The wind breathes over tall grass, gently brushing each blade to form a calm and collective hiss. Insects chirp in the distance, forming a chorus over the hillside. If nature had a voice, this would be it. Anyone who’s seen a single Terrence Malick picture would not be surprised to learn that these are the first sounds in A Hidden Life, the longest entry in the director’s catalog of existential, earth-gazing films.
But they’re only sounds. Background noise for the black title cards of a nearly three-hour journey to come. The first images in A Hidden Life are much less tame, far more menacing than melodic. Gone are the colorful whispers of creation, replaced with black-and-white footage of man. Man assembled, man marching, and man falling in line beneath the fervent order of one of their own. Adolf Hitler is escorted through the streets, perched atop a vehicle as he twists his fellow men into a vehicle for Nazi rule.
This is Malick’s introduction, and it sets the stage instantly. The only voice present, outside of the brief calls of nature and the documented barking of the Führer, is that of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl). He speaks, barely above a whisper, aligning more with the calmness of the Earth than the fury of its inhabitants circa 1939: “I thought that we could build our nest up high, in the trees. Fly away, like birds, to the mountains.” We have yet to lay eyes upon Franz, the Austrian farmer at the heart of the story, but his words are juxtaposed with militant imagery as if to say, gently but genuinely: This is not what we wanted.
Immediately, the underdog tale has been framed: Franz, and whomever he calls his own, are up against more than long odds. They are literally up against their world. The streets flood with salutes to a violent rule. Armies stand at the ready, eager to carry out their master’s commands. Nazi flags fly, and we can muster from the sheer volume of both Hitler’s speech and following, that opposition will not be tolerated. How naïve of Franz to think he and his sweet wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner), and their three young girls could even dare dream of living “up high.”
Malick devotes the next piece of the opening act to showcasing the simple but idyllic life of which Franz speaks. It’s the life he and Fani share in the early stages of marriage and parenthood. They reminisce on their first meeting, when Franz’s wide, close-lipped smile penetrates Fani’s shyness to begin a shared “life above the clouds.” They frolic and flirt all over St. Radegund, a small village so comfortably nestled amid the Austrian Alps that it feels like a natural piece of the landscape. It’s the Garden of Eden, visualized: man and woman, living freely together and in unison with the creation about them—trotting chickens, swaying wheat, rushing waters.
Malick’s signature direction, flush with intimate close-ups, bobbing camerawork and skyward angles befitting an outdoor documentary, lends to the free-spirited purity of it all. So does James Newton Howard’s somber but endearing score, buoyed by a lingering violin. But the film has already promised to be more overtly consequential than, say, The Tree of Life, Malick’s previous exercise of poetic roaming. The latter is content to carry the seemingly aimless approach through an entire 1950s childhood, whereas A Hidden Life wastes no time forecasting the inevitable storm cloud. The Garden exists in all its glory, but the snake is already on the prowl.
Before long, Franz is summoned out of Heaven and into reality, where World War II is just getting started. His first steps in basic training for the German army are his last. Or at least he wishes they were. Amid Hitler’s threats of genocide and the Nazis’ rampant pillaging—terrors unseen but alluded to—Franz laments to Fani, to himself and to God that his country—a federal state of Germany, at the time—is no longer worth serving.
His resistance starts small. As peers absorb training films of Nazi troops, applauding footage of their comrades at war, he sits in silence. As St. Radegund’s mayor (Karl Markovics) spouts drunkenly about immigrants and foreigners ruining “their” way of life, Franz refuses to echo the accusations. Eventually his dissent becomes tangible. Volunteers come strolling to his home soliciting donations for the war effort, but he declines to oblige the Hitler Youth. The mayor, ever sensitive to potential black marks on his community’s standing with the powers that be, pesters Franz further, revealing that our central farmer has also refused family allowances and subsidies from the state. No one else is doing this, the mayor insists, so what’s the problem with you?
Many exchanges between Franz and increasingly agitated townsfolk are intentionally frenetic, edited in such a way, with certain lines of dialogue either cut short or skipped over, that the growing disconnect is evident between a man and what’s expected of him. Body language, however, is on full display at all times. Diehl, as Franz, is superbly conflicted, trading wide smiles of yesteryear for furrowed brows and internal battles. Others are equally and often wordlessly troubled, albeit for different reasons. Whereas Franz’s face bears the weight of choosing between loyalty to principle and loyalty to nation, the mayor’s face distorts out of anger and fear. One man is deciding whether to sacrifice comfort—perhaps even life itself, and those of his loved ones—to stand up for what is right; the other isn’t deciding at all, but rather defending what’s been decided for him by the world.
