Thursday, November 18, 2021

European Heritage

A Hidden Life

Franz Jägerstätter” is a name officials of the Third Riech hoped would be forgotten. He was an Austrian peasant farmer who lived in the small town of St. Radegund, and there was no obvious earthly reason why he should be remembered. 

Until Nazi officers did the very thing that would make his name remembered: they killed him.

One way Jägerstätter has been remembered is by Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life. The film opens in 1939, and Jägerstätter (August Diehl) is working his farm along with his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner). We also see Franz sweeping the floors of a church and ringing the church bells. We see him playing with his children. (We also see many shots of the lovely valley in which they live and the pretty blue sky and lovely white clouds. This is a Terrence Malick film -- which means many long, lovely views of pretty scenery.) Franz says in a voiceover, “I thought we could build our nest high up, in the tree. Fly away, like birds - to the mountains. It seemed no trouble could reach our valley. We lived in the clouds.”

But trouble does come. Franz is drafted to military training in the Austrian army (which is serving alongside the German military). When he comes back to his village after training and is greeted joyfully by his family, he knows he cannot go back to serve in the army. He tells his priest, Father Ferdinand Fürthauer (Tobias Moretti) about his mistrust in the Austrian government, “Father, if they call me up, I can’t serve. We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries.”

The priest is not happy to hear this. He says, “Have you spoken to anyone else? Your wife, family? Don’t you think you should consider the consequences of your actions, for them? You will almost surely be shot. Your sacrifice will benefit no one. I will speak to the Bishop about your case. He is a wiser man than I.”

The Bishop (Michael Nyqvist in his final role) tells Franz, “You have a duty to the Fatherland. The church tells us so.” 

So Franz learns he will have no support from the church in his decision not to serve. So he continues to work his farm. Someone comes to his farm and says, ”We are collecting for the war effort.” 

He responds, “I don’t have anything to give.” 

His family refuses to accept Austria’s “family allowance,” and when someone passes him on a trail and says, “Heil Hitler!” Franz responds… Well, let’s keep this as a family blog and just say he has another suggestion for Hitler.

Franz is arrested and held by the German authorities.

And Franz’s wife and daughter are left to work the farm in St. Radegund, and Fani must also care for Franz’s mother, who blames Fani for “changing her son.” The people of the village look at the Jägerstätter family as traitors and refuse to support them.

Perhaps worst of all, the local Catholic church treats Fani and her daughters as pariahs. On Corpus Christi Sunday, as is the tradition of this village, a parade of children walk past; Franz and Fani’s children are not allowed to participate. Father Ferdinand apologizes but tells her it would just cause too many problems if they joined in.

Many other political prisoners are in prison with Franz. He cares for the other prisoners, sharing his food with them and sharing the love of Jesus. For many months visitors are forbidden, but eventually, Fani and Father Ferdinand are allowed to visit.

Franz’s lawyer has what he thinks is good news for his client. He says Franz doesn’t have to serve as a soldier, he could serve in the medical services. Surely that wouldn’t be against his conscience, the lawyer argues, but Franz asks if he will have to pledge his allegiance to the Fuhrer. The lawyer tells him that yes, he would.

Franz refuses to say those words.

The priest tells him, “The charges will be dropped, I’m sure, if you just change your stand. I beg you. The war will soon be over. We might never again have to face the situation of doing the opposite of what you’re called to do. You have time to change. God doesn’t care what you say with your mouth, only what is in your heart. Say the oath and think what you like.”

But Franz believes that the words he says matter.

Jesus seemed to be of the same opinion that words matter. He said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in Heaven.

The priest urges Fani to speak sense to her husband, and she says, “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes, I'm with you. Always. Do what is right.”

Franz wouldn’t relent. He was tried, sentenced (by a judge played by Bruno Ganz in what was also his last role), and executed. The German and Austrian authorities assumed he would be forgotten.

But Franz Jägerstätter was not forgotten. He was declared a martyr and beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. And, of course, Terrence Malick made this magnificent three-hour film about his life that screened at the Cannes Film Festival. His life did make a difference

As for our Movie Churches rating for the clergy and church in this film, I am tempted to give the lowest Steeple Rating. After all, Franz’s priest and the Catholic Church in Austria didn’t just stay silent about the evils of the Nazis, they supported them. But Franz’s priest was at his parishioner’s side until his death, and the Catholic Church did eventually recognize and honor this hidden life. Two steeples. 

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