How do we live when nobody is looking, or when the collateral damage of pursuing good might outweigh complicity in evil?
Terrence Malick’s film A Hidden Life is based upon the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant who was conscripted into the Nazi armed forces but conscientiously objected to the demand that he swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, for which he was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded in 1943.
Amongst the film’s reviewers, there have been no shortage of plot summaries and overall positive reviews. Among the more interesting conversations spurred by the film are Sam Buckland’s discussion for The Los Angeles Review of Books on “the banality of good,” insightfully developing Hannah Arendt’s discussion of “the banality of evil.” At Vox, Alissa Wilkinson powerfully criticizes contemporary, self-justifying valorizations of Nazi resisters:
In one scene I can’t get out of my mind, an artist painting images in the nearby church tells Franz, “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo on his head … Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.” The implication is painfully clear — that religious art prefers a Jesus who doesn’t accost one’s sensibilities, the figures who make us feel good about ourselves. We want, as the painter puts it, to look up at the pictures on the church’s ceiling and “imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did…”
By contrast, perhaps the most negative estimation of the film is that of Lidija Haas at The New Republic, who criticizes what she describes as the film’s “heavy-handed moralism.” Haas criticizes Franz’s self-sacrifice as more of a morbid performance art than serious political action; in making this criticism I am not sure whether Haas is criticizing the film or the man who was executed by guillotine at Brandenburg-Görden Prison. Haas likewise criticizes how fascism is depicted in the film, writing that “Nazis are not so much, say, convinced of the righteousness of their poisonous ideology, or myopically focused on pleasing their superiors, as consciously locked in a Manichaean struggle with our hero. The result is that they look impossible to beat yet strangely easy to embarrass.”
However, arguably this depiction is itself a strength of the film. For example, Elizabeth Bruenig observes that the problem with how fascism is depicted in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is that commoners resent their oppressive overlords, when precisely the way fascism works is that commoners enthusiastically embrace it, having become unable or unwilling to see its absurdities and evils that become celebrated as good. Franz’s countrymen do not begrudgingly resent the Nazis; they are convinced they will make things right and the cause is just, regardless of the atrocities that alarm Franz.
But probably the most interesting question raised is that of Buckland, who pointedly asks, “We must ask him too: is it selfish to die on the cross, so to speak, for a cause? Is moral resistance an act of personal fulfillment that ignores the political realities of resistance?” Reviewing the film at Roger Ebert, Matt Zoller Seitz similarly inquires: “Is it morally acceptable to allow one’s spouse and children to suffer by sticking to one’s beliefs? Is that what’s really best for the family, for society, for the self? Is it even possible to be totally consistent while carrying out noble, defiant acts? Is it a sin to act in self-preservation? Which self-preserving acts are acceptable, and which are defined as cowardice?”
To navigate these helpful, disturbing questions we should approach A Hidden Life fundamentally as a temptation narrative. In the portion of the film quoted above by Alissa Wilkinson, A Hidden Life is a depiction of not the comfortable but the true and demanding Christ, and specifically the Christ of the temptation narratives in the wilderness or the testing in the winepress of Gethsemane before his sufferings, crucifixion, and death.
A refrain throughout Franz’s interrogation is that his act of resistance is utterly hopeless and meaningless. His interrogators repeatedly emphasize the utter futility of his sufferings; no one will ever know what goes on inside of the Nazi prison walls, they scoff, and the meaningless execution of one man will do nothing to stop the awesome powers of the Nazi war machine.
Cowardly church leaders encourage Franz to swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Though some clergy are unenthusiastic about Hitler, they fear his control over them, or that Franz’s inquiries about his predicament are the questions of a spy testing them. Regardless, they compel him to capitulate. A priest urges Franz that he does not have to sincerely believe the oath of allegiance but only has to say the words or sign his name and he will walk free, his family will not suffer.
Inside the prison, Franz finds broken men that he pities, fellow objectors from whom he draws strength, but also encounters a crass apostate whose faith not merely wore thin but has become totally corrupted into hostility against God. The apostate provides a kind of anti-version of the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer, indicting God for his lack of daily bread and deliverance from evil, and for God having forsaking his own Son on the cross. A Manichaean interrogator observes that in the prison Franz is forced to shine the boots of soldiers and fill their sandbags used in battle; there is no one who does not have blood on their hands, he mocks, before explicitly adding that the Creator made this world evil. All of this suffering and can immediately stop, and even the executioner’s hand can be stayed, if only Franz will swear the oath of loyalty to Hitler. Not only will this spare his own life, but he can save his wife from a future of uncertain widowhood and his family from the great ostracization and contempt they have been shown since Franz has been widely hated as a traitor.
These scenes all come in the latter half of the movie after Franz has been imprisoned, and evoke the trials of Jesus in the wilderness where Satan distorts the words of Scripture and tempts Jesus with an easy way out. They also evoke Jesus’ severe agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he desperately prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Yet not my will, but yours, be done.”
Arguably a missing element in these preceding conversations about the film is our need to frame the moral ambiguity of Franz’s sacrifice in terms of another major focus in the first half of the film. The stunning landscapes and moments of reflection captured especially in the first half of A Hidden Life are not incidental; Malick’s signature cinematography is not reducible to a pretty background for a story about the moral ambiguity of self-sacrifice for an apparently losing but righteous cause.
