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Malick’s “A Hidden Life”: The Cost of Conscience (Part I)

March 11, 2020


It is better to suffer injustice than to commit it.

—Plato, The Apology

The Catholic view of the moral life is that we are created to be happy—deeply fulfilled and satisfied as rational creatures who naturally seek to know what is true, love what is good, and delight in what is beautiful. But while our desire for happiness is natural, there is no path toward it except through the cultivation and exercise of the virtues, most especially faith, hope, and love, since these virtues dispose us towards our perfect and eternal happiness with God.

There are as many ways to seek happiness in one’s circumstances as there are unique human persons that exist, but there are some kinds of actions that are opposed to happiness and therefore never choice-worthy: for instance, adultery, murder, judicial condemnation of the innocent, and the swearing of a false oath or perjury. A wise person knows that performing sinful actions can never profit him, not even when such acts might bring about good consequences or prevent harms. Even Plato’s Socrates recognized that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Indeed, Socrates died in the conviction that no good—not even his external freedom or his own life—can be worth the price of injustice in his soul. St. Paul counsels the same in Romans 3:8: we may never do evil that good may come from it.

Socrates and St. Paul were both martyrs—witnesses to the truth in their willingness to sacrifice their lives for it. Socrates was a martyr for philosophical truth. St. Paul was a martyr for the truth of Jesus as the Christ.

Terrence Malick’s recent film, A Hidden Life, affords us a glimpse into the drama of martyrdom as it unfolds in the life of Franz Jägerstätter, a simple farmer who lives in a small, provincial village high up in the Austrian Alps. Malick’s artistic vision of Franz’s life reveals the complex interplay of love, fortitude, and justice in his soul. In the story of Franz’s martyrdom, we see that to be able to live the truth and witness it to others, one must not only know the truth about what justice demands, but also love it with all of his heart, and have the courage and resolve to remain faithful to it in the face of grave dangers.

The first half of Malick’s film focuses our attention on Franz’s attempt to seek counsel to arrive at an informed conscience about the war, while the second half focuses on the love and courage he must summon to follow his conscience where it inevitably leads him: to the “sharp judge” who executes him by guillotine. In these first of two posts for the Word on Fire Blog, I want to focus on Franz as a humble and prudent man who seeks the counsel of others before making one of the most important decisions in his life. In my follow-up, I will turn to Franz’s moral character, with particular focus on his charity and his fortitude.

Franz has a simple but beautiful life with his wife Franziska and their three young girls on his farmstead in St. Radegund; Malick shows us that their lives radiate with joy as they participate in the common goods of family and village life together. But the simplicity of their lives is threatened by the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany and the subsequent invasion of Poland, which drags Europe into another world war.

Franz is increasingly worried that he will be called up to fight for the German Reich once more (he has already served in France, where he saw Nazi cruelty and injustice firsthand). He begins to question whether he can in good conscience swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, as military service demands. He discusses his troubled conscience with his wife, Fani, and his neighbors, but he also seeks the prudent counsel of his fellow villagers, most especially his priest. The priest counsels him to focus on the negative consequences of refusing to swear the Hitler’s oath. He warns him that his sacrifice “would benefit no one” and also harm those for whom he is responsible. When Franz travels to Linz to seek the counsel of his bishop, he is simply told that as a Catholic he must fulfill his duties to his Fatherland.

Franz sees clearly that the counsel of these clerics is not wise, since it has been distorted by fear. The local priest knows that his predecessor was jailed for opposing the Nazis; the bishop is worried that Franz is a Nazi spy. Both men are trying to protect their people from harm, but they do so at the risk of downplaying what is at stake: the swearing of a false oath, a prohibited act. Franz is taking sin seriously, while those who have spiritual authority over him are downplaying it.

As Franz searches for clarity, he encounters an artist in the church where he serves as sacristan. The artist confesses to Franz that rather than suffer for the truth he merely paints it. He speaks of the people who come into the church thinking that if they lived in the time of Christ they would not have condemned or denied him. He worries that he is contributing to these “dreams” insofar as he paints a comfortable Christ with a halo over his head. He suggests that someday he’ll have the courage to paint the true Christ—the one who suffered in agony for his love of mankind. In this encounter, Franz recognizes that an authentic imitation of Christ will require great sacrifices of him.

And yet Franz continues to agonize over his predicament. He worries that his judgment is clouded by pride and that the suffering his refusal might cause would be too high a price for his mother, wife, and daughters to pay. While Franz is uncertain of his own judgment, he has good reason to harbor grave doubts about the oath. In the Summa theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas argues that to swear an oath is to call on God as a witness to the truth of what one asserts (ST 2-2.89). In Franz’s case, the oath of loyalty he was obliged to publicly pronounce went as follows: “I swear by God this Holy Oath, that I want to offer unconditional obedience to the Führer of the German Reich and people, Adolf Hitler, the commander in chief of the Wehrmacht, and be prepared as a brave soldier to risk my life for this oath at any time.”

Aquinas argues that an oath must neither be false nor unlawful—neither lacking in truth nor justice. He further notes that in an oath “reverence for the name of God is taken in confirmation of a promise” (ST 2-2.89.5) Finally, the swearing of an oath creates an obligation, for “a man is bound to make true what he has sworn” (ST 2-2.89.7). In swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler, Franz would be bound to do whatever an evil man demands of him.

Franz is not educated in scholastic theology—he is a peasant—but he ultimately concludes that he cannot swear the oath to Hitler, which, he claims, “hurts his heart, his mind.” Franz’s determination to remain faithful to his conscience creates a scandal in his village. The mayor, a committed Nazi, calls him a coward, and his relatives accuse him of being proud. “Who are you?” they ask. “Even the cardinal orders us to pray for Hitler, to ring the church bells on his birthday.”

Even his mother turns against him. Franz reminds her, gently, that she is the one who taught him to be brave and true. But she does not understand his decision and she does not hide her bitter disappointment in him. Fani tries to be supportive, but mostly she wants to pretend that Franz’s predicament can be avoided. But Franz receives his papers to report for duty, and Fani’s fears can no longer be denied. Franz’s search for truth is over; he must now do as his conscience bids him.

Malick has the camera linger longingly over the stunning mountains and clear streams of Franz’s beloved home as he prepares to leave it behind. The steadfast and unyielding character of the mountains and the clarity and purity of the water are also reflected in Franz’s character: his clarity of vision, his purity of heart, and his steady fortitude to stick to what his reason commands. Though he must now leave his happy home behind, he bears the mark of it in his soul, and this is what will enable him to endure the trials he is about to face.