By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
A Hidden Life, a film written and directed by Terrence Malick, can be summed up with the phrase: No one on earth is freer than someone who searches for the truth and banks his life on it.
In a rare public appearance, Terrence Malick joined invited guests on Wednesday afternoon in the Vatican for its screening. The film is based on the life of a World War II Austrian conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter. Paolo Ruffini, the Prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication was also on hand to introduce the screening. In his opening remarks, the Prefect situated the screening within the 60th anniversary of the Vatican Film Library. He also drew attention to the value of the film itself, saying the film tells a story that challenges our souls, our consciences and our fears and puts into play our tendency to forget the past so as not to take responsibility.
The meaning of a life
Throughout the film the contrasts raging around Franz Jägerstätter are powerfully portrayed: the horror of war and the beauty of his family and rural life; the facile acceptance by so many and the interior agony of the one in the face of serving a tyrannical regime. In a scene reminiscent of the baptism scene in The Godfather, Malick captures the essence of any Christian surrounded by images of a “comfortable Christ with halos over His head” which create “admirers instead of followers”. The Christian named Franz is able to break free of the now-obvious hypocrisy and chooses instead to “walk the talk”.
The choice that faced Franz Jägerstätter was that of swearing an oath of loyalty to Hitler, which in conscience he could not do if he wanted to remain a member of the Kingdom of God. We see him struggling with that choice and its consequences in one scene after another with a minimum of words, powerful images, and poignant music. Through the script, the viewer is privy to the dialogue Franz and his wife kept up through letters during his military training and eventual imprisonment. The viewer is accosted with a recurring question: what do a person’s individual choices matter in the grand scheme of things.
Franz confronted that question and was condemned to death without knowing the impact that his choice would have on the Church, whose representatives had encouraged him to do his duty and serve the regime. It would be a Jesuit Archbishop of Bombay, Thomas Roberts, who two decades later would propose a change in the Church’s teaching regarding conscientious objection. The man who had been considered a traitor by his neighbors and fellow Austrians was declared a martyr by Pope Benedict XVI and beatified on 26 October 2007. His feast day is 21 May, the day he became a member of that Kingdom he considered his true “fatherland”.
A project of faith
Elizabeth Bentley, one of the producers who was also present for the Vatican screening, characterized the project as an “experience of faith”. She has been working on the project from 2007, but had known about Franz since her childhood. “This is the story I wanted to tell”, she told Vatican Radio. During the years that she has been working on the project, she told us that she got to know many people in the “Jägerstätter community”, including his wife who was 97 years old when Elizabeth met her in 2010. “She gave me her blessing to make this story and that has surrounded me through the entire process”. Personally speaking, Elizabeth acknowledged that making the film has been life-changing.
Choosing Terrence Malick
After “pushing the story and the script around with a lot of rejection”, Elizabeth discovered that Terrence Malick knew Franz’s story. “A number of things fell into play”, she says. Terrence “made a lot of decisions that are perfect”, she continues, including the actors and the score. “It was a wonderful decision to bring Terry on, and I learned a lot”.
A Hidden Life stars August Diehl and Franz Jägerstätter. His wife, Franziska (Fani) is played by Valerie Pachner. It premiered at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival in May 2019 and will begin its international release on 13 December.