Every good deed brings its own punishment. – James Agate
Sometimes the spirit comes through me. I’m not saying this out of pride. I’m simply observing that one when is committed to his art – in my case, writing about historical, political and cultural issues through a mythological lens, when one asks to be a conduit for other voices – when one tries to pay attention – then one had better be prepared for synchronicities. One had better be prepared to drop what one is doing, to sacrifice some trivial pleasure or responsibility, and just listen.
Or watch. The other night, having already planned to see Terrance Malick’s new film A Hidden Life, I discovered the 2016 film Alone in Berlin on Netflix and watched this dramatized true story. A middle-aged German husband and wife, grieving for their son who’d been killed in the war, can no longer passively accept the authority of the Nazi death cult. They leave some 200 handwritten, anti-war postcards all over the city until the Gestapo arrests them. Having offered up their son to the State (in reality it was her brother, but that doesn’t matter), they ultimately sacrifice themselves. Indeed, the film’s ending is a bit ambiguous. Perhaps they want to get caught; perhaps their protest, dangerous as it is, is not enough.
Otto and Elise Hampel were sent to the guillotine in Berlin on April 4th, 1943.
The next day, somewhat shaken by that film, thinking of people who really had sacrificed for their principles, I went for a hike in Oakland’s Mountain View Cemetery, where a series of random (?) turns took me past the grave of Fred Korematsu, who had refused to cooperate with the government’s internment of his fellow Japanese-American citizens and had fought for decades to clear his name and secure compensation for them. Synchronicity.
Then, knowing what I was in for (it’s nearly impossible to see a movie these days without already knowing about its plot), I went to my local theater and watched A Hidden Life, another true story of passive resistance to the Nazis.
Franz Jägerstätter is no urban sophisticate but a devout Catholic farmer living an idyllic life in Austria’s Tyrolian mountains. His village lies below towering peaks shrouded in mist, with green hills rolling to distant horizons. Deep, intense green fills every frame. He and his wife Fani, even after having produced three daughters, are deeply, sensuously in love. In voiceovers he muses, “I thought we could build our nest high up in the trees…Fly away like birds.” Even though the war, its horrors and its moral choices will soon reach them, Fani says, “It seemed no trouble could reach our valley.”
I won’t lie; from the first images I was weeping. I’ve been to the Tyrol, and the area certainly is gorgeous. But the film immediately, repeatedly and quite deliberately presents images of such overwhelming natural beauty (later to be contrasted with the meanness of people and institutions) that I fell into a trance, as poet Mark Nepo says, “of wonder and grief”. It seemed clear (to me at least) that the filmmaker was intent on forcing viewers – me – to confront not simply the imminent loss of this fairy-tail family love nest. I was well aware that it was the first week of 2020, that this year may well be our last chance to reverse global warming, that there may well not be a future. We are all on the very edge of losing this beautiful world.
Franz’s faith is absolute. In this age of pedophile priests, racist evangelicals who look forward to the End Times and televangelists who declare you-know-who to be “the Chosen One,” we are a bit shocked to realize that Franz is a real Christian. (By the way, here’s a link to a contemporary American real Christian).
Or perhaps – with all this lush scenery, these intensely verdant meadows and gently flowing waters, all this planting and harvesting, all this much-more-than-Christian sensuality, all this dancing, playing, touching, kissing, caressing of animals, rolling on the grass, filling the hands with the fertile earth, with the mothers of all mountains in the background – perhaps, just below the surface, these people are true pagans (paganus: hill people). It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that they are devout Catholics in nearly the same way that syncretistic Haitian vodouisants or Brazilian Candomblers are.
But Franz gradually concludes that he cannot remain a moral person and also serve in Hitler’s death machine or even sign an oath of allegiance to the Fuhrer, as all Austrian men are required to do. By saying, “No,” Franz, like the Hampels, knows that he could lose everything. This is why Malick spends so much of this very long film dwelling on the family’s profound love of nature and each other. There really is so much at stake, for them and us.
Their Eden eventually becomes a social hell. Franz’s refusal to just go along calls down scorn and condemnation upon his family, because he has forced everyone else in the village to confront the roots of their own identities. Some may be afraid to publicly agree with him, while others quote Hitler, screaming about the evils of immigrants and foreigners in a place where there seems to be none of either. They brand him a traitor, spit on Fani and throw mud at their daughters. Once Franz is transported to prison in far-away Berlin, the other farmers refuse to help Fani with the back-breaking labor of tending the land and livestock. When her cow dies, she and her sister must pull a plow through her field by themselves. What a metaphor.
She ultimately makes her own choice to support his decision, but only after after months of emotional conflict in which everyone in the film, from his mother and his closest friends (who become ex-friends), to his fellow prisoners, his guards, his lawyers and even his judge, plead with him to take the oath. Everyone agrees that his resistance won’t change anything and will come at too high a price for him and his family. And there is a way out: he can be a conscientious objector and serve as a medic in a hospital, if he will only sign. Everyone has their own argument:
The Bishop: “You have a duty to the fatherland. The church tells you so.”
The villagers: “Pride! That’s what it is, Pride!” Your mother will die un-consoled.”
A fellow prisoner: “You can’t change the world; the world is stronger.”
A sadistic guard: “I can do anything I want to you! No one will notice!”
His judge: “Nature has not noticed the sorrow that has come over people.”
His priest: “God doesn’t care what you say, only what is in your heart.”
Fani: “I need you.”
By the end, after Fani’s heart-wrenching final meeting with him in the prison has failed to persuade him, the only man in the film to support him, her father, admits, “Better to suffer injustice than to do it.” Franz, like the Hampels, goes willingly, if with deep sadness, to the guillotine.
A few historical notes: The municipality of Sankt Radegund at first refused to put his name on a local war memorial and the state did not approve a pension for Fani until 1950. Eventually, several books and films made their names known, and the Vatican beatified Franz in 2007. Fani died in 2013, age 100.
You can read dozens of reviews of A Hidden Life here. Most are of interest only to other film reviewers and serious film buffs, but a couple of writers observe its religious dimensions. Peter Ranier writes:
Most of the famous religious-themed Hollywood movies…are biblical epics functioning as star-studded illustrated guidebooks to sacred texts… “A Hidden Life” is the antithesis of those epics. It’s an attempt to make the movie itself function as a religious experience. It has a powerful sense of the immanence of life. Franz’s stance is a deeply moral one, but his morality is based on his religious precepts. This is what differentiates “A Hidden Life” from so many Hollywood movies where people, without any religious underpinning, fight for what is right.
“A Hidden Life” is less a story than an experience, a spiritual journey made accessible through light and sound. Malick doesn’t transcend cinema. He sanctifies it.
But it’s the film’s moral dilemma that throws us into such torment. Why, ask so many characters (and viewers), should Franz do the right thing if it changes nothing? What is the value of an unwitnessed sacrifice? More on that later.