“You’re worse than them!” the mayor hisses in Franz’s face, after insisting he has his constituent’s best interests in mind. “They are enemies, but you are a traitor!”
Substitute any race, culture or group in for “they” and “them,” and the tragedy remains the same: dehumanization. Someone, somewhere, is lesser than. Someone, somewhere, must be relocated, reclassified or removed for the betterment of the “people.” In this case, anyone targeted by Hitler—or anyone refusing to swear loyalty to him—is an enemy, no questions asked. Franz just happens to be the one man in little old St. Radegund holding up the assembly line. Neighbors barely mutter any words to him or his wife or their three unaware children, but they don’t have to; the cold stares and self-righteous side-steps, practiced while passing the Jägerstätters as if avoiding a sickness, convey their disgust aplenty.
After condemning Franz’s hesitance to adorn the Nazi swastika, the mayor is seen hollering as he circles a bonfire at night, shoving uniformed colleagues as if hyping up teammates before the big game. At certain points throughout the film, Malick intentionally has Franz’s growling peers speak in German, without English subtitles, underscoring the divide between the two sides. This is one of those instances. It doesn’t particularly matter what the mayor is hurling from his mouth into the air. The bonfire is at the heart of the scene, and it’s indicative of the hellish fury flowing forth. The mayor marches about, glowing red in light of the flames, screaming at all those around him but no one in particular. Yet his act burns entirely of self-centeredness. This is a soul so distorted by its own sin that it won’t rest until it takes others—especially the vulnerable—down with it.
And this is where A Hidden Life pushes back with a glimpse at warm, not destructive, light. Immediately following the mayor’s tirade, we glimpse Franz’s three little girls in their own circular act. They’re on the road next to their house, not spewing hate but rather giggling in innocence as they stomp in the mud. The mayor was illuminated by flames in the darkness of night; the girls by the sun sneaking through the greenery of daytime. Their playtime, unfortunately, is cut short when rocks start careening in from down the road. The other village children, it seems, have caught wind of Franz’s stand against the state, and decide to bully Franz and Fani’s little girls as a result.
This epitomizes the nasty cycle Franz hopes so desperately, and helplessly, to break. The film spends hardly any time in the perspective of the kids (even at nearly three hours, it moves briskly), but in this instant, we’re reminded that they—the most innocent and vulnerable of all—are not spared the power struggles of the adults charged with raising them. Why should Franz’s girls be punished for the actions of a father they cannot control? And what are we to make of the rock-throwers themselves? Should they be blamed for mimicking moms and dads content to defend the status quo, the supposed right way of life? Malick briefly teases this out further than expected, inserting uncomfortably normal snippets of home-video footage from Hitler’s mountain retreat, where the dictator is seen smiling, dancing, lounging, and even greeting some young children.
Before basic training, in between the tilling of fields, the gathering of hay and the merriment of marriage, Franz spends time looking after the village’s Catholic church. The film hints at a prior life, in which he wasn’t so unlike the cursed mayor—a “wild” thing with a penchant for quarrels—but makes clear he’s long since chosen religion over recklessness, in large part due to the devotion of his wife, Fani. Naturally, then, the one place Franz assumes he can find an ally is the church. If anyone will vouch for justice, standing firmly against the Nazi mission to decide which human lives are worth preserving, it will be the body of Christ.
Well, not so fast. The life of Jesus may demonstrate an inarguable responsibility to the lowly and overlooked—lepers, prostitutes, rule-breakers, anyone written off by the elite—but it’s not so simple for the Christians in St. Radegund and beyond. When Franz first confronts the local priest (Tobias Moretti) with his concerns, fretting that the church is making heroes and saints of the “soldiers” and “doers,” he also notes reality: that Germany is “preying on the weak.” And yet the priest’s initial reply isn’t to validate or even entertain the issue, but rather to question Franz’s end goal. “Have you spoken with anyone else?” he asks. “Your wife?…Your family? Don’t you think you ought to consider the consequences of your actions, for them?”
