December 11, 2019 Editor

In ‘A Hidden Life,’ martyrdom is the cost of faith

December 7, 2019

photo above: August Diehl (right) as Franz Jägerstätter in Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life.” (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight) 

WN: I learned about Franz Jägerstätter several years ago. While for decades I have known that “Love your enemies” is a definitive statement by Christ that separates a vast swath of would-be Christ followers from a minority who take Jesus seriously, I fully understand how unthinkably hard it would be to choose Jägerstätter’s resolute commitment to martyrdom given what he and his family had to lose . . .


In February 1943, upon receiving a summons for conscription into the German Wehrmacht, the military forces of Adolf Hitler, the Austrian farmer and Third Order Franciscan Franz Jägerstätter sealed his eventual fate: martyrdom.

Rejecting his summons and refusing to swear allegiance to Hitler, Jägerstätter, who was beatified in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, was arrested and sentenced to death by the Reich’s War Court. He was executed via guillotine that August in Brandenburg an der Havel, leaving behind his supportive yet devastated wife, Franziska, and their three young daughters.

A casualty of his own convictions, Jägerstätter chose nonviolent resistance to Nazism because of his deep Catholic faith. He is the subject of the new Fox Searchlight picture, “A Hidden Life,” directed by Terrence Malick. On Dec. 4, the film screened at the Vatican, with Mr. Malick in attendance. The film will be released in New York and Los Angeles on Dec. 13.

This film is not a run-of-the-mill war picture, turned blood-red by gruesome battle sequences or littered with pyrotechnic spectacles. “A Hidden Life” is, in many ways, a quiet film about a quiet man whose refusal to participate in evil was the fruit of his trust in Christ.

Elisabeth Bentley O’Neal, a producer on the film, explained its concept. “There is a battle, there’s a war that takes place inside the heart of each person who will go and fight. And that’s the battle that this film explores,” she said in an interview with America. Ms. O’Neal, who wrote an early draft of the screenplay, detailed the process of bringing Jägerstätter’s story to the screen.

“It was quite a personal project for me. I knew the story of Franz Jägerstätter’s life quite well because my father was one of the founders of the Pax Christi [USA] Center on Conscience and War in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the early ’80s,” she said. Ms. O’Neal, who describes her father as “a lifelong pacifist” involved with the Catholic Worker movement, was also acquainted with author Gordon Zahn.

In 2010, Ms. O’Neal made her way to Sankt Radegund, the small Austrian village once home to Jägerstätter. There, she spent time with the family, including Franz’s elderly wife and his second-oldest daughter, Maria Dammer.

Prior to Ms. O’Neal’s Austrian sojourn, Orbis Books, a Catholic publishing house, released a volume of Franz Jägerstätter’s collected letters from prison. The volume, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison, was edited by the Austrian theologian Erna Putz, a friend of Franziska Jägerstätter. Her book, which includes an introduction by author and peace activist Jim Forest, laid the foundation for “A Hidden Life.”

“In the letters, you see the deep relationship between Franz and Franziska, and out of his letters you get the information that he was willing to serve as a medical orderly,” said Ms. Putz. In 2006, Ms. Jägerstätter expressed to her an interest in translating her letters to Franz. “Franziska handed [the letters] over to me, physically,” said Ms. Putz, describing the feeling as “like fire in my hands.”

Orbis publisher and editor in chief Robert Ellsberg called Franz Jägerstätter an example of “somebody who believes that to be a Christian, or a Catholic in this case, is to take literally the commandments of Jesus.”

“He was, in some ways, a very ordinary man. He had real responsibilities as a husband, as a father, as a member of his community. And what he did placed a very heavy burden on the rest of his family. The other thing that is, I think, significant, is that he did this without any expectation that it was going to make a difference or that anyone would know about it,” Mr. Ellsberg told America.

The question then remains: What made Franz different? What set him apart from his fellow villagers, some of whom considered him a traitor, and from Catholic bishops who did not risk imprisonment or death to oppose Hitler? The answer, apart from Franz’s stalwart adherence to the teachings of Christ, is a difficult one.

Please click on: Hidden Life



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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

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