to communicate tension in the midst of struggle as well as the subtle, banality of evil.

The sheer beauty of the photography provides necessary enchantment throughout—a solemn flame is tended as darkness engulfs. Composer John Newton Howard’s score is inspired. His haunting original string and piano arrangements along with selections by Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Dvorak, Górecki, Pärt, Kilar, Jovanović, Parsons, and Schnittke. elevate and sanctify the film. The music in A Hidden Life is especially crucial to its aesthetic, as is its use of silence. The magnificent music and the sublime cinematography combine for what Alain Boillat dubs a “fascinating maelstrom of sounds and images.” These buttress the film in key ways, offering support and guidance carrying the audience in moments when Malick’s script strains or falls short.

The film’s narrative is often at its strongest when it draws the pages of Zahn’s, Putz’s and Krieg’s works onto the screen. A viewer of A Hidden Life who is unfamiliar with the witness of Blessed Franz and his family, may find the film quite moving and provocative. Many Christian reviewers have already extolled the film for its sweeping presentation of biblical imagery and textured inclusion of spiritual themes. This is a film that aspires to greatness and in its reaching does offer something significant for viewers to behold. For those who are familiar with the Jägerstätters of history though, it is likely that A Hidden Life will seem like something of a missed opportunity.

In December, Malick spoke briefly about A Hidden Life at a screening at the Vatican and, according to La Repubblica, he commented: “My Franz is a martyr of freedom . . . Franz is a martyr, because he chose to be faithful to his conscience . . . as his father-in-law says in the film, better to be a victim of injustice than to perpetrate an injustice.” Malick also rightly noted the incredible faith, strength, sacrifice and witness of Franz’s wife Franziska saying: “[Fani] is as a martyr as he was . . . She supported him to the last breath, despite the pain.”

At a press conference following the debut of A Hidden Life at the Cannes Festival in May, the actor August Diehl, who portrays Franz in the film, said that Malick is:

Inviting you on the search to something, not to an answer, but to a question . . . He [Malick] was very keen on this: he didn’t want this character to be a hero . . . or a preacher . . . or someone who knows good from evil and sees that . . . more like someone who feels something . . . even doubting.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Diehl was more direct, saying that Malick coached him thus: “There is only one note: ‘I don’t want to have a pious farmer who is a Catholic guy. I want someone who is struggling until his last breath—not knowing if this is the right decision.’”

A Hidden Life opens with a meditation by Søren Kierkegaard: “The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.” Malick then begins the film by following Zahn’s framing of the Jägerstätter tale as a contemporary retelling of “Christ versus Caesar.” Historical footage of Adolph Hitler from the propaganda film Triumph of the Will is set to Handel’s Israel in Egypt, Pt. I 15: “And Israel Saw that Great Work” and 16: “And Believed the Lord” (Biblical verses about which Blessed Franz actually prayed and wrote in his commentary “Little Thoughts Concerning Our Past, Present and Future”).

In the wake of this, and out of the silence and darkness that follows, we are introduced to the film’s alter Christus: Franz Jägerstätter, scything in the verdant and tranquil fields of Saint Radegund. Thus, begins a somber passion play that does offer something to contemplate—including an absolutely riveting scene featuring the late-Bruno Ganz as a Pilate-like judge interrogating the Christic Franz.

One serious weakness of A Hidden Life is that it projects contradictory images of its protagonist. On the one hand, it tries to depict Franz as another Christ, and, on the other, it depicts him almost agnostically (i.e. Diehl describes Franz as “humble . . . decent . . . doubting . . . not knowing”). Malick directed Diehl to portray Franz in this rather child-like and innocent way. This decision diminishes Franz’s particularity and distinctiveness. Thus, it conceals a man who was dubbed a fervent radikaler and thoroughgoing Christian by one of his chaplains. The real life figure who was evocative of Revelation’s triumphant Lion of Judah—who comforts, encourages, and shows the way—is rendered in the film as a docile, existentialist lamb led to slaughter.

