After World War Two ended Franz Jägerstätter was accused by some in Austria of having failed in his duty as a husband and father. Indeed, Jägerstätter’s village of Sankt Radegund initially refused to place his name on the memorial to locals killed in combat; a pension for his widow Frani was denied until 1950.
Little was known of the martyred farmer’s fate in the wider world until in 1964 American sociologist Gordon Zahn published the biography, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. Zahn, himself a practicing Catholic and a pacifist, first heard of Jägerstätter in 1956, while researching an earlier book, German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars. As a result he felt that more people needed to learn about Jägerstätter’s Christian witness in a time of fascism.
Then in 1968 the Trappist monk and social critic Thomas Merton devoted a chapter to Jägerstätter in his work Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice. Merton recounts a dream Franz had shortly after his country was swallowed up by Germany:
“[Jägerstätter] . . . saw a splendid and shining express train coming ‘round a mountain, and thousands of people running to get aboard. ‘No one could prevent them from getting on the train.’ While he was looking at this, he heard a voice saying: ‘This train is going to hell.’ When woke up he spontaneously associated the ‘train’ with Nazism.” (p. 71)
In 1997 Franz Jägerstätter’s death sentence was nullified by the Berlin Regional Court. Then in 2006 a Stolperstein dedicated to Jägerstätter was laid in Sankt Radegund. Stolpersteine (literally “stumbling stones”, metaphorically “stumbling blocks”) are 10 x 10 centimeter concrete cubes bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of people exterminated or persecuted by the Nazis. The stones are set into the pavement in front of the last known place to which victims went of their own free will. By August 2018, there were almost 70,000 Solpersteine in place, in almost 2,000 places, across nearly 30 countries.
In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI issued an apostolic exhortation that declared Jägerstätter a martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. Beatified the following year at Linz’s New Cathedral, his feast day 21 May, the day of his baptism.
“A Hidden Life”
This 2019 biopic, written and directed by Terrence Malick, premiered at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival. Given a general release in the United States in December, the movie was inspired by Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, edited by Erna Putz. What follows is my personal reaction to having seen the film.
“A Hidden Life,” clocking in at just under three hours, moves at a deliberate pace. I didn’t find this a problem, as it portrays the layer-by-layer evolution of Jägerstätter’s crisis of conscience, which formed like geological strata. Considerable time is devoted to illustrating the Jägerstätters’ loving marriage and happy family life; there also are many stunning shots of the Austrian Tyrol’s natural beauty. To me these cinematic elements underscored the insidious nature of Nazism’s infiltration of society, something akin to poison seeping into the body via capillary action. It’s a stretch to liken Brownshirts’ visiting the village to collect to supplies in support of the war effort or the mayor’s enthusiastic embrace of Hitler to the Serpent’s machinations in Eden, but you see what I mean. (BTW I don’t share many folks’ disparagement of “movie music.” “A Hidden Life’s” score did not disappoint.)
Secondary characters, including Jägerstätter’s parish priest, his bishop, and even the Nazi lawyer assigned to defend him at his trial, pose this question to him: “What do you hope to achieve by your resistance? Nothing will be changed by your sacrifice.” The accused’s responses boil down to his need to obey God, no matter the cost.
A crucial parallel story to Franz’s experiences in “A Hidden Life” is that of Frani Jägerstätter and her three young daughters. As word of his resistance gets around—and particularly after his arrest and imprisonment—Frani is ostracized by people she’s known all her life. Left to manage the farm with only her sister’s help, Frani is shunned by the community. People turn aside or spit at her approach, and the children are bullied by their peers. At first Frani is perplexed by Franz’s stance but she decides to support him, even in the face of death.
The entirety of “A Hidden Life’s” cast are Europeans. While most of the dialogue is in English, there are some lengthy periods when it’s in German—without subtitles. Though I know but a smattering of that tongue, I got the gist of what was being said by the context and the actors’ tone and body language.
There is a modicum of physical violence in the movie but I feel safe in recommending it to people thirteen years and up. They would witness far more brutality playing “Call of Duty.”
A few of Jägerstätter’s trenchant reflections are delivered as voiceovers:
“What’s happened to our country, to the land we love?”
“If our leaders, if they are evil, what do we do?”
“If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do—what we fail to do.”
Food for thought in our own time. I encourage you to make a point of seeing “A Hidden Life.”