“Christ’s life is a demand”: The courage of endurance in A Hidden Life

Acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick’s latest film is an attempt to “paint the true Christ.”

August Diehl and Valerie Pachner star in a scene from the movie "A Hidden Life." (CNS photo/Fox)

In Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the virtue of courage, he argues that endurance—“which is the capacity to stand immovable in the face of dangers”—rather than attack, is the chief mark of courage. Among the reasons he cites are that endurance comes into play when we face a superior foe and that it implies length of time rather than the instantaneous action of attacking.

Courage as endurance is on splendid display in the latest Terrence Malick film, A Hidden Life, the fact-based story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who refused conscription into Hitler’s army, was imprisoned and executed, and who was eventually beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.

As is true in every Malick film, there is no urgency in the moving from one scene to another. While there are segments of the film that drag a bit, the overall effect of long lingering scenes, alternating between Franz’s ordeal in prison and his family’s trials in an increasingly hostile village, is to bring us face to face with the sheer exhaustion and painful isolation of persecution. Hence, the need for courage understood as endurance.

Franz is married to Fani (Valerie Pachner), and they have three young daughters. They live in the mountain village of St. Radegund, in the Alps. Opening scenes, shot with exquisite beauty by cinematographer Jorg Widmer, present the family’s life as a kind of prelapsarian Eden. But evil, as is clear from early clips from the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, cannot be kept at bay.

What separates Franz from his fellow villagers, and indeed from nearly all of his countrymen, is that he is troubled by questions that don’t even arise for others. How, he wonders, ought one to respond when one’s leaders are evil? As Franz expresses his doubts to his wife and the local priest, he is urged to think of the consequences for his family. His wife observes at one point, “You can’t fight the world. It’s too strong.” Later when he is incarcerated as a traitor, he is persistently asked what possible good he thinks will come from his small, relatively unknown act of resistance. Then he faces a deeper question about his own motivation, whether it is rooted not in virtue but in pride. Who is he to say that he knows more and better than so many others?

Franz is not seeking heroism, much less martyrdom. He is gripped not so much by what he must do as by what he cannot do. Asked, “Do you have a right to do this?” he replies, “Do I have a right not to?”

Franz’s plight calls to mind other films of martyrdom. Reviewers have cited A Man for All Seasons, which features the growing isolation of Thomas More and his appeal to a higher law beyond that of the nation or King. A Hidden Life also calls to mind T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, especially in the way it probes at length the motivation and isolation of martyr.

Critics, always desperate to find in works of art a direct commentary on contemporary politics, have seen in the wrathful xenophobia of Franz’s neighbors a repudiation of nationalism. There is certainly a critique of disordered attachment to nation. But the grounds for that assessment are hardly comforting to contemporary political assumptions. Commenting on the intolerant attitudes of his neighbors, Franz says, “we have forgotten our true fatherland.”

Reminding us of our true homeland might be said to be the goal of art informed by a religious vision. In a remarkable—remarkable because so rare—confession within a mainstream film, Malick directly addresses the difficulty of this task. In an early scene, a painter of religious scenes in a church admits in a moment of harsh self-accusation, “I paint the tombs of the prophets.” This is a reference to Matthew 23:29-31. The passage runs thus:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.

The assumption is that most religious art inspires by misleading. As the painter says, viewers “look up and they imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time they wouldn’t have acted as the others did.”

He explains further, “We create admirers. We do not create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.” In a moment of direct self-accusation, he asks, “How can I show what I have not lived?” Someday, he muses, he may “paint the true Christ.”

A Hidden Life is Malick’s attempt to do just that. The film’s title, from a passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch that Malick includes at the end of the film, underscores the role of those who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Art, Malick seems to be saying, is designed to bring such hidden lives into view, to rescue them from the forgetfulness of history.

