Terrence Malick and the Question of Martyrdom
Terrence Malick and the Question of Martyrdom

Terrence Malick and the Question of Martyrdom

"Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth?" —Søren Kierkegaard

Appears in Spring 2020
Terrence Malick and the Question of Martyrdom

In a rare public appearance to discuss his 2016 documentary, Voyage of Time, the director Terrence Malick remarked that he had “lately repented [of] the idea” of working without a script. The comment was in reference to his last three films, the so-called Weightless Trilogy (To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song), which had split critics and been skewered for their unstructured narrative and improvised dialogue. “The last picture we shot, and we’re now cutting, went back to a script that was very well ordered.” His comment made headlines across the internet, where writers speculated that the new film might prove a return to form for the auteur behind Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The Tree of Life, for which he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

A Hidden Life tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian conscientious objector who was imprisoned and eventually executed for refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to Hitler and fight for the Nazis. It is a masterpiece.

Malick based the script—yes, there is a script—on the book Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writing from Prison, a collection of letters that Franz and his wife Fani exchanged while Franz was away at boot camp and, later, in prison. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences acknowledged this when it judged that the film was eligible to compete in the Best Adapted Screenplay category. The script’s seminal line, however, was not penned by Jägerstätter or Malick but by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard: “Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth?”

Kierkegaard posed the question in an eponymous essay published in Two Minor Ethical-Religious Essays. “It is of course one thing to ask: Do I have the Courage to do it? he writes in his interrogation of Christian martyrdom. “It is something else entirely to ask: Do I have the Right to do it?” If the question sounds strange to our ears, maybe it is because we have never felt the need to ask it. If we sacrifice ourselves, it is not for God but for country, and then to die as heroes, not martyrs. We take it as axiomatic that there could be no higher calling than serving the truth.

But as Kierkegaard rightly observes, if a strong-willed, virtuous congregant were to approach a pastor to declare his intention to take a stand that would lead to his martyrdom, the pastor would reply, “Oh, God help us! How does such a thing occur to you! Travel, find some diversion, take a laxative.”

Kierkegaard claims that while Christ redeemed the entire world with his martyrdom, no other man can hope to achieve anything close to that, nor can he exert such a claim on the truth. In fact, he will only cause others to sin as they execute him. Instead, he should be “lovingly concerned for others, for those who, if one is put to death, must become guilty of putting one to death.” That answer may work in Copenhagen in 1847, but it’s less convincing in 1940 Austria.

As the film opens, white text on a black background informs us, “During World War II, every Austrian soldier called up for active duty was required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler.” A man’s voice pierces the dark: “I thought that we could build our nest high up, in the trees. Fly away like birds to the mountains.” Malick, no stranger to blending film formats, cuts to archival footage of Nazi rallies, planes, and tanks, a stark contrast from the remarkable shot that follows: Franz (August Diehl) and his wife, Fani (Valerie Pachner) swinging scythes in a wheat field, with the mountains in the distance. The first ten minutes paint a portrait of a pastoral romance, as we get glimpses of Franz and Fani’s love as it blossoms into a marriage and family. But when Fani hears a military plane overhead, we know the wolves are outside the wall.

The film really begins when Franz rings the church’s bell, the sound echoing across the hills and forests, and calling the villagers to worship. This is St. Radegund, a sleepy alpine village in the mountains of Austria known for the yearly passion plays it held until 1933, the year the Nazis came to power and the border with Germany closed. Perhaps these plays were on Malick’s mind when he originally titled the film Radegund, for the film itself is nothing so much as a passion play.

Franz departs for boot camp with a mix of suspicion and apathy. Only as he watches a newsreel glorifying the Nazis’ advancing progress and the carnage they leave in their wake does his suspicion of the war harden into something more. Eventually granted a deferral as a farmer, he returns to St. Radegund, where he makes no secret of his opposition to the war. It is in this space of waiting for his eventual summons that he is plunged into existential crisis. He knows both that he cannot fight for the Nazi cause and that if he refuses, he will be executed. Together, he and his wife look to God for guidance. “If we’re faithful to Him, He’ll be faithful to us,” Fani says hopefully to Franz. Perhaps, but one cannot help noticing that the line is delivered in the woodshed.

