Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Hidden Life

A Hidden Life is Terrence Malik's dramatization of the story of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), the otherwise unremarkable, ordinary (hence "hidden") Austrian farmer executed in 1943 for his refusal to serve in the military during World War II and take the requisite oath of loyalty to Adolph Hitler. At the time, his actions were widely criticized as disloyal, but since then his refusal has come to be evaluated more positively. Finally in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed him a martyr, and Jägerstätter was beatified later that year. (Although he died on August 9, his feast day is May 21, the anniversary of his baptism.)

The movie is quite long (almost 3 hours), an obvious challenge to a contemporary audience's limited attention span! The film is filled with beautiful Austrian mountain scenery - a striking contrast to the horror taking place in the world beyond but which tragically transforms even this seemingly idyllic setting. It is a beautiful evocation of what would have been, were it not for Hitler and the war, an ordinary life in an ordinary family in an ordinary setting. It evokes a centuries-old, easily romanticized (but actually very difficult) way of life, the rural folk-Catholicism that, for all its charm, sadly proved no match against Hitler and, in any case, in the post-war world has long-since largely disappeared.  

Seven decades later, Jägerstätter's anti-Nazi and anti-war actions are increasingly celebrated. The movie reminds us, however, how unusual his behavior actually was in its actual context, how counter-intuitive his position appeared to be to so many contemporaries, how pointlessly self-destructive his actions seemed (and in a sense were). It also suggests some of the moral self-questioning Jägerstätter may have induced in others at varying levels of society. The film invites us to contemplate not just Jägerstätter's own actions but the reactions of others and what they might well have been thinking, as the great  moral challenges of world politics penetrated the ordinary routines of daily life.

The real Jägerstätter was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschluss. His subsequent wartime resistance raises perennial problems of political morality, such as the proper place and limits of patriotism and the proper role of individual conscientious discernment. The fact that Jägerstätter is a beatified martyr highlights the inescapable fact that his response to such moral dilemmas was, inevitably, not typical. Shakespeare's famous expression of conventional wisdom, If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us (Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1), constantly competes with Jägerstätter's alternative, which he expressed to his bishop that God has given us free will to out to use. 

Jägerstätter refrained from forming judgments about how others responded to the crisis. He himself came to a clear conclusion, which he expressed in one of his letters to his wife that, while it "is admittedly true" that Christ commanded obedience to secular authority, "I do not believe that Christ ever said that one must obey such rulers when they command something that is actually wicked.”  

Famous models of conscientious moral resistance have usually been already famous figures - e.g., Jägerstätter's contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Jägerstätter was invisible to the world and would have remained that way according to the way of the world. It is important to remember that, as he was constantly told, his actions had no beneficial effect whatsoever - no effect at all actually, other than his imprisonment and execution and the great suffering his choices imposed on his family. The only thing that ended Hitler's horror was Germany's military defeat by the Allies. No personal protests or conscientious resistance made the slightest difference. In making actual judgments about political policies to be pursued, it is important always to remember that and not be deluded into thinking that symbolic actions and expressive politics are agents of actual change.

So what then to make of Jägerstätter's actions, which everyone - himself included - expected not only to make no difference but not even to be noticed, let alone remembered, by the wider world? The film almost incidentally highlights how his difficult discernment and subsequent sufferings involved a real transformation in the formerly rather wild young man, who rode a motorcycle (and fathered an out-of-wedlock child before his marriage). Yet that is the obvious lesson of his story, that indeed free will does have real consequences and does oblige each person to discern the right response - for him or herself - to the signs of the times. In the same letter quoted above, he also wrote: "That we Catholics must make ourselves tools of the worst and most dangerous anti-Christian power that has ever existed is something I cannot and never will believe.”

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