Post last updated on February 24, 2023
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Terrence Malick’s 2019 film, A Hidden Life, follows Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer during the rise of Nazi power in Europe. Franz’s family (especially his wife) and neighbors are part of the immediate story, but one might almost say that Franz’s conscience plays the leading role in the film, ever accompanying Franz through the evolving events that crowded Hitler’s ascent and assent in Germany.
The film is long, lasting some 174 minutes. It will, in fact, be too long for some; even so, this amount of time offers the space for the wide landscapes that decorate the film’s sometimes sparse dialogue; and yet, there is something more. The length of the film and speed of its action gives the appropriate perception that time occasionally slows, even uncomfortably so—that it will now and then step forward at a fraction of its usual speed, especially and ironically when some inevitable future marches right at us, approaching in a straight and unyielding line. Not everything can be avoided. Difficult decisions are made in the long lulls between brief moments.
This is never so true as when a man does close business with his conscience. Both Hitler’s National Socialism and Rome’s Catholicism are also integral parts of Malick’s story, but there is the real sense that these both become secondary to the truth that displaces them within Franz. Both remain forms of lies because they cannot carry God’s truth.
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The short bit of dialogue transcribed below begins just before the 37th minute of the film. Franz visits the parish church, keeping company with its painter, who stands atop a scaffolding to finish his own decorative work. At first, the painter reflects upon the parishioners who gaze at his ceiling from below, but he also considers the way in which his efforts affect them. “I paint the tombs of the prophets,” he says. “I help people look up from those pews and dream.”
The painter pauses, but then continues: “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did. [But] they would have murdered those whom they now adore.”
The painter becomes more introspective, still, and he turns his thoughts and their attending judgments upon himself. “I paint all of this suffering and I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it.”
“What we do is just create sympathy. We create—we create admirers. We don’t create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. You don’t want to be reminded of it—so [that] we don’t have to see what happens to the truth. A darker time is coming when men will be more clever. They won’t fight the truth. They’ll just ignore it.”
It is at this point that the painter begins to stumble over his own thoughts. His work and the corrupted convenience of the parishioners have their tragic common cause: unapprehended truth: “I paint their comfortable Christ, with a halo over his head,” the painter admits. “How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture. Not yet. Someday I’ll… I’ll paint the true Christ.”