Whereas most films have one main conflict that propels the narrative forward (will X happen or not?), the martyr story has two, one internal and one external: Will the apostle follow his conscience and heed God’s call? Will the world actually execute him? A would-be martyr standing up to evil ought to be a director’s dream protagonist. A martyr against the Nazis? Hollywood gold.

In reality, the director who sets to dramatizing an invisible, silent calling from God has his work cut out. Malick recreates Jägerstätter’s 1938 nightmare, a Nazi train filled with children, a dream he took as a sign that the Nazis were evil. But the way it’s presented in black-and-white archive renders the sign almost incidental. There is no burning bush, no heavenly voice. To his credit, Malick is reticent to give us more evidence to a divine calling. As Kierkegaard wrote in The Difference Between the Genius and the Apostle,” the second of the Two Minor Ethical Religious Essays, “An apostle has no other evidence than his own statement, and at most his willingness to suffer everything joyfully for the sake of that statement.”

Not that you need to be called by God to stand against injustice. Hollywood returns to World War II so frequently because it is the last great struggle that unites Americans in the conviction that we are the heroes. The Holocaust really is the embodiment of evil, and so it is acceptable to applaud the killing of Nazis while patting ourselves on the back for overcoming such evil and saving the world. As an icon painter (Johan Leysen) says to Franz of the churchgoers who see his work, “They look up and they imagine that if they lived back in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have done what the others did.”

While it is easy for us to see the horrors behind every swastika, St. Radegund had no pogroms or neighbours marched away to camps. Franz had precious little to justify such a stark stance against his community. He could only react against rumours of Nazi crimes and the provincial racism of his neighbours, as when the mayor delivers a drunken rant, which sounds sadly familiar: “Foreigners swarm over our streets. Immigrants who don’t care for the past, only for what they can grab.”

Jägerstätter himself makes for an unlikely apostle. As a young man, he was a brawler and a drinker who worked for a time in the mines. He drove a motorcycle and fathered a child out of wedlock before marrying Fani and becoming devout. But as Kierkegaard notes, “An apostle is not born; an apostle is a man who is called and appointed by God and sent by him on a mission.” Still, it is unsurprising that villagers of St. Radegund see in Franz a cursed moralist, a man whose pride would have him abandon his village and his family. “Who changed you?” asks the mayor, brilliantly played by Karl Markovics. “You cannot say no to your people, your blood!” he growls.

For the clergy, Franz is foolhardy and overzealous. “Your sacrifice would benefit no one,” the village priest says, gesturing to his family. The bishop of Linz (Michael Nyqvist) tells him he has “a duty to the fatherland.” Eventually, as Franz awaits the fateful letter, the priest asks him, in a moment of pity, “Does a man have the right to let himself be put to death for the truth? He wants us to have peace, happiness, not to bring suffering on ourselves.”

Franz does not answer except to say, “We have to stand up to evil.” This he does (literally) a few minutes later when stands silently as his fellows swear the oath of allegiance to Hitler. He’s hauled off to detention. The film might soon be over, except that his passion is just beginning. His resolve is repeatedly tested, both when he is severely abused by guards and when he is offered chances to recant and complete his service in a hospital. His priest, his wife, and his court-appointed lawyer all beg him to take the oath of allegiance.

Once his objections to the war take on the full force of a religious calling, Jägerstätter seems to face his incarceration, abuse, and eventual death with a quiet strength and resilience that recalls Christ’s own passion. This, at any rate, is the impression given by his letters, which Diehl’s voiceover captures beautifully: “Once you were in a rush, always short of time. Now you have all you need. Once you never forgave anyone, judged people without mercy. Now you see your own weakness, so you can understand the weakness of others.”

