The film opens with the voice of Franz Jagerstatter stating "I thought that we could build our nest high up in the trees, Fly away like birds to the mountains." This is followed by black and white archival footage of Hitler being welcomed by the masses, speaking at huge rallies with cheering crowds. Austria has become part of Hitler's Third Reich. Events will unfold that will change Franz's life forever.
Franz and his wife Fani are working in the fields of the farm high in the mountains near the village of St. Radegund, Austria, in 1939. Husband and wife are a team, working together scything, planting potatoes and raising their three beautiful daughters.
Fani reminisces about how she and Franz met, how her sister now lives with them, how life in their village is filled with hard work, good neighbours and is happy. But overhead the sound of an approaching airplane hints at the troubles to come.
In 1940 Franz finds himself at the Enns Military Base doing training. There he meets a fellow recruit, Waldland who is always happy. In a letter to her husband, Fani reveals that France has surrendered and that she's heard they are allowing the farmers to return home.
At the military base, Franz and the others watch propaganda movies about Germany's conquests of France and Russia. But while the other soldiers clap enthusiastically, Franz is deeply disturbed. He sees the destruction and the human cost and writes to his wife, "Oh my wife. What's happened to our country? To the land we love?"
Summer turns to winter and then to spring, and Franz finally returns home. Fani and the children are ecstatically happy. During the wheat harvest in the fall, one of the farmers tells Franz he has been called up. He thought there would be peace but the war simply goes on. To Franz's question, "Do you believe in what we are fighting for?" the farmer answers, "Not really." As Franz and the village miller Trakl watch their neighbours embrace Nazism, Trakl questions Franz, " Don't they know evil when they see it?..." Knowing Franz does not support the Nazis, he warns him to be careful.
In a conversation with his parish priest, Father Furthauer, a troubled Franz reveals that if he is called up he cannot serve. "We're killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. Now the priests call them heroes, even saints. The soldiers that do this. It might be that the other ones are the heroes. The ones who defend their homes against the invaders." Father asks Franz if he's considered the consequences of his actions, for his family. He tells Franz he would most likely be shot and his sacrifice would benefit no one. He does agree to speak to the bishop about Franz's situation.
Franz's internal conflict deepens and Fani notices a change in her once carefree husband. He is thoughtful and worried. When brown shirts show up to collect for the war effort, Franz refuses, telling them he has nothing to give. This leads to a visit from Kraus, the mayor of Radegund as to why he's not supporting his people and the war effort. Franz however, remains unmoved by the mayor's pleas.
Franz and Fani go to see Bishop Joseph Calasanz Fliesser. But the bishop is of no help to Franz. On the way home Franz tells Fani, "I think he was afraid I was a spy. They don't dare commit themselves or it could be their turn next." Eckinger, a neighbour explains to Franz that the bishop is going along, trying to appease the Nazis, in the hopes the regime will be more tolerant towards the church. Priests are being sent to concentration camps and church possessions are being banned.
The villagers begin to ostracize Franz and Fani. Franz's mother is upset with Fani, blaming her for changing her son. The mayor violently confronts Franz, telling him they must defend their country and that he is traitor to his people and his country. Despite this Fani supports Franz. She tells him their prayers will be answered, if they are faithful to God, he will be faithful to them.
Eventually their worst fears are confirmed: Franz is called up. The couple are devastated for they both know that if Franz follows his conscience, he will never return home. In March of 1943, Franz reports to Enns for military service. He refuses to take a pledge to Hitler and is promptly arrested and put in prison. So begins his short journey of hidden resistance and ultimately to martyrdom.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life portrays the events leading to Franz Jagerstatter refusal to support the Nazi regime and war, which he considered a great evil. As a result, Franz was arrested, imprisoned and guillotined at 4pm on August 9, 1943 in prison.
A Hidden Life is a deeply moving film that asks viewers to consider the role of conscience in our everyday lives, to explore the concepts of just war, the lost virtue of moral courage, and the possibility of sacrificing everything for our most deeply held convictions. It does so by setting this moving human drama against the majestic backdrop of mountains, waterfalls, blooming meadows and fast-flowing rivers.
|Franz and Franziska on their wedding day|
Franz Jagerstatter (played by actor August Diehl), whose Catholic faith blossomed after his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger (Valerie Pachner), a devout Catholic, came to believe that Nazism and Catholicism were completely irreconcilable. When he saw the goals of the Nazi war, to enslave other nations, to plunder their resources, wealth and culture, and their determination to murder an entire race of human beings, he knew he could not participate in any way. To do so was to cooperate with a great evil.