Then comes the dagger. After a long pause, the priest begins walking uphill, back toward the church that professes Christ’s love, before turning back for a final remark: “Your sacrifice would benefit no one.” Ultimately, the same priest helps Franz take his struggle to a higher authority, the area bishop (Michael Nyqvist). But it’s more of the same: This clergyman preaches from the pulpit about turning the other cheek—being the “anvil that outlives the hammer”—and yet essentially tells Franz in private that he must be the hammer if Nazi Germany commands it. Malick briefly shows the bishop agonizing over his own hypocrisy in the confines of his office, but it doesn’t stop him from committing Franz to the country’s cause, complete with a story about church bells being cast from melted bullets. (Nothing says “Christ-like” like justifying war so the chapel can be refurbished.)
None of this, damaging as it is to the church’s global witness, should be too surprising. Why? St. Radegund’s local church painter (Johan Leysen), who has a brief but poignant run-in with Franz in the village, explains: “Christ’s life is a demand. You don’t want to be reminded of it.” The painter is charged with depicting Jesus on the walls and windows of the town’s place of worship, and yet he admits to never painting “the true Christ”—the one who suffers, who endures ridicule and mockery and tortuous death on a cross. Instead, he paints the “comfortable Christ”—the smooth-skinned shepherd claimed in fairy tales and, frankly, their own pre-war village community. “We create admirers,” the painter says, referencing his own artwork. “We don’t create followers.”
The implications are loud and clear: Most Christians, whether robed or ordained or anything in between, exist in name only. They do not view Christ’s suffering as any kind of true model for themselves. Franz’s local priest later asks whether man has “the right to let himself be put to death for the truth” when God simply “wants us to have peace [and] happiness, not to bring suffering on ourselves.” It’s an ethos not entirely dissimilar to the West’s postmodern spiritual scene, in which everyone is incessantly urged to find their own purpose but forbidden from claiming any one belief system as singular, actionable truth—thus implementing it in real life. Live your truth; just be totally comfortable and don’t rock the boat as you do it!
But how does that square with Jesus’ own words, which reserve blessings for the “meek” and “poor in spirit,” and call disciples to embrace insults, persecution and “all kinds of evil…on my account” (Matthew 5:1-11)? Why does the Apostle Peter teach that it’s good to “suffer for righteousness’ sake” (1 Peter 3:14)? Why does James, brother of Jesus, instruct Christians to embrace “trials of various kinds” in the name of their faith (James 1:2)?
These are the questions Franz asks himself without actually speaking them. He’s sure of what is right. Swearing loyalty to Hitler would be tantamount to defying Christ himself, enlisting to shed blood for a mass murderer instead of obeying the God-man who loved his creation so much that he allowed it to shed his own blood. And yet, somehow, this obvious conviction is absent outside Franz’s little home. In fact, it’s not even always shared within it, as Fani’s sister (Maria Simon) and Franz’s mother (Karin Neuhäuser) take turns doubting or resenting the defiance that will bring them inevitable hardship. This is a man backed not into a corner, but to the edge of his world. A man whose drive to actually live out his faith runs counter to society at large—his friends, family, village and church included. This is precisely, at least in Franz’s mind, what the Bible would call a Christian suffering for Christ’s sake.
That doesn’t mean he embarks gleefully when, after returning from training, he’s eventually called back to physically join the war. Upon receiving notice in the mail, Franz’s first instinct is to run from Fani, who is with him and immediately suggests they go into hiding in the woods. He has no words to damn his predicament or comfort his humble spouse; he can only sprint away from her arms, knowing full well his problems will be front and center when he stops to breathe again. Later, as they discuss his course of action in few words but floods of emotion, Franz reaches for his wife’s hand but can’t bear to take it. He throws a toolbox in frustration and fumbles farm equipment in nervousness. When Franz and Fani finally hold each other knowing what’s on the horizon—a protest that’ll end in execution—they don’t embrace as much as wrestle, fighting tears as their arms, hands, and fingers scramble about, interlocking and caressing and screaming for an intimacy they may never know again.
This is no standard underdog story. It’s a real piece of history, recreated from real fragments of letters sent between Franz and Fani Jägerstätter. It’s also emotionally demanding, asking the audience to share these burdens with the family. Fani speaks directly to the camera at one point (whether she’s rehearsing pleas to Franz or actually addressing her husband is unclear): “You can’t change the world,” she says softly, in love. “The world’s stronger. I need you.” She is behind Franz—it’s her own faith, after all, that helps inspire this lonely walk for God—but won’t pretend to be unaffected by his decision. She lies in the grass with him before they part, their kids murmuring somewhere off-screen, and asks if he wants to have more children. Franz simply stares upward, at his wife but also well beyond her, and we already know he cannot answer that question.