I have already mentioned the film’s inclusion of clips from Triumph of the Will, the 1935 Nazi propaganda film that is nonetheless regarded as a great work of art. That film memorializes a very public life and political vision. That vision celebrates courage understood as boldness, which Thomas Aquinas teaches is a vice that can deceive because it looks like courage.

These two films embody rival versions of courage, of the purposes of art, and of the nature of our true fatherland. A Hidden Life magnificently and movingly displays the “true Christ” as it continues to be re-enacted in the lives of the martyrs, the witnesses whose faith is marked by an endurance that accepts suffering unto the end, and as testimony that “we have here no lasting city,” that we await a “new heavens and a new earth.”

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About Thomas S. Hibbs 21 Articles
Thomas S. Hibbs, Ph.D., is President of the University of Dallas, as well as Professor of Philosophy. He has written, edited or provided introductions for 12 books, including three on the thought of Thomas Aquinas; his most recent book is Wagering on an Ironic God: Pascal on Faith and Philosophy. He has also written more than 200 movie reviews and dozens of essays and book reviews for publications such as National Review, Catholic World Report, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and others.


  1. “That vision celebrates courage understood as boldness, which Thomas Aquinas teaches is a vice that can deceive because it looks like courage”

    Quote “ The Arian heresy rocked Christendom in the fourth century as four out of five bishoprics succumbed to apostasy” The congregations at that time were inevitably riven with anger, resentment, guilt, confusion, and above all disillusion at the gap revealed between their leaders’ and members’ proud profession of faith and their cowardly repudiation of it”

    But many of the ‘actual martyrs’ would not have felt indignation, rather they would have already, via life experience, comprehended, in humility, that the “Spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” instilling ‘pity’ within their hearts, for they fallen brethren.

    Some of whom like Peter who had previously declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. All had witnessed many miracles while Peter James, & John had also witnessed The Transfiguration, while hearing the voice of God. It appears all seemed to have missed out on radicle conversion. Nevertheless, later in renewed self-awareness embraced martyrdom in humility.

    I believe that many via Clericalism, have gradually been corrupted/ensnared, as initially it is possible to become an unknowing instrument of those who manipulate for their own perverted ends, and it could be said that these manipulators have chosen the most suitable men, men who displayed doctrinal and moral weakness, influenced them, conditioned them, and at times even blackmailed them. Now trapped within their own sinfulness/weakness they are to be ‘pitied’

    If we take Jesus at His Word, as in ‘not one iota’, we realise that this teaching can only be embraced in humility, and from this base, they can be no self-righteous pointing fingers, for to do so is to point one’s finger at oneself. So how do you separate the Wheat from the Chaff? You cannot, as the wheat and the weeds must grow together, until harvest time. What are we to do?

    Only a new spiritual awakening, one that bears witness to the Truth in humility, can liberate those who have been ensnared within these circles of corruption, which encompass an unfaithful docile Priesthood, that turned a blind eye to corruption, with its many different faces.

    It could be said the Church needs an Amnesty within herself, I believe this can only come about by looking at/embracing the ‘gentle’ cleansing grace of humility publicly, if she did so, the Church would grow rather than stagnate/dissipate.

    The cleansing that has to take place needs to start at the top, as Our Lord Himself via the true Divine Mercy Message/Image one of Broken Man, has exposed the reality of a self-serving elitism embedded in Clericalism, emanating from arrogance before God and mankind.

    This exposer of hubris by divine intervention, demands a counter response by those who would be faithful before His Inviolate Will (Word). And this can only be achieved in humility, as a humble heart (Church) will never cover its tracks or hide its short comings, and in doing so confers authenticity, as it walks in its own vulnerability /weakness/brokenness in trust/faith before God and mankind.

    It is a heart (Church) to be trusted, as it ‘dispels’ darkness within its own ego/self, in serving God (Truth) first, before any other…“God will not despise a broken spirit and contrite heart” … and neither will the ‘faithful’.

