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.”
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!