“What’s happened to our country?”
That question could be asked about anywhere undergoing upheaval these days, from Hong Kong to Lebanon to Iraq, Iran, Bolivia and beyond — including the United States, after this week’s impeachment saga.
But it’s asked of once-placid Austria, after the Anschluss, at a time when many Austrians accepted Nazi rule. And it’s asked by a hero, once obscure, in “A Hidden Life,” which premiered locally at the Uptown Theater on Friday.
The question comes from Franz Jägerstätter, a dutiful husband, father and farmer who can’t, and won’t, be dutiful to Hitler and the Third Reich. Jägerstätter, a quiet, contemplative man, isn’t prone to protest, but principled in his deep belief in God and the mortal world’s morality.
“If God gives us free will we’re responsible for what we do — what we fail to do,” Jägerstätter states to his priest. “I can’t do what I believe is wrong. I have to stand up to evil.”
So Jägerstätter stands up. And stands out for forsaking an oath of allegiance, despite serving his compulsory military duty.
His unwillingness to swear allegiance to the Fuhrer infuriates fellow villagers, the Austrian military, and ultimately the Nazis, who sadistically imprison him while he awaits a trial for treason.
The film features director Terence Malick’s signature cinematography, which makes the natural world a dramatic actor itself (the lush shots sharply contrast with the stark black-and-white propaganda films forced on Jägerstätter and his fellow conscripts, too).
The movie’s nearly three-hour length is due in part to Malick’s languid, laconic shots of agrarian life: earthy people, soil and toil, including the Zen of rhythmically scything. But the rugged Alpine beauty contrasts vividly with the villagers’ rugged ugliness to Franz, his wife Fani and their three young girls, who like Franz in prison are shunned into their own open-air cell of isolation.
“You cannot say no to your race, to your home — you are a traitor!” the village mayor spits at Jägerstätter.
But Jägerstätter, using God as his guide, does say “no.”
Indeed, while the divine shines brightly in this film, the Catholic Church isn’t so haloed, as those in robes urge the believer to cloak his faith and feign fealty in order to avoid the price he and his family will pay. (Other ostensible governmental, military and legal leaders urge him to settle, or sell out, too.)
Decades later, in 2007, the Vatican made admirable amends, beatifying and declaring Jägerstätter as a martyr.
Like Jägerstätter himself, his story was obscure at first, but came to new light when Gordon Zahn, an American researcher, visited the village in the 1970s. Among his findings were an extraordinary set of letters between husband Franz and wife Fani.
At times the epistles are elegiac, perfect for the meditative mood that marks Malick’s films like “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” (and mars, many critics contend, more recent films like “Knight of Cups”). Many letter excerpts are used as narration, giving insight into Jägerstätter’s state of mind and the marital bonds between Franz and Fani.
Like the depiction of 1930s rural Alpine life, the letters are a throwback, reflecting a time when words were put on paper, not pixels, giving them a profundity often absent today. Indeed, in a world where few thoughts seem to go unspoken — or untweeted or unposted — the concept of a hidden life, let alone a focus on one’s conscience, seems an unlikely topic for one of the top films of the year.
To many moviegoers, “A Hidden Life” will reveal a subtle subtext: Alacrity over Europe’s current rightward drift, which is seen in today’s Austria and across the continent in countries like Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
No, it’s not Nazism (although there are some neo-Nazi elements in some European parties). And it’s too facile to call it fascism. But it’s at least illiberalism, and it’s sparking intolerance regarding refugees and other “others” in a changing, challenged Europe.
And it’s not just the continent where consciences are bothered. Just this week in India, for instance, protests broke out against a new South Asian citizenship law that favors all faiths that aren’t Islam.
“Do you think your defiance will change the course of things?” Jägerstätter’s attorney asks him. His individual conscientious objection didn’t, of course. But as recently witnessed worldwide, collective consciences turned conviction can be a constructive force for change, as desperate citizens in disparate cities take to the streets wondering what’s happened to their country — a question many are asking here at home, too, as Congress considers its conscience on impeachment.
Lawmakers won’t lower the polarization. Citizens might, especially if they are guided by the kind of moral compass that compelled Jägerstätter.
Worldwide, wherever turbulence is turning societies asunder, sounding off, especially in the cultural cacophony of social media, may seem to dominate the discourse and the direction of the debate.
But others, guided by belief, firm in faith, will lead by quiet example. That may not make headlines, but it might make heroes, like Franz Jägerstätter.
Because a collective conscience can still make a major difference in our world. Or, as English author George Eliot wrote in “Middlemarch,” in a line from which the film takes its name: “… 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.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:08 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.