In 1943, a 36-year-old Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter was executed for refusing to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI declared him a martyr. In 2019, Terrance Malick made a movie about him.

Instead of revealing what motivated Jägerstätter, Malick’s movie, A Hidden Life, shows the suffering of Franz and his wife Fani as they face his execution. Malick’s Franz is pensive and anguished, either unable or unwilling to discuss his reasons. This choice was not universally well received. Malick’s failure to engage with Franz’ motives bothered or baffled some secular reviewers; likewise, Christian critics complained that Malick’s account of Jägerstätter life and character was insufficiently specific, or, worse, simply inaccurate, as the historical Jägerstätter was extremely willing to discuss his motives.

Alan Jacobs defends the movie against these charges. He argues that secular critics don’t understand Jägerstätter’s motives because they don’t engage with the film’s Christianity. Christian critics, on the other hand, take issue with aspects of the film which Jacobs claims actually make it more Christian. In Jacobs’ view, Malick has pruned Jägerstätter’s character and story to base them more closely on those of Christ; the film is a portrayal not of a historical person, but of Christ’s Passion.

The problem with Jacobs’ defense is that it rests on a theological error. Moreover, it proves too much; his defense could be used to defend bad art, bad history, and in particular, bad Christian art.

The Accidental Sexism of A Hidden Life

Jacobs is right that there are parallels between the film and the story of the Passion, but Malick has re-written Jägerstätter’s story to base it even more specifically on the life and martyrdom of another saint: the St. Thomas More of A Man for All Seasons. It’s true that there are real parallels between the lives of the two men. Like More, Jägerstätter was executed for refusing to swear an oath. Also like More, Jägerstätter faced his wife’s opposition to this decision, although in Jägerstätter’s case, only initially. Unfortunately and unintentionally, the choice to structure the story around A Man for All Seasons results in a sexist retelling of Jägerstätter’s life and marriage. In re-casting Franz as Thomas More, Malick is forced to re-cast Fani as Alice, which is to say, as a woman who opposes her husband out of moral and intellectual feebleness.
 
In the case of the Mores, the wife’s opposition was basically a manifestation of her bad character. Theirs was a marriage in which one spouse was comprehensively a better person—principled, thoughtful, and wise—and it was the husband. In the case of the Jägerstätters, the wife’s skepticism was significantly more understandable. If there was a “good spouse” in that marriage, it may have been Fani, who appears to have set the high moral tone in the early days of their marriage. She would have been well aware that her husband could be rash, that he was the sort of man who might risk his life over a point of pride, even when it wasn’t morally necessary. As the British reviewer Dan Hitchens writes about the life of the actual Franz:
Until his late 20s, he was one of Sankt Radegund’s more laddish characters: the first villager to own a motorbike, he fathered a child in a liaison with a farm girl and once served a brief jail sentence for brawling with a Home Guard soldier….

During his first period of military training – before his fateful decision – he wrote home saying it was a good thing there were severe penalties for getting into fistfights with other soldiers, “or I might sometimes fail to keep command of myself”... Franz sometimes apologised for his obstinacy in argument, and sometimes revelled in it. “Greet the village authorities most warmly for me,” he quipped in another letter to his wife. “I’ll certainly quarrel with them if I’m allowed to come home.”
 Except for an allusion to the motorbike, Malick leaves the more colorful elements of Franz’s story out of the film. Instead, he portrays Franz as a deeply responsible man who is already much better than everyone else in his life. Fani is the beautiful, beloved wife; like Alice More, she opposed her husband’s decision, not for a good reason, but out of feminine weakness.

A Hidden Life as Bad Hagiography

If Jacobs is right that A Hidden Life can’t be understood apart from its Christianity, the film deserves an assessment as Christian art. As Christian art, its genre is obvious: it is a hagiography. Its sub-genre is equally obvious: it’s bad hagiography, a genre which bends the facts to fit the mold. To make the story believable, bad hagiography relies on stereotypes, sexist stereotypes being just one of many available options.