Therefore, Malick’s making of Franz into something of a trope regrettably leads to a superficial representation of the film’s protagonist at times. The film falters most when Malick deviates from and reduces the Blessed Franz of history and gives us “his Franz.” This is a shame, because the Franz and Franziska of history were even more interesting, inspiring, and challenging than the ones of Malick’s imagination. Also, as Nick Scrimenti points out in “Ways of Heaven: Franz Jagerstatter’s Quiet Catholicism,” Malick’s choice to mute many of the ways in which Catholicism was woven into the life of this Church sexton and Third Order Franciscan, and how it contributed to the formation of his conscience, actually leaves the audience wondering why Franz did what he did.

Something else is also hidden away. Dorothy Day rightly understood that in the midst of all of the horrors of Nazi Germany, God made a beautiful saint: Franz Jägerstätter through whom he calls us to believe. As sure as the Israelites walked on dry ground when God parted the Red Sea and defeated Pharaoh’s charioteers, God called and fashioned a holy martyr in the fields of Austria and prisons of Germany in the early 1940’s. Blessed Franz and Franziska freely chose to follow Christ and live the Gospel in the face of overwhelming and inescapable evil. The love witnessed to in their lives and words is a summons to love and holiness to all who encounter their luminous story. Their daily practice of Catholicism made them capable of understanding their ordinary lives in light of eternity and clearly discern Nazism as a threat to their earthly homeland and their beloved Church. Their living out of Christianity formed their consciences as they listened to and heeded God’s call and accurately read the signs of the times.

There are actually two love stories in the real-life tale of Jägerstätter’s life. While A Hidden Life partially captures the profound love between Franz and Fani (portrayed in the film by Valerie Pachner), Malick largely misses the other love story entirely. The other story is about the passion and ardor Blessed Franz and Fani had for the God revealed in Jesus Christ and the love God has for them. An illustration of this is given in only a few scenes of A Hidden Life where the audience fleetingly catches sight of an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, on the wall of a room.

This devotion was central to Franz’s and Franziska’s spiritual life and became increasingly so as the road became more harrowing. Blessed Franz even branded Jesus’s Sacred Heart upon his own chest in the midst of his wrestling with his conscience, in order to remind himself to Whom his heart truly belonged amidst the swelling choruses of “Heil Hitler!,” as the salutes of allegiance to banners bearing the Nazi swastika became commonplace. Whereas most of the people living around him, as a perplexed Franz wrote in one of his commentaries, “still go on living their lives just as though nothing has changed, as if this great and decisive struggle [after the Anschluss] is of no concern of theirs.” In the film the mystery, motivation, and promises of divine love are too often made into a background decoration in favor of the broad-strokes of Malick’s rather this-worldly ethical musings.

Blessed Franz was not opposed to asking questions, so one cannot fault Malick for considering the approach he does, but Jägerstätter found many more answers in this life than Malick includes in this film. The director’s omissions lower the ceiling of the picture, thereby making it more difficult for his audience to consider Franz’s seeking, his struggle, and ultimately, his finding and beholding.

Franz once wrote to his godson: “Consider two things: from where, to where. Then your life will have its true meaning.” Theologian Stanley Hauerwas notes that the martyrs declare: “You can kill us, but you cannot determine the meaning of our deaths.” He points out that “No one can know who they are until God tells them who they are. Martyrs die confident that only God can determine the significance of their death.” Blessed Franz did not seek martyrdom, but he did desire to be a saint. He deeply loved God in this life and longed to be in union with God in the next. While Franz most definitely struggled, he was also graced with hope, peace, and even joy—he knew who he was in the eyes of God. His last writings and those who witnessed him in his final hours attest to this.

