Viewing and reflecting about Terrence Malick’s new film, “A Hidden Life,” has reminded me of two other great films that deal with conscience: “A Man for All Seasons” and “Sophie Scholl.” It has occurred to me that a wonderful film festival showing these three films could be conducted in a parish on the topic “A Christian Conscience.” I have already shown “A Man for All Seasons” (1966) and “Sophie Scholl” (1905) in festivals that I have conducted and I plan to show “A Hidden Life” as soon as it becomes available.
Frequently when I am involved in teaching about film or in a discussion with friends about film, I mention that I think an example of a perfect film is “A Man for All Seasons.” By a perfect film I mean a film in which everything works: the story, dialogue, acting, camera work, settings, music and theme come together to form a masterpiece. If any of these elements is poor, the entire film can be ruined. “A Man for All Seasons” dramatizes the life and death of St. Thomas More, who was put to death for treason because he refused to sign a document recognizing Henry the Eighth as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Sophie Scholl was put to death for treason because she was caught spreading leaflets attacking the Third Reich. Both films can be compared and contrasted to “A Hidden Life.”
I view all three films as extremely powerful depictions of faith, a faith that is ready to go to death rather than succumb to evil. Thomas More was a well-known figure in England, for a time serving as Chancellor of England. The film shows how important it was to King Henry that More support him because More was widely known as a just man. Sophie Scholl was a student who hoped that her opposition to Nazi rule would lead others to be part of the opposition. In “A Hidden Life” one of the great temptations that Franz Jaggerstatter faces is his awareness that his death would be “hidden,” largely unknown. This is, in fact, one of the strong arguments offered to him to take the oath of loyalty to Hitler. He is told that his death will not change Hitler or stop the Nazis from the immoral war they are waging. His death will be futile, a complete waste. The other argument that he hears is that he should just sign the paper with the words of the oath and withhold his internal assent. The argument suggests that God will see into Franz’s heart. Neither argument is sufficiently strong to change Franz’s conscience.
While viewing “A Hidden Life,” I was both inspired and challenged. Not only was I asking myself what I would do if I was in the situation Franz was in but also whether I always follow my conscience in my daily life. Do I often compromise? The challenge that the film presents to viewers is one of the reasons I am going to promote the film even to people who don’t ordinarily view films that are both dramatically and morally demanding. I have begun to talk to seminarians about the film. Perhaps I will form a discussion group with those who see the film.
Apparently, in real life, Franz, before his marriage, was something of a “hell -raiser”, even to the point of fathering an illegitimate child. His relationship with his wife was deeply life-changing. In the film, there is a brief reference made by Franz’s mother to his life changing because of his wife. What the film powerfully and beautifully portrays in several scenes is the depth of their marital relationship and the joy they experience with one another and with their three daughters.
Malick takes the title of his film from a quotation from the writings of George Eliot. The following is the quotation which appears at the end of the film:
“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
For years Franz’s life was a hidden life. Now, thanks to Terrence Malick, his great sacrifice will become known to thousands. Malick’s film is like a special gift. Franz’s life was a special gift. Today, more than 75 years after his death, Franz’s deeply Christian conscience can edify and challenge many. In 1943, when Franz was executed, many of his contemporaries may have thought his life and death were a waste, a futile attempt to be a sign of Christian faith. In God’s providence, that sign was not futile; it is brilliantly depicted in Malick’s masterpiece.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, every Tuesday at 9 p.m. on NET-TV.