    True sincerity of heart before God, transforms our failings, no matter how tragic, into humility, and this can be clearly seen in Peters chosen means of martyrdom.
    So, the leadership has nothing to fear, no matter how compromised, as the cleansing grace of humility (Full ‘open acknowledgement of past failings/sins) is the communal bond of love that holds His flock together.

    Fortunately, Our Lord Himself Has given laity the means to confront an ‘ongoing’ manifestation of evil within the Church, by calling the elite (Bishops) to account, for collusion with the breaking of the Second Commandment.

    “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

    So why do they not do so?

    Please consider continuing via the link which gives conclusive information on the breaking of the said Commandment.


    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. “Someday, he muses, he may paint the true Christ” refers to the painter not the painting. That he will be a faithful disciple. Some will mistakenly focus on the image itself transferring need from true humility and interior conversion to an external idolatry of that image. Author Hibbs cites Aquinas’ vital distinction between courage and audacity. Aquinas always measured virtue in accord with the ‘virtuous mean’ between excess and defect. Fortitude is best understood as the moral courage to stand one’s ground rather than attack. And as Romano Guardini put rather than run, which Christ never did. A Hidden Life and Dr Hibbs assessment raises the issue of valor in conscientious objection and valor in serving the Fatherland. We can be ethereal about it and think Heaven, or practical and consider the Nation to which we belong. Patriotism was well described by John Paul II as a virtue in contrast to Nationalism. Nonetheless many Austrians and Germans Josef Ratzinger among them did bear arms under Nazism more an act of patriotism than belief in Nazism. The young Ratzinger like his father was avidly anti Nazi. As was the heroic anti Nazi Catholic Wehrmacht officer Count Claus von Stauffenberg. Who fought bravely for Germany and died bravely attempting to destroy Adolf. The issue is a bit more complex than this essay presumes.

  3. Wasn’t “Endurance” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s family motto & the name of the ship he sailed to the Antarctic?
    I think endurance & fortitude are very underrated & less valued virtues these days.
    I heard someone on our local Christian station this morning speak about a young person whose excuse for not showing up at work was that they didn’t “feel” like it. They in turn asked the no-show employee if they realized that the world was run by people who didn’t feel like it.

  4. I appreciate this article by Mr Hibbs and hope that HE is doing his part to fight with the Church, by removing the individual working in the office of the University of Dallas, who is living and “married” in a same sex relationship. We are living in a very difficult time now as is the Church and we MUST do our part to fight against the enemy from within. This is NECESSARY if we are to keep our Church.

  5. Endurance, even when faced with Nazis or any other anti-Christian, and facing a certain death you were not looking for, depends on strong, heart-core-deep commitment to Authentic Christian Truth. No real martyr really dies for lies or half-truths, unless totally brainwashed to believe those lies are the “truth”. An example of this is Muslim pseudo-martyrs, whose false “endurance” always seeks the death of others together with them, something True Christian martyrs will never do. Christian martyrs, unlike pseudo-martyrs, face the absolute loneliness of certain torture/death with Jesus alone and do it for love of God and others.

    Our Catholic Church has ENDURED for 2,000 years because the majority of it has been faithful to Authentic Catholic Truth and Doctrine. That’s why P. Francis is now pushing the Church through weaponized ambiguity, popularity-seeking compromise and attacking the truly faithful, to make us abandon the Truth. When you abandon Jesus-Truth, holy endurance disappears. Hold on to the Truth like a Holy Pitbull and let it transform you.

    There’s no greatest treasure for us, our families, our friends, neighbors, the world and the Universe than Catholic Truth, the True Guardian of True Love. An Absolute Treasure worth enduring for and dying for, come what may. When we die in the Truth, whether in daily sacrifice or actual physical death, whether in peace or in pain, we are Truth Martyrs and we leave behind an invincible legacy, which is why Christian martyrs just generate greater and more holy conversions, again and again and again. Praise be to God for Holy Endurance in Truth!!

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  2. Clips from 'Triumph of the Will' inside the movie 'A Hidden Life' - California Catholic Daily

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