“For 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.” –George Eliot
It happens all the time. We’re going about our lives, our work, our play, our families and our friendships, and then it hits us. It’s a product of what we hear, what we see, and sometimes even what we do ourselves. It’s a feeling that something’s not quite right with the world, a feeling that makes us uncomfortable with what was done or what was said. And the urge to respond, to resist or to repair that bad thing that has happened, begins to rise up in us. What then do we do? Here we see a wide divergence of behavior: some choose to ignore the feeling because they’re too busy to deal with the situation, some choose to stuff it back down because they doubt their ability to be able to make a difference, even if they did choose to act, some are afraid of what the consequences might be to their resistance, and some are so accustomed to the broken state of the world they live in that their capacity to respond has withered dangerously close to the point of apathy. But there are also some who choose to act – and as author George Eliot suggests, we owe an immeasurable debt to their courage.
A Hidden Life, directed by Terrence Malick, is one such inspirational story of resistance. Its protagonist, Franz Jägerstätter, is an Austrian farmer who lives with his family in the beautiful mountain village of St. Radegund. And unlike most of the ethical dilemmas we may face in our own lifetimes, the ramifications of the choice that Franz must make may very well be his death. It’s 1939. World War II has begun. With his nation at war, Franz and many other young men are called up for basic training in the military, should his country require his service. However, with the Nazi blitzkrieg compelling the French to surrender quickly, Franz is sent back home – for now.
During his time in training, Franz begins to doubt the purity of their cause. He confesses to his parish priest, “We’re killing innocent people, raiding other countries, preying on the weak. The priests call them heroes, even saints – the soldiers that do this. It might be that the other ones are the heroes, the ones who defend their homes against the invaders.” Driven by the growing conviction that he cannot support the war, he commits himself to the position of a conscientious objector. Every Austrian soldier called up for active duty was required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. Franz, when he is ultimately called up in 1943, chooses not to. The priest, Father Fürthauer, entreats Franz to change his mind: “Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth? Could it possibly please God? He wants us to have peace, happiness, not to bring suffering on ourselves.” But for Franz, the question is not so muddled. He responds, “We have to stand up to evil.”
This growing feeling of discontent, this wrestling with the morality of his historical moment, this coming to grips with all that will come to pass for both Franz and his family because of his choice – this is the captivating drama of the story. Much of what we know of Franz’s experience as a conscientious objector comes from the historical correspondence between him and his wife, Fani. And with powerful narrative style, a good portion of the film’s dialogue adopts the framework of written letters, with excerpts of the letters narrated seamlessly over images that advance the story in rich and beautiful ways. Fani encourages her husband: “Trust in the triumph of the good. No evil can happen to a good man. Not a sparrow falls to earth but he [God] knows it.” Franz returns: “When you give up the idea of survival at any price, a new light floods in… Once you never forgave anyone, judged people without mercy. Now you see your own weakness, so you can understand the weakness of others.” And even when Fani and her family are in the midst of facing daily derision, exclusion and neglect from their disapproving community, she writes these persevering words to Franz: “He [God] won’t send us more than we can bear.”
At every step along the way, Franz is pressured by various actors from three different angles in an attempt to get him to give up his fight: futility, jeopardy and perversity – the same reasons that Samantha Power, in her brilliant work “A Problem From Hell” illustrates, have often been cited in defense of The United States’ failure to prevent or mitigate acts of genocide around the world. Futility suggests that one’s actions cannot truly make a difference, jeopardy that the cost of action is too high and perversity that one’s actions will only make the situation worse. Though these sentiments are echoed by several characters throughout Franz’s journey, Judge Lueben at Franz’s military tribunal most poignantly captures the arguments from futility and perversity: “Do you imagine that anything you do will change the course of this war? That anyone outside this court will ever hear of you? No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. Your actions may even have the opposite effect of what you intend. Someone else will take your place.” Meanwhile, it is Father Fürthauer who best expresses the jeopardy Franz’s position places him in: “Don’t you think you ought to consider the consequences of your actions for [your family]? You’d almost surely be shot. Your sacrifice would benefit no one.”
Despite all their protests of the futility of his actions, the fact remains that Franz’s decision to stand firm in his convictions forces a significant number of military officials, prison guards, judges, attorneys and religious leaders, not to mention his fellow villagers, to reckon with the choices they are making in stark contrast to his own. More than once, the personal challenge and conviction is expressed through questions like, “Do you know better than I?,” “Are you better than the rest?” or “Do you judge me?” Of course, these questions are meant by the questioners to challenge Franz’s position, but they cannot escape some serious reexamination of their own consciences at the same time. For example, there is a compelling scene in the judge’s chambers where we as the viewers are very much in doubt whether or not the judge is going to set Franz free. The film brilliantly highlights the judge’s inner conflict by having the judge get up from his desk and sit in the chair that Franz has just left, presumably contemplating what he would do if their roles were reversed. Before pronouncing Franz’s sentence, the judge asks, “Do you have a right to do this?” To which Franz deftly replies, “Do I have a right not to?”
For those of us who would dismiss or ignore our moral concerns about a situation for a variety of reasons in any given day, Franz’s piercing question is left resounding in the air: Do we have a right not to take these situations seriously? Not to follow our conscience into action in service to what we believe to be good and true and right? Father Fürthauer accompanies Fani to see Franz while he is imprisoned, pleading with him once more to change his mind on the grounds that his actions are spiritually irrelevant, that he need not fear divine judgment: “God doesn’t care what you say, only what’s in your heart. Say the oath and think what you like.” But is that true?
Jesus tells us that “everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). Likewise, the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes concludes with these verses: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” There is no doubt in the film that both Franz and his wife hold a high view of the authority of God above all things, even above his servants who are offering him a tempting way out from this particular cross that he’s been called to bear. Franz cannot abdicate his responsibility for both his words and his actions. He must submit to God and to His definition of good and evil. Franz concludes: “I have this feeling inside me… that I can’t do what I believe is wrong.”
We may share Franz’s conviction that we would never willfully choose what we believe to be wrong. But how do we know what is right? Sincerity of belief and clarity of conscience are not in themselves a guarantee that we are in fact devoted to truth. There were plenty of Nazis who were firmly convinced that they were serving the greater good. And we would do well to recognize that, unlike Franz, we may never be called to swear loyalty to a cause which is so manifestly evil in nature. Confronted by a myriad of spiritual forces masquerading in shades of grey, we must pursue wisdom in the one who claimed to be “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Like Franz, we must seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness first and foremost so that we might cultivate our souls to see ourselves and our world as God sees us. However, the greater threat is not that we may never ascertain the truth but that we will abandon the truth for a lie, that we will settle for what is easy or what is comfortable instead of what is right. When we feel the pressures of futility, perversity and jeopardy pressing in on us, coaxing us to give in, how will we respond?
Imagine if each of us took a stand and did what we judged to be right rather than what we judged to be practical or necessary or self-serving. Imagine the difference it could make. Imagine the collective force that all of our hidden lives would have upon each other, upon our communities, upon our world. And imagine if we were each supported in our commitment to truth by others in our community with the kind of unwavering faithfulness and devotion that Fani shows to her husband. Her last words to Franz are: “I love you. Whatever you do. Whatever comes. I’m with you. Always. Do what is right.” Her life, too, was once a hidden life – and one that is nothing short of awe-inspiring. One day, our lives will be hidden no longer. As Fani says in closing, “A time will come when we will know what all this is for. And there will be no mysteries.” Until then, may our lives be full of grace, truth, humility, wisdom and fierce devotion to God who alone is good and “who will make everything right again.”