This film, which is nearly three-hours long, uses time and space to subtly communicate its vision of the good. In the first half of A Hidden Life Franz leans on his winnowing tools, stares at the horizon, feels the breeze on his skin, and pauses for long stretches of time to ponder the vexing moral dilemma he has been summoned to wrestle with. The camera pans out to capture the towering mountains that frame his valley, and peers into the micro-intricacies of harvesters separating the wheat from the chaff. A film which takes Nazism seriously enough to include reels from actual Nazi propaganda films also pauses countless times to listen to bubbling brooks, songs of Spring birds, and the crashing of cool waterfalls. At home, Franz dances, sings, and plays sweet games with his precious wife and daughters. Whatever sin, evil, or annihilating powers are presently at work in creation – this ruined world is nonetheless God’s “creation,” having been created “good.”
But beyond beautiful landscapes, A Hidden Life portrays Franz’s perplexing struggle as taking place in a not merely pastoral setting, but specifically in the imagery of parables. Franz and his wife Franziska enact numerous scenes from Jesus’ parables throughout the film. Franz is a sower who goes out to scatter his seed; their crops grow imperceptibly while they sleep; at the harvest they separate the wheat from the chaff. As Brett McCracken observes his review, the film is as much a marriage story as anything else, revolving around their love for one another and time spent embracing or painfully missing one another.
But perhaps the most basic, but nonetheless widely missed, facts about Jesus’ parables is that they are not primarily life-lessons or ‘illustrations’ of timeless truths. When asked to explain why he taught in parables, Jesus shockingly responds in the gospels that he does so in order that those who belong to the kingdom would perceive his message, while remaining hidden to outsiders. It is not surprising, therefore, that almost all of Jesus’ parables are about how the kingdom of God is hidden: it is like leaven worked into a lump of dough; like a seed that grows imperceptibly; like treasure buried in a field; like a net that catches an array of fish but are only separated later; like an enemy who sows tares amidst the wheat, left mingled together until the harvest. According to the apostle Paul, the kingdom of God reveals what the world regards as powerful and wise to actually be folly and weakness through the scandal of a crucified Messiah (1 Cor. 1:17–31).
That determines a cruciform mode of life for those who belong to Jesus; as Paul writes, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1–4). This does not produce a ‘pie-in-the-sky,’ quietest retreat from the concrete realities of life and action in the world today; quite the opposite, actually.
Because a Christian’s true glory is not a human project but rather the action of God in Jesus Christ, we vigorously strive for good and against evil, testifying by word and deed to Christ’s coming victory, with whom we have been united. Because there is a coming “glory” that is presently hidden we do not have to succumb to crushing cynicism or an ultimate despair amidst the stark horrors of our world, even at the height of Nazism, because our life is hidden with Christ in God.
Franz’s decision to conscientiously object to the Nazis’ demand for an oath of allegiance to Hitler caused suffering not only to himself, but tremendous anguish, social isolation, and grief to his wife who was left to raise their three children as a widow. The film spends no little time depicting the tremendous suffering she endured, despite her support and love for Franz and his decision.
But the righteous testimony of Franz Jägerstätter is that quiet acts of world-defying faithfulness, even when ultimately done for seemingly losing efforts, are not only good but urgently necessary. The opportunists who regard martyrdom as an irresponsible form of political action have arguably become corrupted by their expediency, because our means always determine our ends, for better or worse. How many women and men in history have half-heartedly adopted uncomfortable perspectives in order to climb an organization’s ladder with the hope of changing things upon getting a seat at the table, only to find that their ability to stay at that table depends upon their continuing in the same mode?
Beyond the Nazi zealots, how many Germans were unenthusiastic about Hitler but felt that they had no other option? “After all,” one reasonably might have said, “my job is simply to change the oil of these trucks,” or “to manufacture these rifles,” or “to pack these supplies,” or “to defend this bridge – better to just keep my head down and look for opportunities for change, because who can stop this massive war machine.” Evil thrives in such risk-averse environs.
No! Franz Jägerstätter’s life testifies. Until God’s restorative action in Christ remakes the good-but-sin-ruined creation into a “new creation” (Gal. 6:15), before then, in “this present evil age” (Gal 1:4), Franz’s interrogator has a point; we are all complicit to some degree in the systemic evils that our societies propagate even while individuals might strive their hardest to be virtuous. But Franz’s emphatic refusal to be complicit in what he knew and could name to be wrong is indeed a parable for his time and, in a different way, ours as well.
In the film Franz names the atrocities of the regime being celebrated by his countrymen, murdering the innocent, exploiting the vulnerable, killing Jews and persons with intellectual disabilities. Faithfulness and integrity are worthwhile, even when inconvenient or apparently unsuccessful in this age; although wisdom is required for assessing each situation we encounter, a cruciform mode of “hidden” life does not respond to dehumanizing forces of evil by weighing the opportunity costs and negotiating peace with whoever has the most power.
If our lives are hidden with Christ in God, then integrity and costly action on behalf of the vulnerable is not a scam in a world reducible to zero-sum power struggles. Our testimony against and for the world is God’s action in raising a crucified Messiah, with whom we are joined in life and in death. Faithfulness unto death is always a worthwhile endeavor. Creation is good, and costly faithfulness is a parable for a hidden kingdom that is not only worth its tremendous cost but urgently so, a crisis of Franz’s time and ours.
Joshua Heavin is from the Texas Panhandle and currently lives in Dallas; he received a Phd in 2019 from the University of Aberdeen, Trinity College Bristol for a thesis on the Apostle Paul and Participation in Christ.