In whitewashing Franz’ life in order to make him appear more holy, Malick also undermines the purpose of hagiography. Good hagiographies inspire people to pursue holiness; bad hagiographies assure them that holiness is not for them. In the world of bad hagiography, saints are either born that way, or they’re created in a single moment of conversion (often following a mystical experience). Good hagiographies tell the true story, which is always more demanding and more unsettling: holiness or even martyrdom can be offered to someone with a difficult past, still a work in progress, still distrusted (perhaps with good reason) by the other people in his life.

Not only is bad hagiography uninspiring; it tells something false about Christianity. In stripping away the historical facts about the actual Franz, Malick treats sanctity as a force which makes a person more abstract and less particular. This simply doesn’t make sense within the context of Christian theology. Christians believe that God became a historical person; why would we then suppose that Christian practice reduces the saint to an ahistorical abstraction? Moreover, if Christianity is true—if to be a saint is to be an excellent Christian—we should expect that the saints will be more unique than the average person. True excellence usually makes a person more distinct: the diversity amongst great writers, pianists or philosophers is much greater than the diversity amongst mediocre ones. We should expect to see the same dynamic among the saints.

Jacobs is therefore wrong to suppose that showing the details of a saint’s life could get in the way of depicting Christ’s Passion. The excellence of the saint is an excellence in imitating Christ, in bearing witness to him. (“Martyr” means “witness.”) This doesn’t require that the saint crudely ape the activities of Christ: many saints have never engaged in carpentry or commercial fishing, have never been itinerant preachers or been killed by Roman soldiers. Rather, the saint manifests the presence of Christ in her personality and in her historical circumstances. 
 
The best way, then, to show Christ’s Passion in the life of a saint is to show the saint’s actual martyrdom, in its messiness and particularity. Whether it is the martyrdom of Joan of Arc (who briefly recanted before accepting her death at the stake), or of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang (who was still addicted to opium when he was beheaded in the Boxer Rebellion), we can't make the story “more Christian” by stripping away these weaknesses. Christ told the disciples that they would face martyrdom and warned them: "Make up your minds not to prepare your defense, because I myself shall give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict." (Luke 21:14-15.) Christians should listen to these expressions of Christ’s eloquence as actually expressed in history, rather than crudely cutting and pasting scenes from the Passion narrative in their place. The best way to show Christ's Passion through the life of the saint is to show the life of that particular historical person, as it actually occurred.

The Demands of Capitalism: Conscience as a Stand-In for Truth

Why would Malick shy away from the historical facts, from depicting Franz’ life and marriage in its complexity? I suspect he doesn’t want to tell a story which hinges on the question of truth. If the story were about Franz’ recognition of the truth, there would be no difficulty in showing him as a flawed character, in showing how reasonable Fani was in doubting his decision. But in Malick’s story, Franz was not a martyr for truth, but for conscience. In bracketing the question of truth—in focusing on conscience instead—Malick is forced to tell a story in which Franz’ decision is sympathetic because the viewers find Franz personally trustworthy.

Malick needs to make Franz look good because it simply isn’t universally admirable to die for your beliefs. We don’t usually admire the moral seriousness of terrorists who die in their acts of violence. If we want to distinguish good examples of dying-for-your-beliefs from bad ones, and if we don’t want to rely on questions of absolute truth, we have nothing to rely on except for the character (or, often enough, the bourgeois virtue) of the person in question. If he is trustworthy, or respectable, per our social standards, we will admire his decision; if he’s not, we won’t. Because he doesn’t want to say that Franz’ conscience is right, Malick must show us that Franz is a good guy; because Fani opposed him, Malick must show us that she’s not as good as her husband.

