Twentieth-century history has tended to overlook the life of Austrian Catholic martyr Franz Jägerstätter (1907–1943). His refusal to swear an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler, and his subsequent execution, never attained the notoriety of, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s conspiracy to assassinate the Führer. Despite his beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007, Jägerstätter has nevertheless remained a niche figure—popular among pacifists, peace activists, and conscientious objectors, but not someone known broadly among Catholics. With the release of Terrence Malick’s Jägerstätter biopic, his biography has finally come into broader public view.
In A Hidden Life, which premiered last spring at Cannes, Malick dispenses with his typical non-linear plotlines and visual flourishes. He has instead made a more straightforward biopic, one whose episodic structure closely tracks the historical contours of Jägerstätter’s life. That said, it’s still vintage Malick. There are whispered voice-overs, angled camerawork, tight closeups, and gorgeous shots of the natural world. It’s also a theologically robust film, one that imbues the slow pace of Jägerstätter’s rural Austrian village, St. Radegund, with the sacred imagery of the gospels.
Malick’s portrait of Jägerstätter relies on two primary sources. The first is Gordon Zahn’s 1964 biography, In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jägerstätter. The young Jägerstätter, Zahn tells us, was a notorious flirt with a flair for drama (he was often seen riding a motorcycle, the first to be brought to his small mountain village). But later Jägerstätter’s faith matured, partly inspired by the piety of his wife Franziska, and soon his devout Catholicism came to inform his increasingly critical view of National Socialism. After refusing to serve in the Wehrmacht—against the protestations of his village, the Catholic Church, and even his own lawyers—Jägerstätter was arrested and imprisoned at Linz. He was swiftly charged with “insubordination of the war effort,” brought to trial, and convicted. Jägerstätter was then sentenced to death and executed by guillotine on August 9, 1943.