VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Inside the Vatican’s small movie theater on Dec. 4, the famously reclusive director Terrence Malick screened his latest masterpiece, “A Hidden Life,” which tells the real-life tale of a peasant farmer in Nazi-occupied Austria who, in light of his Catholic faith, refuses to swear loyalty to Hitler.
While the story is set during the climax of the Second World War, its message strikes a powerful note today, as it addresses political and personal freedom and examines the cost of standing up for what is right against an oppressive and violent government.
As the world faces a new wave of nationalism and authoritarianism, the example of the Austrian farmer, Franz Jägerstätter, played by August Diehl, inspires viewers to stand up for what is good against all odds.
“If our leaders are not good, if they are evil, what should we do?” Jägerstätter asks his priest toward the
beginning of the three-hour film, as the struggle in his conscience has just begun to emerge.
High in the mountains of Austria, Franz and his wife, Franziska, played by Valerie Pachner, live an almost idyllic life with their three cherub-looking little girls and the hard yet rewarding work in the fields.
Malick, who apart from being a director is also a Harvard- and Oxford-educated philosopher, paints the beauty and simplicity of this world masterfully. Since his first movie, “Badlands,” in 1973, he has used the camera to narrate his love affair with the majesty of nature. In this director’s eyes, the physical world is often used as the language of God.
Not that God is ever mentioned in his latest film: There is no need. Whether it’s a small crucifix set amid green hills, or Franz’s eyes forever reaching toward the heavens, God’s presence is always implied.
The peace of this bucolic setting is trampled by the arrival of Nazi officials searching for recruits for the war effort. Slowly the imprint of Nazism begins to encroach on Franz’s world. Hateful words soon follow. In time Franz is forced to decide whether to be faithful to what he knows to be true in his heart or to listen to what the world is compelling him to do.
Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI declared Franz to be a martyr in June 2007 and he was beatified in October of that year in Austria.
“During the course of post-production, it sort of hit us all just how it got more and more important to show that film,” Pachner told Religion News Service in a phone interview on Tuesday (Dec. 10). “It felt like it got even more timely and important to show that film now.”
The actress said that she was also impacted by the film and how it inspires viewers to “do what is right
and trust that feeling.”
While Franz is facing battering and ridicule in Nazi prisons, Pachner's character, nicknamed Fani, is left to struggle alone to maintain the house, prepare for winter and look after her children. Their small village of St. Radegund quickly turns against her, unable to understand why her husband can’t just make the oath and move on like everybody else.
Her struggles, Pachner said, point to a parallel martyrdom story, where the burden of Franz’s
decision is shared between the two of them, underlined by the fact that Fani strongly inspired Franz’s
“There is a sense that she really influenced him into this more pious and faithful life,” Pachner said. “She felt that even if she had to go through so much pain and hardship now, she also knows that she was also the one who brought him down that path of faith.”
Malick doesn't spare viewers when it comes to his characters' suffering, psychological or physical. Fani speaks directly to the camera when she questions the meaning of her husband’s sacrifice, and the scenes of beatings that Franz endures at the hands of his Nazi captors are unflinching.
The torture drives home the choice Franz and Fani make. “Better to suffer injustice, than to do it,” is a leitmotif of the film, as, time and time again, Franz refuses to utter the simple words that would allow him to go back home to his wife and children.
But this is secondary to the message Malick presented at the Vatican screening: “It’s a story about freedom,” he said. Franz, who found freedom atop his motorcycle in his youth, then in the green pastures of his home with his family, is finally freed by refusing to bow to the powers that be.
In one scene of the movie, a painter working in a church talks to Franz about his peaceful and loving depictions of Christ, admitting that he cannot depict him in any other way because that is everything he has known.
“Someday I will paint a true Christ,” the artist said.
Not long before the screening, Malick wrapped shooting for his next film, “The Last Planet,” which tells the story of Jesus and his disciples. After depicting the relationship between nature and the divine, Malick seems ready to show the world what his “true Christ” is all about.