The human world has two camps. One finds purpose and security in clustering together. The other acknowledges the vulnerability of being alone but attributes greater value to journey by oneself.
Most of us know World War II as a contest within human cluster between the Axis and the Allies. Both sides were regimented for the task; it was a case of armies clashing and even in the case of civilian resistance, they went by their identity as a group – the Resistance. That is what makes the case of Franz Jagerstatter interesting. He was an Austrian conscientious objector. Cambridge Dictionary explains the term as: a person who refuses to work in the armed forces for moral or religious reasons. Conscientious objectors don’t count on herd for support. Their protest is typically personal and done alone.
Franz and his wife Franziska live in the village of St Radegund in the mountains of Austria. They are farmers; it is a hard but happy life. Both are devout Catholics. The life of Franz and Franziska (Fani) are the subject of the 2019 Terrence Malick film A Hidden Life.
It is the age of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany; its war machine and expansionism. People are ordered to serve in the Nazi army. According to Wikipedia’s page on Franz, when Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, he was the only person in the village to vote against the move in the plebiscite held that April. Franz reluctantly undergoes a round of military training. However the surrender of France in the initial phase of World War II and the realization of Nazi objectives till then sees Franz being allowed to return home. He abhors the Nazis; he dislikes their agenda. However the war doesn’t end with France’s surrender; it continues. When his fellow villagers succumb to the general trend, justify the war effort and indulge the ruling dispensation with greetings of “ hail Hitler,’’ Franz finds himself isolated. He occasionally makes his dissent publicly evident. Such instances mark him out as a traitor, a position that is – to his detractors – worse than enemy. All this, when he is guilty of no crime and his only fault is that he doesn’t tow the Nazi line. The resultant atmosphere is like an ever tightening noose around him and family; a sense of approaching gloom constantly creeping up on them. His wife stands by him. Eventually, Franz is ordered to report for work with the army. Although very attached to his family, he is sufficiently angered by the spinelessness all around, to report for duty with the explicit intention of making his dissent known to the authorities. Lined up for inspection after reporting, he stands out from among the recruits for not saying the ritual “ hail Hitler.’’ This and what happens thereafter, form the subject of the film, a biopic.
Terrence Malick is known for his visually impressive movies, often having strong philosophical and spiritual undertones. That idiom is strong in A Hidden Life. Every frame of the film captures your attention. Each of them is a study in poignant loneliness, which is the price human beings pay for standing by their beliefs. Even in the utterly beautiful mountain landscape that embellishes many of the frames, the loneliness and vulnerability of the main protagonists shine through. You sense the abject difference between the spiritual meaning of existence as borne by the link between self and universe and the tiered descent to compromise that happens with higher and higher levels of human organization, from self to family, community and nation. There is no judgement by the film; there is just empathy. It is a study of predicament. There isn’t one moment when the director’s art flags. For the same reason, this isn’t an easy film to watch. It moves slowly, almost at the pace of human breath. I was patient. To my mind, notwithstanding its tragic story (not an easy trajectory to handle amidst depressing lockdown), A Hidden Life is one of the best films I have seen in recent times. It is memorable for its sheer quality and the periodic balancing of its tragic narrative with the love you sense in its carefully shot frames. It is also memorable for the relevance it holds for our times in the early decades of the twenty first century, when the tendency to worship massive human formations, fancy autocratic governments and force the individual to fall in line are all back in vogue.
Be patient with this film. Your patience will be rewarded.
The film is available on Disney-Hotstar.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)