“To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall toward the heights.” –Simone Weil
Terrence Malick’s breathtaking new film, A Hidden Life, traces the later years of Austrian peasant farmer and devout Catholic, Franz Jägerstätter. In 1943, when the Austrian army called Franz from his village of St. Radegund to serve in the German war effort, Franz refused on the grounds that he could not swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. This led, eventually, to his imprisonment and execution. Franz’s wife, Fani, also suffered in numerous ways—the loss of her husband and the father of her children, the scorn of most of her neighbors, and the questions and doubts that encroached upon her faith.
One of the most surprising and gratifying moves Malick makes with this “hagiography” is the strong and virtually equal presence of Fani in what has ostensibly been framed by many as Franz’s story. Where a lesser filmmaker may have been tempted to place the focus solely on Franz (who has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church), Malick understands that one cannot properly understand the nature of Franz’s sacrifice without also seeing the equally significant sacrifice of Fani. The mark she leaves on the film is so strong that I even wondered whether she, rather than Franz, was the hidden life referred to in the film’s title (a striking reference to the conclusion of George Eliot’s magnificent Middlemarch). Of the two, she remains the one most hidden to the rest of the world, but her story of persevering faith in the midst of profound trials stands every bit as tall as Franz’s.*
Given the strong marital relationship at the center of this film, along with the dual paths of suffering that Franz and Fani follow, I am tempted to suggest an alternative title in the spirit of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful The Passion of Joan of Arc: ‘The Passions of Franz and Fani of Radegund.’
An early scene that takes place in the village church portrays a conversation between Franz and an artist restoring some of the building’s artwork. Their conversation turns to the act of painting Christ, a task the artist frankly admits is beyond his capability. He believes he is too comfortable to truly understand (and therefore reflect) anything like the reality of Christ in his art. The whole scene comes across as something of a commentary on the film (and a call out to his next one, reportedly a rendering of the Jesus story?), as Malick portrays two distinct but linked passion narratives, reaching for the truth in the midst of the sacrifice.
This dual suffering of Franz and Fani is where the film cuts most deeply. On the one hand, Franz’s narrative portrays a man who, though he struggles at times, has pointed himself toward righteousness and means to carry that out, no matter the cost. Fani, on the other hand, is much more expressive in her struggle, her words often directly questioning God, even as she quotes Scripture. Her rendering of the simple tasks and events of her life take on a questioning character—simple joys of presence with her daughters or the blessing of a harvest become weighty trials in the wake of Franz’s absence. The film’s honesty about the realities of evil amidst and within the life of faith, that the follower of Jesus should expect suffering to follow, is probably its most poignant contribution.
I began this piece with a citation from Simone Weil. Franz and Fani lower themselves, resisting the temptation to dwell in a compromised safety even if there are some really good, non-Hitler-y reasons to take that road. But in that lowering, they attain a moral (and spiritual) gravity. As they persevere in their profoundly Christian responses to evil, they fall toward the heights.
* That the film includes a dedication to Malick’s wife, Alexandra, only strengthens this impression for me. I would also point out that Malick does here something very similar to what he did in To the Wonder, which we might now call his “other marriage movie.” In that 2012 effort, Malick turns his attention almost exclusively upon the women of the story—a wife and a mistress—leaving the husband/boyfriend character played by Ben Affleck virtually silent by comparison.