To see why Malick shifts the focus from truth to conscience we should consider the film’s precedent: A Man for All Seasons. It’s no accident that both films were well-received in Hollywood. By focusing on conscience instead of truth, these films achieve a certain degree of moral seriousness without containing specific moral content. A movie about conscience may appeal to a wider audience than a movie about moral or religious truth, and, of course, the film industry prospers when it makes movies that everyone can enjoy. The inclusivity of market capitalism is the rather feeble sense in which Hollywood is “inclusive”: in making movies for everyone, Hollywood can only make and promote a narrow set of films.

In the case of A Hidden Life, Malick must cram Jägerstätter’s story into an accepted narrative mold, with the result that he tells an incomplete story about Franz. In his reluctance to engage with the question of truth, Malick is forced to rely on his protagonist’s personal respectability; in changing the facts to fit this narrative, Malick must shift other facts. To make this change seem believable to his audience, he relies on stereotypes, in this case, on one that happens to be sexist.

Unlike the moviegoing public, the Catholic Church can recognize an unsympathetic character as a saint. It is precisely because the Church is dogmatic that she is able to venerate these dirtbag saints. St. Mark Ji Tianxiang was executed for refusing to renounce the one true faith, and this is good enough for the Church, no matter what else was going on in his life.  If you don’t have a standard of truth, how can you hold up someone who isn’t otherwise compelling as an example of holiness

Sentimentalization vs. Truth

Strangely, I suspect that Malick also had religious motives for stripping truth from the story. After all, one of the truths in question—that Naziism is evil—is not particularly controversial. So why make the film about something more abstract, like conscience? I suspect Malick thought a film about conscience would show Franz in a more personal, spiritual light than a film which focused on Franz’s reasons. Malick wanted it to be more about Franz—about his mysterious and mystical conformity to Christ—and less about moral truth. The trouble is that Franz’ imitation of Christ consisted precisely in his willingness to sacrifice his own life for the sake of moral truth; in removing Franz’s motive from the story—in replacing it with the black box of conscience, or “personal integrity”—Malick obscures Franz’ actual character.

Franz’s character was not vague or abstract, but it was well documented. Not only was he a bit rambunctious, he also cared intensely about truth and dogma. He had a great enthusiasm for theology, and wrote a catechism for children; he would also engage in vigorous scriptural disputation with his priest. As he told a priest friend who tried to argue him into enlisting, Franz believed that doing so would endanger his soul. (Franz won the argument.) Instead, Malick remakes Franz in the director’s own image, not a belligerent, occasionally irresponsible man with a lively interest in theology, but a quiet, reflective man who—like Malick, perhaps—is particularly moved by the sight of a young mother twirling with her daughters in a wheat field.

A Defense: A Hidden Life as Devotional Material

To be clear, A Hidden Life is not a bad movie, and not a bad Christian movie. But a defense like Jacobs’ demands that the film’s flaws be laid out clearly: as hagiography, it’s no good. This doesn’t prevent the film from being beautiful, or from being good devotional material. In reading the Gospel or the lives of the saints, Christians should meditate on questions like “how would I act here?” or “what would it be like to suffer this?” The film helps with this act of imagination in depicting vividly what it might be like for a husband and a father—a man relied upon by a family facing poverty—to sacrifice his life over a point of principle. In its focus on Franz and Fani’s suffering, A Hidden Life is Malick’s best devotional material to date, a film suitable for Good Friday viewing.

Flannery O’Connor wrote that “a dogma is... an instrument of freedom and not of restriction. It preserves mystery for the human mind.” The same might be said of historical truth more broadly. Perhaps if Malick were more comfortable with dogma, he could have made a movie rooted in historical truth. In showing the martyrdom of a particular historical person, not as it “should have been” by some abstract scheme, but as it actually was, Malick might have followed in the tradition of good cinematic hagiography, the tradition of Bresson and Dreyer in their films about Joan of Arc, which are based on the transcript of her trial. In telling the truth more faithfully, A Hidden Life would deserve more completely Jacobs’ praise as “a Passion narrative; a narrative of a witness; a mystery.”