New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott seemed to grasp, or rather allowed himself to be confounded by, the mystery behind Jagerstatter’s motives.
“The film is an affirmation of its hero’s holiness, a chronicle of goodness and suffering that is both moving and mysterious. The mystery — and the possible lesson for the present — dwells in the question of Franz’s motive. Why, of all the people in St. Radegund, was he alone willing to defy fascism, to see through its appeal to the core of its immorality?...Franz is not an activist; he isn’t connected to any organized resistance to Hitler, and he expresses his opposition in the most general moral terms. And this, I suppose, is my own argument with this earnest, gorgeous, at times frustrating film. Or perhaps a confession of my intellectual biases, which at least sometimes give priority to historical and political insight over matters of art and spirit. Franz Jägerstätter’s defiance of evil is moving and inspiring, and I wish I understood it better.”
While some prefer the stationary comfort of the platform, others take the risk of boarding the train. Franz’s recourse to the metaphor of life as a train aids our understanding of his moral dilemma as a journey toward some mysterious destination or ideal. This image challenges the moralistic reading of the plot. Far from a Kantian adherence to duty for its own sake, or a utilitarian attempt to “change the system,” Franz’s act of resistance is situated within a moral tension toward something beyond himself.
Theologian Luigi Giussani claims that the essence of Christian morality “lies in living the moment within this tension toward the Infinite, in facing, more or less consciously and explicitly, every action from within this tension.” This tension toward God marks the definitively religious nature of Franz’s journey, thus invalidating attempts to attribute his actions to some more modern, secular ethic.
And it is precisely Franz’s experience of morality as engaging the Mystery of God, morality as seeking, that draws the viewer into the film, provoking her to ask the questions herself: “why would he make such a decision? How was it possible for him to say ‘yes’ to such a sacrifice?”
Though some find Malick’s choice of length and repetition to be tedious (someone commented to me while walking out of the theater, “the movie would’ve been five minutes long if he didn’t repeat so many scenes over and over again!”), I found that its length is a meaningful commentary on the nature of morality and of human suffering. Malick seems to be inviting us to recognize that there are no quick solutions or easy answers. In an age in which we’ve become accustomed to acquiring information and solutions to our problems with the click of a button or the swipe of a screen, “getting on the train” and living life as a journey, full of both tedium and surprises, can be a counter-cultural act.
Many reviewers immediately recognized parallels between A Hidden Life and Martin Scorcese’s 2016 film Silence, comparing the main characters’ polar opposite choice about martyrdom. Whereas Franz finds the courage to say “yes,” Fr. Rodrigues ultimately says “no” (after hearing the “voice of Christ” tell him that apostatizing would be justified considering the circumstances). Many criticize the casuistry of Rodrigues’ decision. But the most salient concern I had was that for Rodrigues, martyrdom became less and less about affirming his love for Christ as the plot of the film went on, but instead became about affirming his own courageousness. I was not surprised when he stepped on the fumie. He lacked the courage to say yes to a slow and painful death, as would I. I know from my own experience that the courage to freely and joyfully say yes to Christ is the result of grace, and not of my own moral strength. The courage to say yes to martyrdom, the highest and most god-like of sacrifices, is surely not something one can muster up enough courage to do without grace. Rodrigues closed the door to the mediation of grace the more he lived the drama of martyrdom as dialogue with himself, instead of with Christ.
I held this question about the necessity of grace in my mind as I watched A Hidden Life, wondering whom or what it would be mediated through. What was Franz’s ultimate point of reference, if not himself? What made it possible for him to continue saying yes each step of the way to the guillotine?
I tried to be vigilant throughout the film for moments when Christ made His grace present to Franz. I first thought of his prayer life, which became more intense and more apparent to the viewer as the plot of the film progressed. Another more direct “encounter” that seemed to strengthen Franz’s will was in his conversations with Ohlendorff, the artist who he helped restore the paintings in the local parish. After Franz complemented one of his paintings of Christ, Ohlendorff commented,
“others will look at this picture, and think that sympathizing with him, being moved by his story, will benefit them in the beyond. They’ll count themselves lucky that they didn’t live in times like ours, when your life might be demanded of you. Instead of suffering for the truth, I paint it. I turn the suffering of the brave into my livelihood…I paint this comfortable man. A halo over his head. Someday I’ll paint the true one.”
Ultimately, we may never be able to identify what made it possible for Franz to find the courage to say yes to martyrdom, but this is what makes the movie so powerful. While perhaps pointing to the saving power of Christ, this film is not just for Christians. It is not a preachy, formulaic saint-play with cookie-cutter "answers"; rather, A Hidden Life invites viewers to ask the questions themselves. The questions asked are human, and thus are relevant to all, regardless of the differing conclusions we may come to.
The most definitive, and perhaps most striking takeaway may be the attractiveness of Franz’s sense of peaceful freedom throughout the film. This emerges subtly in small gestures that indicate that he is not overcome by the difficulty of his circumstances. After being handcuffed on the train to prison, he notices a man struggling to get his luggage into an overhead compartment, and stops to help him. Later, on the way to his hearing, he stops to put back an umbrella that had fallen out of its place against the wall. He further demonstrated his remarkable freedom through other gestures of charity he offered to his fellow inmates, ranging from sharing his scraps of bread to greeting them with a smile.
How is he free to be attentive to such minuscule and seemingly unimportant details, while in the midst of facing imprisonment, torture, and death? When preparing for his hearing, the lawyer assigned to him is baffled when Franz refuses to “bargain” by swearing fidelity to Hitler and taking a non-combative position in Hitler’s army. “Don’t you want me to help you to be free?” the lawyer asks. “But I already am free,” Franz replies. “So then what am I doing here?” Freedom, for Franz, meant something different than the more conventional definition his lawyer had in mind. True freedom is not the result of the ideal circumstances, but of knowledge of and communion with the Truth. The Truth of Christ’s love allows one to be free in all circumstances, be it in prison or poverty, under the guillotine or on the Cross.
It is this “attractiveness” which makes Malick’s film so universal. His portrayal of a modern hagiography as a provocation to ask questions, rather than a platform to preach from, echoes Pope Benedict XVI’s claim that “Christianity grows through attraction, not proselytism.”