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

March 18, 2020


(Part I of Jennifer Frey’s exposition on “A Hidden Life” may be found here.)

Blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. —Matthew 5:10

As we continue our examination of Terrence Malick’s conscience-singeing exposition of the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, we find images of speeding, hissing trains stalking Franz’s imagination during his final weeks in St. Radegund. The trains symbolize his fear of losing control over the direction of his life and sharply contrast with the pastoral calm of his mountain refuge. When the real train inevitably arrives to carry him away from his beloved home, Franz holds his wife Fani’s gaze as long as he can. She is the center of his happiness, and it pains him greatly to leave her behind.

Almost immediately upon his arrival at the military barracks Franz is arrested for refusing to swear the oath. Here the narrative of Franz’s life takes a sharp turn away from the search for the truth and toward enduring all that he must suffer for its sake.

As Malick’s artistic vision of Franz’s life unfolds further, we continue to see deep resonances with Aquinas’ account of virtue. Aquinas argues that the chief act of fortitude—the virtue that allows us to remain steadfast to our judgments of reason in the face of dangers and afflictions—is endurance (ST 2-2.123.6). In the second half of the film we see Franz suffer the asceticism and indignities of prison life, the derision and abuse from the prison guards, and the ever-present temptation to act against his conscience for fear (or hope) of specific consequences.

Franz not only endures this suffering but is able to make sense of it in light of his faith. When the prison captain asks him whether he feels fear in the face of his own death, he responds that “a man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.” Franz’s simple piety enrages the captain, who calls him a “blood drinker” and accuses him of loving a “dead man” more than his own wife and children. But Franz is insistent, in part because he believes that Christ is more alive than his captors could ever imagine. He tells the captain: “Nothing can harm a good man, in life or after death. Who can harm us if we follow our conscience? They can only harm themselves. I suspect this that has happened to me is a blessing.”

In prison Franz writes letters of love and gratitude to his wife. He asks for forgiveness for any suffering he has caused her or the children: “You know, dear wife, that I do not engage in this struggle in order to make my life wonderful. As long as I don’t lose my faith, nothing can be unfortunate. Our sadness will be changed to joy. All this, in relation to eternity, is less than half a second.”

He instructs Fani not to lose hope and to “allow our hearts to yearn for everlasting gifts.”

One day without warning a train takes Franz to Berlin to the Tegel prison. Here his treatment is much harsher and more abusive. Just as the cruelties increase in Berlin, so too does the pressure on Franz to change his mind. The campaign begins with a court-appointed attorney who tries to offer him reprieve from military service but admits that he cannot waive the requirement of the oath. A Major soon follows with papers telling him that he only needs to admit that what he is doing is wrong, and then he can go free back to his family. But Franz insists to the Major, in one of the most stunning lines of the film, “I am free already.”

How can Franz insist that he is free when he is imprisoned awaiting trial? Aquinas argues that we are made in the image of God, where this means that we have been given the use of reason in order to search for the truth, and the freedom of choice to pursue what is good and avoid what is evil. We are free when we make proper use of our reason in order to make good choices. Franz is truly free, not only in the sense that he is free from the burdens of a bad conscience and sin, but also because in living the truth; he is free to love God above all things, and free to hope to enjoy the deep, abiding, and permanent happiness that Christ has promised to those who take up their cross and follow him.

Franz is eventually taken to the court in Charlottenberg to stand trial. Here the judge tries to “talk some sense” into him in private. He reminds Franz that he has no power to change the course of events, that his resistance is hidden and therefore utterly meaningless. When this doesn’t move him to recant, the judge accuses him of being a coward.

But Franz is resolute. He tells the judge, “I have that feeling inside me, that I can’t do what I believe is wrong.” The judge is angry at his simplicity and clearly troubled by a bad conscience. He, like Pontius Pilate, does not want to condemn an innocent man. Like Pilate, he also refuses to take responsibility. He tells Franz that he does not condemn him; he condemns himself.

Fani learns of his death sentence from his lawyer and travels to Berlin with the village priest to visit him. Franz is shocked to see them. The priest makes one last desperate plea with Franz. He tells him, plaintively, “God doesn’t care what you say. Only what’s in your heart.” But Franz knows better and only cares to look at Fani, to implore her for her forgiveness and understanding. In this moment between them, Franz and Fani’s eyes are locked in a steady and searching gaze. Fani assures him that whatever he decides and whatever happens next, she is “with him, always.” We see in Franz’s eyes all the complexity of this final moment between them: his profound relief for her support, his desperate yearning for her embrace, and his anguish that there is no path left back to her and their life together. As the guards tear them apart, Franz continues to stare at her as if transfixed by the miracle of her presence. This is his final trial: whether he can bear to let her walk away from him. In letting Fani go, Franz sacrifices the deepest happiness he has ever known in his life. He is now ready to die.

Aquinas argues that martyrdom is the greatest proof of the perfection of charity (or love of God), since to perform an act of martyrdom a man must sacrifice what is most precious to him—his own life and his own happiness—for the sake of what he takes to be the highest good or his ultimate end. Generally, if you want to know what a man truly loves, see what, if anything, he is willing to die for. Franz has endured every trial imaginable for the sake of being faithful to the truth, and for his fidelity he is rewarded with an untimely and unseemly death at the hands of his “sharp judge.” He is executed by guillotine in a nondescript garage outside of Berlin. The world does not notice it. The war rages on.

Malick’s film leaves its audience with a question: What does it mean to be a witness in the shadows, to die when the world is not watching? He suggests a partial answer by invoking a quote from George Eliot, which inspires the title of his film: “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.”

The meaning of Franz’s witness does not depend on its impact on others. Franz refused to call God as a witness to what is false and unjust. He responds to Christ’s call to be a witness for him—to the truth of who and what he is. Christ calls Franz personally to testify to the truth by sacrificing his own life for what is ultimately good and gives him the grace of the virtues he’ll need to answer the call, especially charity and fortitude. The meaning of Franz’s martyrdom comes not from the number of witnesses to it but from the nature of our shared humanity: as rational creatures we have been made to know, love, and delight in the truth. In this end we find our deepest meaning and purpose and ultimate fulfillment.