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The moral challenge of Franz Jägerstätter’s “hidden life” resonates with us still

When I was 13 years old and attending an agricultural boys boarding school in Northern NSW, a surfy kid arrived from the coast with bleached blond hair and suitably cocky demeanour. He stood out like a sore thumb, and not long into his country sojourn the collective wisdom of his peers was he had to go. In what was already, let’s say, a “robust” environment, a group of boys formed an association dedicated to making this kid’s life hell. Every day he was to be tormented. He didn’t last beyond Year 8. I didn’t participate in the cruel jibes and carefully orchestrated exclusions to which he was subjected. But I never once did anything to protect him.

I sometimes find myself wondering what became of him, and whether it was this episode in my young life that has fuelled my interest in stories of the brave loner who stands up to injustice and, heroically, takes on wrongdoers at great personal cost. The quintessential version of this for our generation seems to be the stories that have emerged in the last fifty years, of the very few who managed to find something within themselves to oppose the machinery of Nazism in all its brutality and cartoonish villainy.

There are some compelling accounts for modern audiences of these impressive, rare moments of resistance. Director Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005), Hans Fallada’s hauntingly restrained novel Alone in Berlin, any number of biographies of German theologian-turned-conspirator, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They all cover this territory.

Less celebrated, until now, is the life of Franz Jägerstätter, the Austrian peasant farmer, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1943 for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Nazi Party. Terrence Malick’s new film A Hidden Life takes on the story of Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska, or Fani (Valerie Pachner), which he tells with such heartbreaking intensity that the almost three hours is frankly an ordeal. But it’s one that feels worth enduring.

The film takes its title from the famous concluding sentence of George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Describing the book’s saintly central character, Dorothea Brooke, Eliot writes:

the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for 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.

Malick similarly asks viewers to consider the ethical complexity and the sometimes enormous cost of doing what’s right without hope of reward or notoriety. This is not about grand heroic gestures, but being faithful to the true, the good and the beautiful in whatever corner of the world, and whatever time in history, we find ourselves. The challenge, but also the imaginative possibilities, this story provides is what stays with you long after you leave the theatre.

Malick’s idyllic depiction of the Jägerstätter’s family life farming the lush, dramatically beautiful mountains of upper Austria is mesmerising. It is a fecund cinematic feast of threshing, chopping, milking, planting, baking, mixed with play and laughter and fun. And love.

But storm clouds are coming to the village of St. Radegund. As the war edges closer to this Edenic paradise, the Jägerstätters are not naïve to the encroaching challenge. When Germany unites with Austria in 1938, Franz is the only one in his village to vote against the move. Once the war comes, he is called up for army training twice, but because farmers are needed, he is sent home, awaiting further instruction. During that time, he becomes convinced he simply cannot serve an evil master. He would have to refuse.

The tension leading to the day when a letter arrives in the post requiring him to report for military duty is palpable, but we know where this goes. An oath of allegiance to the Führer and the National Socialist Party is a bridge too far for Franz. His refusal and inevitable incarceration are both a jolt and the pivot around which the story turns.

Left alone to raise the couple’s three daughters and to work the farm, Fani is ostracised and tormented by the other villagers who view her husband as a traitor. “East of Eden,” farming life becomes relentless toil while the spectre of what awaits the family infects every waking hour. Malick’s audience has to battle through with these characters; his prolonged meditation on their purgatorial misery is deliberate and intensely affecting.

Do these hidden lives and seemingly insignificant actions really matter? Does it still make sense to stand against the tide even in the face of grave consequences?

Malick poses confronting questions for modern viewers. Do these hidden lives and seemingly insignificant actions really matter? Faced with society-wide injustice and corruption, does it still make sense to stand against the tide even in the face of grave consequences?

The unfolding drama reveals how the choices and actions of the Jägerstätters are far from straightforward. Franz harbours no romantic notions that his resistance would make any difference to the life of his village, let alone his country or the course of the war. It is very clear to him that taking a stand like this will make his life and the life of his wife and family decidedly and irrevocably worse. Every piece of advice he receives — from the village mayor to his local pastor; from his lawyer to his friends — implores him to relent. “Just say the oath and don’t mean it. God will know,” says one frustrated interlocutor.

But even well into the process of prosecution, when presented with an avenue of escape, Jägerstätter refuses to acquiesce. His conscience simply won’t allow it. “I cannot and may not take an oath in favour of a government that is fighting an unjust war,” he is reported to have said.

It’s hard to know what contemporary audiences will make of the re-telling of this troubling story. What might it have to say about modern challenges and personal choices? Schoolyard, workplace and online bullying have not gone away. Injustices large and small, whether they be at an individual or societal level, are certainly with us. It remains a huge challenge to choose integrity over expediency, especially when everyone around you is taking an easier path. The concept of costly, perhaps even life-threatening sacrifice in order to do what is right continues to be appealing, even if it’s rarer than ever.

According to any utilitarian calculation of cost and benefit, Franz and Fani’s decision makes no sense at all. And A Hidden Life resists providing any easy answers to the moral complexity presented here.

At a time when religious conviction is perceived to be mostly harmful, it’s worth noting that in the case of the Jägerstätters, it is undoubtedly their faith that drove them to the position they took and sustained them as they dealt with the consequences. Franz was disillusioned with his church’s complicity in the crimes of the Nazi regime. He visited the Bishop of Linz, searching in vain for some spiritual encouragement for his stand, but lamented that the church authorities “don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.”

He situated himself within a story that insists that his actions and choices mattered beyond the here and now, and would have resonance into eternity.

He was, however, inspired by his local priest, Father Josef Karobath, who in 1940 had been jailed for preaching an anti-Nazi sermon, and then was banished from his district. Karobath later admitted he tried to talk Franz out of refusing military service but said the peasant farmer defeated him with arguments from the Scriptures! Later, while in prison in Brandenburg, Franz was hugely encouraged by the example of Catholic Priest Franz Reinisch, who, a year earlier, was executed for refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler.

Jägerstätter followed in Reinisch’s footsteps, believing the Führer’s regime was irredeemably evil and opposed to his Christ. That made his choice, while agonising, relatively straightforward. He situated himself within a story that insists that his actions and choices mattered beyond the here and now, and would have resonance into eternity. He evidently took great comfort from that story, but it also provided him with resolve — and perhaps the one thing that, ultimately, makes sense of his short and hidden life.

A Hidden Life is in cinemas from Thursday, 30 January 2020.

Simon Smart is Executive Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and co-host of the historical documentary, For the Love of God: How the church is better and worse than you ever imagined.

This article first appeared at ABC Religion & Ethics.