Like a bird, Blessed Franz Jägerstätter built his nest high—up on the slopes of the Austrian mountains in the village of St. Radegund. Franz and his wife Franziska were living in an edenic alpine village amid all that is green and fresh. There, they quietly raised their three daughters, worked the fields, and loved each other with an innocence that is rarely found in this world. Soon enough, down in the valley, men are on the move and the machines of war are tearing tracks like a dirty smudge through a pastoral land. The peasants accept their fate quietly, the priests are scared, and Franz ponders these events in the silence of his heart.
For as long as he can, he avoids the war. In a no-nonsense way and through personal experience, he forms the opinion that the war is not right. He is a free man with a free will, a responsibility he takes seriously, and he refuses to participate voluntarily as many of the men in his village have done, but eventually his number is called and he is drafted into the army. He’s willing to comply in some limited capacity, perhaps as a hospital orderly, but there’s one stumbling block. It’s a very small matter—a few words he can insincerely mumble and then he can move on. It’s an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, and Franz will not say it. He doesn’t make a fuss, doesn’t give grand speeches, and doesn’t attempt to run away or begin a rebellion. He does his duty, shows up at the conscription site, stoically stands in formation, lips unmoving, hands at his side, and remains like a statue while men left and right raise their right hand and swear fealty to the Führer.
This is a true story, one that filmmaker Terrance Malick captures perfectly in his soon-to-be released film, A Hidden Life. Before he is conscripted, Franz goes to see the bishop to discuss his difficulty, and the camera lingers on a scene of a priest giving a homily during Mass. The priest uses the illustration of a blacksmith who strikes a hammer to an anvil. In that action, the hammer is visibly the aggressor. It makes the noise and seems to precipitate the shaping of the steel, and yet it is the anvil that remains unchanged. In the end, the anvil will wear out the hammer, shrugging off the storms of fiery sparks. It’s a bit of foreshadowing as Franz is about to be broken on the anvil of a world dead-set against those who fail to conform.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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St. Radegund, the patron saint of the village where Franz and his family live, was a humble serving girl known for her simplicity and goodness. She met her fate when she was attacked and killed by a pack of wolves while on a mission of mercy. She is said to have died while performing some minor task, perhaps walking through the woods to deliver bread to a neighbor in need. St. Radegund left no writings, wrote no books, and is generally forgotten by history except in a few village enclaves. Centuries later, the wolves are at Franz’s door, and it is his turn to suffer in order to accomplish another, seemingly pointless and unhistoric act. His sacrifice, he is repeatedly assured throughout the film by both friend and foe, will change nothing. The war will not stop. No one will follow his example. His family will be left destitute. His sacrifice will have accomplished nothing.
The irony, of course, is immediate. Blessed Franz Jägerstätter has had a film made about his life. Popes have spoken admirably of him. The power of his life is tangible. This is precisely why this story is worth telling, and the reason that Malick has ignored historical implications and wider political readings. In fact, he has stripped the dialogue to a bare minimum. The hidden life, the moral life within, the inner integrity of a man, and the sacredness of his free will—these are everything. As George Eliot writes, “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.”
The day Franz accepts martyrdom, it rains. For months, the village has been in a state of drought. Perhaps the universe knows the power of a single, moral choice. It may be a choice that is lost to history, but, in the end, the soul of a man is so much bigger.
I’m not ashamed to admit that this film rattled me. I suspect I wasn’t alone, because after a full three-hour screening, much of the audience sat in introspective silence while the credits rolled instead of rushing for the door. I sat and pondered my own personal integrity, the way in which I’m willing to cut corners or tell little white lies to avoid a hassle, and the rationalizations I make to justify my behavior. These small inconsistencies make my life easier, but they also make me less free. I am bound and beholden to these conveniences. My failings in this regard are socially acceptable; no one would blink an eye to learn of them, and yet there they are, hidden in the depths of my soul like a poison. As anyone who has tried to curb a vice or make some self-improvement knows, the effort to change will, at best, be internal and no one else will even notice. These little sacrifices for the sake of honesty and personal integrity will never garner applause and never win me a larger following as a priest or a writer. They are, in short, of no importance to anyone except myself. In this kind of scenario, one in which I stand not to gain but only to lose by doing the right thing, will I do it?
Blessed Franz Jägerstätter’s life reveals the cost of making such a choice. In his laconic, reserved voice, he utters four simple words that reveal why one might be willing to pay such a cost. While in prison, he is told that if he simply changes his mind and swears loyalty to Hitler, he will be set free. Franz replies, “But I am free.”
The world is the hammer; Franz Jagerstätter is the anvil.