Unlike the Gospels, though, A Hidden Life is also the story of two lovers torn apart. Indeed, some of the most compelling moments of the film are not when Franz is searching his conscience or being tortured in prison, but when Fani grapples with losing her husband. At home, she faces the coldness of her mother-in-law, who blames her for Franz’s zealotry, and the ire of her sister, who resents her for defending Franz. “He makes a choice for you too,” she scolds. That choice will leave Fani to care for the farm and their three young daughters while her neighbours spit on and steal from her. “You do nothing,” she cries out to God as Franz’s execution draws near.

Instead of employing closeups to capture the agony, courage, or dark night of the soul, as with Dreyer’s famous portraits of Renée Falconetti’s in The Passion of Joan of Arc, the cinematographer Joerg Widmer shot the film on wide-angle lenses. These lenses, with their nearly infinite depth of field, do little to differentiate between foreground and background, subject and scenery. Pairing these shots with extreme closeups and nimble, handheld camera movements gives the viewer an almost Godlike vantage, somehow both removed and intimate. The effect is to situate the actors within the world; even with closeups, the individual is never alone in front of the camera. So Fani’s anguished face is set against the backdrop of the people enforcing her isolation. Franz’s act of conscience is put in relief against the backdrop of children playing, his wife’s love, his fellow prisoners’ fear.

Though Malick employed a script, he did not abandon improvisation. Speaking to Indiewire, Widmer said the takes could last anywhere from four minutes to forty—without breaks—a punishing amount of time to hold a camera aloft. It pays off. Possibly the most beautifully photographed of Malick’s films, A Hidden Life feels less like a movie than a series of masterpieces shuffled through a stereoscope; Bruegel’s Harvest, Van Gogh’s First Steps After Millet, Wyeth’s Christina’s World—they are all there, rendered with Hammershoi’s soft light. Most magical are those scenes with the children: playing blindman’s bluff, running and jumping through the house, being bullied in a religious procession. One could be forgiven for forgetting that the children were not actually Diehl and Pachner’s, for the love in the house seems real. In lingering in Franz and Fani’s family and the common life of St. Radegund, the film allows viewers to experience the cost of Franz’s decision: the loss of so much earthly love and goodness that exists in spite of evil. “Now my dear children, when mother reads this letter to you, your father will be dead,” we hear Diehl’s voiceover saying as the camera cuts to one of his daughters carrying something through Radegund as several adults pass by. “By God’s grace we’ll soon meet again.” The camera lingers on the girl, who totters on through the rain, alone.

So the cinematography affirms what we have come to suspect: Franz’s martyrdom is not his alone. When we die, we take with us fragments ripped from the fabric of other lives, leaving holes that can be patched but never restored. To plow the recalcitrant fields alone, to be scorned in their village, to grow up without a father, to face eternal what ifs—this is his family’s share of his martyrdom. “Dearest wife, mother, it was not possible for me to free you from the sorrows that you’ve endured for me,” Franz writes in his final letter, leaving us to decide whether he is a martyr called by God or merely a foolish prig. Either way, taking a stand for the truth suddenly feels less heroic.

It is tempting to point to Jägerstätter’s influence on the Catholic anti-war movement, his 2007 beatification where generations of his family were gathered, or to this very film as evidence of redemptive ripples through time. In fact, the notion of efficacy is always somewhere in the picture. Set just before mechanized farming and collectivization swept across Western Europe, Fani’s plowing a field with a cow or harvesting wheat by hand abuts scenes of the German war machine and the cold efficiency of its soldiers and executioners. More often than not, efficacy is center stage, as Franz is reminded that his sacrifice will achieve nothing. “Do you think that anyone outside this court will ever hear of you?” asks the officer (Bruno Gantz) presiding over his trial. “No one will be changed. The world will go on as before. Your actions may even have the opposite effect of what you intend. Someone else will take your place.”

The irony of the title is that Jägerstätter’s life is not hidden—though it would have been had an American sociologist not unearthed his story while researching Catholic resistance to the Nazis. But Jägerstätter himself harboured no illusions about making any impact; the apostle’s calling cannot be evaluated by this logic. As Auden wrote in an essay on Kierkegaard, “He may make a million converts or he may make none. . . . What makes an apostle a hero in the religious sense is not what he does or fails to do for others, but the constancy of his faith that God has called him to speak in his name.”

