A Hidden Life: Tragic, Beautiful, Inspiring

13 April 2021 by Wes Bredenhof

It’s the Second World War.  You’re living in Nazi-occupied Europe.  You’re required to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler.  If you refuse, you’ll be charged with treason, imprisoned, and likely executed.  Standing your ground means leaving behind a wife and three young daughters.  You’ll be ostracized by your community and even your religious leaders won’t support you. 

That’s the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer.  Jägerstätter became convinced the Nazi regime was wicked and that he could do nothing to support it.  When he was conscripted into the German army in 1940, he refused to swear allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Jägerstätter’s tragic story is powerfully told in Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life.

It’s a beautifully made film.  The stark mountains of Austria feature in long, lingering shots which allow for contemplation.  Shots of the rapid rivers and creeks underscore the momentum of the storyline.  Even the weather accentuates the mood as viewers are drawn deeper into Jägerstätter’s crisis of conscience.

The soundtrack is likewise thoughtful.  For example, there’s a pivotal point in the story where we hear the familiar notes of J.S. Bach’s Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen from the St. Matthew’s Passion – “Come, you daughters, help me lament.”  There could hardly be a more appropriate piece of music for this moment in the film.  

Although it’s a story with no happy ending, A Hidden Life is profoundly inspiring.  Franz Jägerstätter was a Roman Catholic and his religion was important to him and his wife.  The film intimates that his religion was fundamental to his convictions about Nazism.  However, that doesn’t mean the alienation of Reformed viewers.  There’s one scene in which Jägerstätter pauses a moment before a Madonna and another in which he glances at a crucifix as he walks by on the road.  There are some scenes in which he interacts with Roman Catholic clergy.  Aside from that, there’s nothing specifically Roman Catholic brought to the fore.  Instead, the focus is on Jägerstätter’s steady conviction that Nazism is an evil ideology – certainly a sentiment with which Reformed believers would agree.

A repeated theme in the film is the pressure placed on Jägerstätter to compromise.  He’s told repeatedly that his resistance is going to accomplish nothing.  He’ll never be remembered.  Widowing his wife and leaving his children fatherless was going to be futile.  Even his local parish priest and bishop urged Jägerstätter to stop dissenting.  The only real support he received came from his wife Fani.  Despite all that, Franz Jägerstätter never wavered, not even when faced with the guillotine.

A Hidden Life is a family-friendly film.  There’s no sexual immorality or blasphemy.  There’s one scene in which a fellow prisoner is mocking Jägerstätter’s belief in God, questioning how he can still believe in God in the face of Nazi brutality.  And there are some vivid depictions of that Nazi brutality which may be upsetting to sensitive younger children.  It’s a long film (174 minutes, nearly 3 hours), but the length and the cinematography make the patient viewer reflect.  Christian families will definitely find fodder for discussion.  I enjoyed A Hidden Life tremendously – an unhesitating five stars out of five.