(a film review by Timothy J. Verret)
I have had the pleasure of being familiar with Terrence Malick’s films. It started with his film, BADLANDS (1973), which made stars of Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen. Then, there was DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978), which won a well-deserved Best Cinematography Oscar. In 2011, Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE won the Palme D’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Festival; the film was a spiritual- and soul-searching poem that was luminously lyrical. And now, we have A HIDDEN LIFE which is another “tree of life” film where Malick returns to a form that served him well before, but this time the soulful soar is even higher. It’s all the way in the mountains.
A HIDDEN LIFE is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who refused to join the Third Reich to take an oath to Hitler during World War II Nazi Germany. What Franz is subjected to during this conscientious refusal is simply heartbreaking yet truly inspiring! Malick loves long shots that seem to last for an eternity. In fact, Franz spends just a year or less in a prison for his stance, but the trauma and pain that Franz endures feels like a lifetime to him and to us as the viewer. Every image of this film is poetic, an invitation to emotionally delve into what it means to stand up for one’s principles, one’s beliefs, even to the point of death. But it is not death that kills Franz or us; it’s when we have “given up” in our spirit that we truly die.
Malick’s screenplay is haunting and bleeds the Bible from start to finish and gives us a glimpse into the life of a man who, like Jesus Christ, could not be broken from a path to enlightenment, a deep spiritual journey that the world could not possibly comprehend. Franz simply could not be broken from his faith, no matter how much they tried to break him, and they tried to break him a lot. We see so clearly and feel so clearly what they are trying to do to Franz and even we, at times, want to say, “C’mon, Franz, give into them. They are going to kill you if you don’t take that oath!” We don’t want Franz to suffer is why. But Franz won’t listen to them or us. Franz must stay true to who he is in his faith.
“We suffer injustice but we don’t do it.” We suffer for wrongs in their eyes, but we don’t do any wrong in our eyes and God’s Eyes. They can beat us, humiliate us, torture us, but we just don’t let them beat, humiliate, or torture our faith in the One we trust and love. We don’t give them that “in,” even if it means them taking us “out.” Franz inspires all of us to stay the course of faith and love, even when we are challenged to go the route of hopelessness and hate.
What compelled me most about A HIDDEN LIFE is how those who tried to break Franz were left defeated. Many told Franz that what he was doing was admirable but asked, “Who will see this, Franz?” They were suggesting Franz was only living “a hidden life.” What was so inspiring is that when these same people failed to sway Franz’s faith, their dejected looks seemed to say, “I wish I had his faith. I wish I had his spunk. I don’t stand up for anything!” This is what chilled me to the bone, because Franz, in fact, did NOT lead “a hidden life.” Those who were witnesses to his strong faith and tenacity were forever changed, moved to reflect on why they had no passion in their lives and nothing that they really believed in all that much. Or they believed in something, like Hitler and the Third Reich, but knew deep down inside that their beliefs were misguided, misinformed and a “mistake.” Franz left a legacy to all in his midst. He left them all with, “I don’t want to live a hidden life unless it is a meaningful life, a life of devotion to God’s Love and Mercy and Grace. I want a Franz life!”
At the end of the film, Franz’s wife says to him, “I will see you in the mountains.” People who leave behind their flesh to soar in their spirit can always be found in the mountains. We rise to the mountains ourselves in our faith and join those who never gave in but rather gave it all up, including their lives, to find their place in the mountains. When all is said and done and “it is finished,” I pray I will see Franz in the mountains.
Nothing is hidden….nothing! Thank you, Terrence Malick, Franz Jägerstätter and A HIDDEN LIFE, for reminding us that nothing we do righteously shall go unnoticed, that God sees all, and that Love through strong faith will always, and maybe sooner than we think, see the “light of day.”