The strain on Franz’s closest (only?) companions—his wife and children—ramps up after he officially and silently refuses the oath to Hitler and the Third Reich at his first military training. And this is where things get personal for me: As a relatively new dad, with a 1-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son, I know what it’s like to have your children want you, and to be there when they do. There isn’t a day, hectic or smooth, when I don’t end the night appreciating the sight of my kids sound asleep in their cribs. So when Fani writes Franz to say that their youngest is still operating as if Daddy is coming back soon—“Leave the door unlocked so Papa can come in…Save some [dinner] for Papa,”—that hurts. It hurts imagining my little girl thinking of me and desiring me and yet being unable to find me.
It also reminds me of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was born when the real Franz Jägerstätter was just 21. The civil rights hero had a purposefully public platform in America as opposed to an anonymous countryside fight in Europe, protesting racism, economic inequality and the Vietnam War rather than the Nazi regime. But the principles and daunting convictions were similar: Like Franz, MLK was driven by an obedience to God and overwhelmingly outnumbered by disapproving general society, yet chose not to fight back as much as resist fighting in hopes of shifting the moral landscape—to the point of being totally cut off from his wife and children. We celebrate Dr. King for how much he sacrificed today, but one glimpse at footage of him laughing or sharing a family dinner or doing other “normal” things, and it’s not hard to wish, some way, somehow, he could’ve avoided the suffering, just stayed with his family, been a normal and invested husband and father well beyond the age of 39.
But I sympathize with MLK’s movement, just as I do with Franz. I, too, happen to be a Christian. And I happen to believe that many “Christians,” at least in America, are more concerned with being card-carrying members of the right club (or political party) than knowing, following, serving, and suffering for the Jesus of the Bible. A good chunk of my adult church life has centered on critiquing myself as part of the same lukewarm crowd. Today, those convictions are accompanied by an increasing knowledge of the Bible’s other truths: namely, that God’s very heart in Christ is to move toward, not away from, our brokenness—including our failure to ever properly or consistently model Jesus. But we don’t introduce this irrationally loving God to neighbors by aiding or just being complicit in their destruction. That’s why Franz’s dedication, like that of Dr. King and other martyrs of the faith, is both harrowing and inspiring. It prioritizes God, above all, but comes at a cost steeper than most would ever consider.
It’s not as simple as saying Franz is cleanly justified, either. When a Nazi guard tries poking holes in his apparently divine mission, asking whether Franz is “innocent” if he stills shines soldiers’ shoes and fills their sandbags as prison punishment rather than joining them on the battlefield, we are confronted with the same question. Is this all, deep down, an act of pride? Of self-righteousness? Even the church has already made it clear: No one will notice any sacrifice Franz makes. So why bother deserting his own loved ones? His state-assigned defense attorney has an even better argument: Sign off on medical service, fulfill wartime duties in a Nazi hospital, and walk away free. End the whole charade and return home to the green embrace of St. Radegund’s hillsides.
Martin Scorsese’s Silence, in which 17th-century priests face persecution in Japan, suggests Franz might be able to rest easy doing just that. Ever prone to weave Catholic themes of guilt and faith into his films, which he’s repeatedly deemed his own kind of “prayers,” Scorsese’s epic includes a jarring scene in which the voice of Jesus calmly assures one of the priests that he can step on a tablet depicting Christ—and thus ritually renounce his Christian faith—in order to stop the punishment of other believers. The message, it seems, is that it doesn’t always matter what you say or proclaim about your faith; the only thing that truly matters is the position of your heart. Silence, it turns out, spawned a real-life letter from Malick to Scorsese during production of A Hidden Life. In it, Malick posed this question: “What does Christ want from us?”
Franz’s story suggests actions and intentions are entirely different. Many of his colleagues hint they’re aware of injustice from the Hitler regime but refuse to speak up or stand out; some even endorse his cause. Jesus may forgive them for their complacency, but is he pleased with their inaction (or dare I say moral cowardice)? This isn’t to say Scorsese is missing the heart of Christ in spotlighting a character who, like Jesus, sacrifices his own standing for the sake of others. A Hidden Life merely reinforces, more overtly, that sacrifice be part of the equation.