Much of this is marginalized or lost at the moments when Malick turns Franz into a vehicle for his own musings and questions. Malick tends to simplify or downplay the action of grace on Franz and Franziska, thus diminishing their actual struggle to grow in holiness and union with God in this life and obscuring God’s redemptive work in the midst of that striving. Regrettably, Malick chooses to substitute his own ideas about freedom and moral struggle in place of this. In this taking of artistic license, Malick hides away some of Franz’s journey into true liberty in Christ.  In the latter part of Hauerwas’s aforementioned meditation on martyrdom, he issues to Christians a warning:

We dare not, therefore, turn the martyrs into “heroes” or “heroines.” They are martyrs . . . They are . . . witnesses to the new time inaugurated by Jesus in which the violence of sin and death has been defeated . . . Martyrdom is not, as many suggest the “heroic endurance of hardship”: martyrdom is nothing other than dying with Christ.

In his attempts to avoid portraying Franz as a saintly Catholic husband, father, and farmer whose conscience was formed by the Church, Malick actually ends up doing something else he was trying to avoid: he makes Franz into a hero. He makes him into a hero whose motivations and reasoning are not easily understood, as he does not illustrate how Franz struggled to grow in holiness both with (and at times in spite of) other members of the Church in his time and place. Such a decision actually distances Malick’s Franz and Franziska from ordinary people rather than accurately representing them as ordinary people formed—and gradually transformed by Christ’s Church—who chose the narrow way of discipleship that too few others chose.

Hauerwas concludes in his meditation on descriptive witness that martyrdom is not individual, but rather, “requires a collective memory,” and “demands a people exist who may not themselves be called to martyrdom but who, like the martyrs, have also learned that they cannot determine the meanings of their deaths.” He stresses that such a people are “able to remember the martyrs because they believe that Christ has disarmed the powers—powers who draw on our fear of death—to sustain the hold they have over our lives.” Hauerwas notes that “By remembering the martyrs, the Church discovers it is possible to live nonviolently because the fear of death no longer has dominion over our lives,” because “Christ has undone death.” Zahn understood this when he set out in search of Franz, Dorothy demonstrated this understanding in her observation about Zahn, Saint Radegund, and pilgrimage. While A Hidden Life faintly gestures toward this at points with its Franz, it does not do it with the kind of steadfast trust and conviction that the real Jägerstätters embodied.

A debt of gratitude is owed to all of the aforementioned stewards of the Jägerstätter story who understood the importance of remembering rightly what God worked in that vicious moment of history. Their truthful echoing of the prophetic story of Blessed Franz and Franziska actually unsettles and encourages others to search their own hearts for God’s summons to holiness in their own lives. Blessed Franz wondered: “Why do we give so little thought to eternity?” While gratefulness for A Hidden Life is also appropriate, one wishes Malick would have given more thought to the eternal promises of Christ Blessed Franz longed for in his life. Instead, we never fully get a sense of “his Franz’s” true meaning, or what would mark this martyr’s “rule,” and certainly not enough of a glimpse of the King of the Eternal Homeland, whom Blessed Franz and Franziska were so fervently striving to follow and who offered them strength and consolation amidst their terrible trials.

Viewers of A Hidden Life hear a solemn “no” from Malick’s Franz but could have benefited from witnessing more of how Blessed Franz and Franziska lived faithfully and to what it was that they assented in this life that led them to their courageous witness. One can hope this film will lead newcomers to the work of the hagiographers mentioned above for further inspiration and discovery about what is possible in this life and the beauty and holiness to which God is calling each of them.

Those who have read Zahn’s and Putz’s books may find themselves frustrated during parts of this film, however, if one is prepared to view it charitably, it is possible for a viewer familiar with the Blessed Franz and Franziska of history to project into Malick’s work what he sometimes changes, leaves hidden, or only gestures at indirectly. If one approaches A Hidden Life in such a way, there is still much fruit that can be gleaned as nourishment for those striving to live faithfully and wage the “peaceful battle of love” in the midst of the ordinary during these trying times.

EDITORIAL NOTE: A version of this piece appears in the February-March 2020 print edition of The Catholic Worker.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from A Hidden Life, taken from IMDB.com, Fair Use.


Shawn Storer

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