As the Nazi guards beat him, Franz Jägerstätter smiles. It’s a moment that’s unexpected and almost lost among successive scenes of violence, but one that briefly shines the light of Christ within the cracked, water-stained walls of the Nazi prison.
In director Terrence Malick’s newest film, A Hidden Life, Franz Jägerstätter and his wife Fani live with their three young daughters in the Austrian village of St. Radegund. As the Nazi regime spreads across Europe, Franz feels increasingly troubled. Ultimately refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler, Franz is taken to prison, where he struggles spiritually and physically as Fani suffers ostracism and grief for months before Franz’s trial and execution.
The film’s portrayal of spiritual struggle is powerful. From all sides—the villagers, his family, the Nazis—Franz faces criticism: Don’t you realize this choice will harm your family? What can you expect your unknown resistance to accomplish? Franz Jägerstätter is a farmer, not a philosopher. He expresses his views simply: “If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do, or what we fail to do.” He spends more time in silence than in explanations. It is in his letters to Fani from prison that Franz slips into spiritual depths, interweaving Scripture with expressions of love and faith. But he is human, and not without doubt: in an early scene, Franz’s fingers linger over his rosary, unable to move past the first few beads.
Franz’s resistance to Hitler springs from his own conscience. Yet, because of their bond, Franz’s choice must also be Fani’s choice, though she struggles to understand it. One of the film’s most striking scenes features Franz kneeling in the prison to pray, followed immediately by a frame of Fani, sunk down on her knees in the barn.
In fact, the true hidden life in the film is Fani’s. Malick doesn’t let us forget her; he intersperses, among scenes of Franz in prison, scenes of Fani quietly working back in St. Radegund. Each such scene reinforces the bond between her and Franz. When Fani gives up in the middle of plowing a field, we think of Franz’s struggle. When Fani cuts hay alone, we remember Franz moving his scythe next to hers. Work has bound them together alongside their prayer.
By this emphasis on work, Malick also emphasizes the importance of action. As a church painter tells Franz early in the film, “We create admirers. We don’t create followers … Christ’s life is a demand. You don’t want to be reminded of it.” Franz’s quiet action, one left almost unknown by history, reminds us of Christ’s suffering and demands. With A Hidden Life, Malick calls his viewers to action in their own lives, their own work, even their smallest accomplishments. In focusing on work and detail, Malick insists that each of us can smile in the face of evil—even if that is all we can do.
Kasia Ignatik is a senior majoring in English.