And sacrifice Franz does. As death draws near, one fellow inmate ridicules his quest, arguing that God has already abandoned humanity, just as he abandoned his Son. Another aligns more with the displaced Austrian farmer, echoing Matthew 5 when he ponders that the sun shines on both good and bad the same. He aims to see God’s mercy and importance in light of the darkness, even after trading in the once-cozy pastures of home for the unnatural, man-made confines of metal bars and barriers, and with the cold blade of the executioner lying in wait.
In the end, the blade wins. The nation-state wins. Nazi Germany wins. Hitler can march on, oblivious to the fact a small-town peasant refused to appease the Order. Franz Jägerstätter becomes just the latest unseen dissident to be thrown away while vouching for a humanity unapproved by Man in power.
Was it really worth it? Maybe the better question is, are the actions that provoke and ostracize people like Franz Jägerstätter worth it? Our dilemma in A Hidden Life lies in weighing the consequences of a stand for what’s right, but even that takes for granted all the wrong that precipitates a stand. It’s easy to debate whether Franz was right or wrong or went too far in his convictions. It’s a lot harder to turn the focus back to the hundreds, the thousands, the millions who bought so much into their own righteousness, their own safety, their own prosperity, that eventually, the only way to uphold the assembled power structure was to cage, shackle, beat and kill other human beings—or be ignorant of all those things. It’s people like Franz whose sacrifices expose the darkness for what it is, no matter how massive and profitable and popular.
Love your enemies. It’s a famous but near-impossible directive of Christ. A call to total selflessness. When enacted, however, it makes plain what’s good and what’s evil in a world full of both. When Dr. King permits corrupt cops and angry mobs to beat on him in the streets and drop bombs on his doorstep, refusing to raise a fist in return, only one side ultimately looks monstrous. When Jesus permits corrupt politicians and hypocritical church leaders to crucify him, bowing to their ridicule without a single return blow to their bodies, humility is exalted. When Franz kisses the boot of the same prison guard who assaults him, calling him a “brother” even as the man denies their shared humanity, he chooses only compassion in his resistance, making the officers’ vicious punches all the more heartless and his stand all the more loving.
Remember, this is not a standard underdog story. Malick is sure not to gloss over the final, fatal steps: August Diehl is once again powerfully mute in some of Franz’s last appearances, visibly shaking as he’s condemned to death. And yet Malick is just as sure not to crown any of the traditional “victors” in A Hidden Life. Franz doesn’t beat the odds in a practical, tangible sense. He loses his life. His family loses his presence. His fight is aborted. You might even say, in the grand scheme of things, his personal stand against Nazism, corrupt or complacent Christianity, etc. falls woefully short; war continued, more wars have followed, and the church remains a polarizing body, too often shacking up with fame and fortune rather than bending down with the needy.
Then why, in Malick’s picture and in light of history, does it seem possible—no, probable—that Franz conquered his trials even while being conquered by them?
Perhaps it’s because God, his model, is most accurately and beautifully and radically defined in Christianity as “gentle and lowly”—so supremely invested in humanity that he’s been dehumanized on behalf of his people. Is that not, in a sense, the exact path Franz takes in A Hidden Life? Christians, of course, also believe that Jesus rose from the grave, thus proving his divinity. And Malick’s closing montage, which begins just as his central man reaches the end of his Earthly life, can easily be interpreted as Franz’s bridge to Heaven.
Valerie Pachner, whose steady resolve as Fani is as important as any of the film’s pieces, serves as the ultimate green light for Franz’s final sacrifice, promising her husband as authorities rip them from their last embrace that “whatever you do…I’m with you.” She also provides some of the film’s last remarks, just as we witness Franz—in a flashback, but just as well a preview of an afterlife return to Eden—riding his motorcycle toward the old hillside village before the end credits emerge: “Franz, I’ll meet you there,” she says in a warm whisper. “In the mountains.”
In 2019, those same mountains played host to a special real-life screening of A Hidden Life. Visiting the actual Jägerstätter home, Malick premiered his film to Franz’s three daughters, all grown up. Fani had passed six years earlier, as a “warm, gentle soul” at age 100, but the family’s legacy had already entered its own afterlife. The girls watched the recreation of their parents’ story, reliving distant memories of a mom and dad cast aside by the rest of the world. And they approved. For every life lost and soul twisted through the terrors of a world at war, it seems, at least a couple of them were unpoisoned thanks to a sacrifice hidden in the mountains.
The world carries on, touting lessons learned from Hitler but ever eager to drown out those in the next wave of radical minority. On this side of eternity, I’d argue, the world is always the favorite. True love is always the underdog. You can decide which one wins in the end.
“…The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”