I sat in the darkened movie theater and watched the final credits roll across the screen. The movie was finished, and it was time for me to walk out of the theater and get on with the busyness of life. Normally, that is the routine. Not this time. I was stunned, barely able to talk. I manage to snap out of my trance but still found myself haunted by scenes and thoughts that flickered through my mind.
A Hidden Life, directed and written by Terrence Malick, is the story of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter who refused to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler, an act that cost him his life. Franz was an Austrian farmer, married to a devout Catholic nicknamed Franziska (Frany), and was the father of three little girls. All Franz ever wanted out of life was to live happily ever after as a farmer and family man. That was not to be.
From the opening scene, Malick sets the stage for the growing tension between Franz’ idyllic life and the growing threat of National Socialism. He cuts from archival footage of Adolph Hitler’s massive rally at Nuremburg to Franz cutting wheat with a scythe. The field is surrounded by majestic mountains that we hope will hide them from Hitler’s reach. As night falls on the village of Radigan, lights twinkle in the homes nestled snugly in the valley. In a subtle voiceover, we hear the maniacal voice of Hitler rallying his troops. It made my heart miss a beat.
Based on the book Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and writings from Prison. Malick effectively uses voiceovers in which the actors read the actual letters as we switch from prison to Austrian hillside, feeling the pain of their separation and the growing threat closing in on Franz.
Many who view this film will probably still find it hard to understand why a man would not sign a piece of paper that could save his life. Over and over, he is questioned. What difference will it make? Will it end the war? Who will ever know? What about your wife and children? We see the agony in his face. On the verge of his death sentence he tells the Nazi general, “I feel in my stomach that it is wrong.” He knows of the euthanasia program and the killing of civilians and the unjust invasion of neighboring countries. “I must stand up to evil.” At another point, a sympathetic character states, “He must stand up against injustice and not become part of it.”
I believe that Franz was a mystic in the sense that he had a deep prayer life, united to Jesus through his own suffering. Lead me Lord…even if it is to the guillotine. Often, we see Franz in his filthy cell staring at sunlight streaming through the prison window, reminding him that God has not abandoned him.
Ultimately, Malick leaves us with a hopeful ending. A friend in prison speaks in a kind, almost teasing way about what beheading would be like. “You will put your head back on your shoulders and you will see stars or the moon.” …in other words, heaven.
Franz thinks about heaven and we see what he imagines. We see him dancing with Fanny, perhaps after their wedding, bursting with joy.
“I will see you on the other side,” he writes as he awaits execution.
A Hidden Life was filmed in Austria, in higher altitudes than Radigan. Malick needed to avoid electrical wires that were not there in the 1940’s. Pope Benedict XVI lived near the village, often walking the pastures when he was a boy.
Many of the interior scenes were shot in the actual home of Franz and his family. It is now a pilgrimage site.
Frany and her daughters all attended the beatification in 2007.
Frany died in 2013, two weeks after celebrating her 100th birthday.