When he was called up for a third time in 1943, Franz reported to the military base at Enns, Austria but refused to complete his military service. According to the Reich Court Martial “that, due to his religious views, he refused to perform military
service with a weapon, that he would be acting against his religious
conscience were he to fight for the Nazi State…that he could not be both
a Nazi and a Catholic… that there were some things in which one must
obey God more than men; due to the commandment ‘Thou shalt love thy
neighbor as thyself’, he said he could not fight with a weapon. However,
he was willing to serve as a military paramedic.” Interestingly in Malik's film, his offering to serve as a paramedic is somewhat glossed over. In fact, in real life, his request to serve as a medic was denied.
In A Hidden Life, Franz is repeatedly told that his conscientious objection would serve no purpose and therefore was meaningless. He is called a traitor, that his actions are sinful. His lone resistance would be hidden - no one would ever know of it, it would not alter the course of the war, nor stop it. Time and again he was told he had an obligation to his country, his people and to his family.
Opposition surrounds him on all sides. His Catholic parish priest and even his Catholic bishop were of no help. Hoping for some guidance from his bishop, Franz is told that he "has a duty to the Fatherland, the church tells you so." and that he must obey those in authority over him. Franz asks the bishop, "If our leaders are not good...if they're evil. What does one do?" His bishop has no answer for him.
Before reporting for military service in 1943, Father Furthauer (played by Tobais Moretti) challenges Franz, "Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for truth? Could it possibly please God?" He tells Franz that God wants us to be happy and not bring suffering on ourselves. In response to Father Furthauer's rationalizing, Franz astutely counters that we must stand up to evil.
|Franz talking with Judge Lueben|
In prison, Franz's lawyer tries desperately and repeatedly to get his client to sign a paper. He doesn't understand Franz's defiance asking him, "How do you know what is good or bad?" At his military tribunal in July 1943, Judge Lueben meets with Franz privately. The Reich judge is deeply puzzled about Franz's objections and berates him, "Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before." And yet at the end of his time with Franz, one senses that maybe Lueben does understand, that he is condemning a good man.
Franz's intense spiritual conflict is set against the backdrop of the spectacular beauty of the Alps. Malik filmed these scenes in the Italian Alps while the scenes in the farmhouse were shot in the Jagerstatter home in Radegund. The cinematography is one of the most outstanding features of this film. Scenes of Franz and Fani working together, scything wheat, running their mill, milking cows, sowing crops, cutting wood, baking bread, playing with their young children, and spending time alone, portray a simple life of honest but hard work. Set against a backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful scenes of mountains, misty forest, rushing streams, and golden wheat fields, Malik captures the beauty of nature High in the Austrian Alps, in the tiny village of Radegund, one can feel the presence of God. These scenes of joyful family life and a loving marriage show and Fani's unwavering support sustain Franz.
As it turns out, all who told Franz that his sacrifice would be meaningless and forgotten in the mists of time were wrong. Today he is a saint, his life the subject of a sublime film that has touched millions. On his beatification, Diocesan Bishop Dr. Ludwig Schwarz and Bishop Dr. Manfred Scheuer (Postulator of the beatification procedure) made this statement:
“Franz Jägerstätter is a prophet with a global view and a penetrating
insight which very few of his contemporaries had at that time; he is a
shining example in his fidelity to the claims of his conscience, an
advocate of non-violence and peace, a voice of warning against
ideologies, a deep-believing person for whom God really was the core and
centre of life. His prophetic witness to Christian truth is based on a
clear, radical and far-sighted analysis of the barbarism of the inhuman
and godless system of Nazism, its racial delusions, its ideology of war
and deification of the state, as well as its declared program of
annihilating Christianity and the Church. His educated, mature
conscience led him to say a resolute ‘No’ to Nazism and he was executed
due to his consistent refusal to take up arms as a soldier in Hitler’s
Those who wish to read more about Franz Jagerstatter's life are referred to the Diocese of Linz website.
The movie takes its title from a George Eliot quote from her book, Middlemarch:
"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..." Franz's life and his act of passive resistance were most definitely hidden and unhistoric. His life, lived faithfully and his refusal to participate in a evil war, have done good that none of us will fully know in this life.
A Hidden Life is a beautifully crafted film, with a cast who give outstanding performances. Malik challenges his audience to consider the life of a man who simply could not cooperate with evil. Ultimately his hidden resistance cost him his life. While the personal price was high, Franz Jagerstatter demonstrated that there was still some good in a very evil time.
Franz and Franzsika wedding photo: https://johnpwalshblog.com/2017/10/26/blessed-franz-jagerstatter-1907-1943-farmer-husband-and-father-conscientious-objector-and-martyr/
Franz with Judge Lueben: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2020/17-january/books-arts/film/film-review-a-hidden-life-cert-12a