Gantz’s officer—a Pilate-like character who is not interested in sentencing Franz to death—drops his appeal to efficacy and questions Franz’s authority to claim the truth: “Do you judge me?” he asks, and when Franz says he does not, he asks him, “Do you have a right to do this?”

Franz, who has by now resigned himself to death, answers the officer, “Do I have the right not to?” A divine calling renders the question moot. If one is in fact an apostle—if one hears God’s calling—the only possible response is to answer.

Here, we face the limits of what art (and film in particular) can achieve. The artist can lead us to the martyr’s cross, but the question posed there cannot be represented or recapitulated. That may be Kierkegaard’s point: to pose the right-to-martyrdom question is to make a mockery of it. It is inaccessible. It depends on an outside voice no one else can hear, which is the definition of transcendence. As such, the apostle presents a paradox.

Artistic genius is modern society’s substitute for transcendence, but ultimately it’s caged only in the self and, as such, is wholly absorbable by culture and the market. “Perhaps the genius is a century ahead of his time and therefore stands as a paradox, but ultimately the human race will assimilate the one-time paradoxical in such a way that it is no longer paradoxical,” as Kierkegaard says.

Though A Hidden Life focuses on the vocation of apostle, the vocation of the artist—Kierkegaard’s genius and the apostle’s inverse—is always in the background. I left A Hidden Life thinking it owes less to Christ’s passion than it does to The Passion According to Andrei, as Tarkovsky originally titled his masterpiece about the great Russian icon painter Andrei Rublev. That film, more than any other, considers the religious artist’s vocation, particularly when confronted with a regime’s violence and cruelty.

The final chapter of Tarkovsky’s three-hour epic traces a young, untrained peasant’s development as an artist as he attempts to cast a massive church bell (and thus avoid beheading by the thuggish crown prince who commissioned it). Rublev—a legendary painter who has taken a vow of silence and stopped painting—finds his faith in art restored when the bell is completed and rung, the peasant seizing the mantle of the artist.

I remembered this scene as I watched Franz visit the bishop to ask for advice. Gesturing to the bells outside, the bishops says, “They are melting them down to make bullets.” His message to Franz is clear: if a vicar of Christ is powerless to resist the Nazis, what hope does a peasant have? Yet Malick’s message to the audience may be that in the face of overwhelming evil, art—even religious art—is at best frivolous and at worst liable to be absorbed into the culture and made complicit.

A few minutes later, Malick explicitly confronts his own vocation in light of the apostle when Franz meets the icon painter in the church—a clear allusion to Andrei Rublev. In a striking monologue, the painter questions whether his art is actually complicit in perpetuating evil: “I paint the tombs of the prophets. I help people look up from those pews and dream. . . . I paint all this suffering, and I don’t suffer myself. I make a living of it. What we do is just create sympathy. We create admirers. We don’t create followers. Christ’s life is a demand. You don’t want to be reminded of it. So 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. I paint their comfortable Christ with a halo over his head. How can I show what I haven’t lived? Someday I might have the courage to venture. No yet. Someday I’ll paint the true Christ.”

Whether or not A Hidden Life creates any followers, it is a remarkable reminder of what happens to the truth. According to reports, Malick’s next film, The Last Planet, will actually dramatize the life of Christ himself. But the icon painter might still be disappointed. For the true Christ transcends the bounds of art. A genius, even a genius of Malick’s prodigious talent, can only paint us a poor picture of heaven, allowing us to see through a glass darkly; only the apostle can show us the way there. As the film draws to a close, a man rings St. Radegund’s church bell to mark Franz’s death. Perhaps this is the best the artist can hope for: to be the smith who forges the bell or the sexton who rings it, calling us to mourning, attention, or praise.

Topics: Film History Faith
David Michael
David Michael

David Michael is a writer and commercial director for CNN. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Paris Review, the New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Commonweal, among others.


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