Admirer or Follower?

[Spoiler Alert: This article discusses major plot points from the film, A Hidden Life.]

After directing two of the most absorbing and unusual films of the 1970s,¹ Terrence Malick disappeared from the filmmaking scene for twenty years. He returned to direct The Thin Red Line, a powerful WWII film about the individual struggles of soldiers on the front lines. Over the following twenty years, Malick would direct a string of mostly nonlinear, not-very-successful films (with the possible exception of Tree of Life).

Malick doesn’t direct blockbuster hits or produce mainstream entertainment. Rather, he is known for his artistic filmmaking. His stories tend to be less plot-driven and more character-focused, contemplative, and meditative. Malick has a keen eye for nature, always incorporating lush, beautiful landscapes into his films along with poetic voice-overs. His quietly emotive films suit the director’s personality; he refuses to do TV interviews and has only a handful of pictures online. His personality could well be summed up by the title of his latest film, A Hidden Life, the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian who refused to swear loyalty to Hitler during WWII.

“Christ’s Life is a Demand”
A Hidden Life is a slow movie, but that is part of its genius. We are immersed in Franz’s world. He lives high in the mountains, farming and working hard for his family. We see numerous shots of him playing with his children, working with his wife, and performing everyday tasks. He lives a simple life, a hidden life.

All of this changes when WWII breaks out. When the threat of being conscripted to fight for Germany becomes unavoidable, Franz wrestles with being involved in what he believes is an immoral war headed by a wicked ruler, Adolf Hitler. He cannot take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, but if he doesn’t, he will likely be executed. He is further troubled by the fact that almost all of his neighbors are in favor of the war and they look down on him and his family as traitors.

Malick immerses us in Franz’s psyche as he wrestles with what to do. We see him as he agonizes over his decision, questions the instructions of the local priest and bishop, and struggles to reconcile his deeply held faith with his fear of death.

One crucial scene puts him in conversation with a painter who is working in a small church. Looking up at the painted Christ on the church ceiling, the painter reflects on those who come to worship, “They look up and they imagine that if they lived in Christ’s time, they wouldn’t have acted as the others did. We create admirers. We do not create followers.” The painter observes that his paintings were merely creating sympathizers. Much the same could be said today. The church creates sympathy for Jesus; we feel bad about how he was betrayed, and we are confident that we wouldn’t have sent him to the cross. But would we? Many admire Christ, many sympathize, but few follow.

The painter goes on to say that “Christ’s life is a demand. We don’t want to be reminded of it.” He laments that he can’t really paint Christ honestly, because he himself has not suffered and is not ready to be a follower. Perhaps someday he would paint a “true Christ.” His hesitation to follow Jesus is understandable. Christianity is not easy. It’s not about feeling good, being prosperous, or receiving fame. The way of Christ is the way of suffering, the way of meekness, the way of trust in the face of turmoil (see 2 Timothy 3:12, Colossians 1:24, Isaiah 53:3, John 16:33, Luke 14:27, James 1:12, Romans 5:3). Franz must make a choice between being a follower or merely an admirer.

Just admiring Jesus, and getting on with his “duty to the fatherland,” would have been the easy thing to do. Franz would have avoided the scorn of his neighbors, difficult conversations with his family, suffering, torture, loss of family, and ultimately, death. Of course, this is no easy choice, and Malick never paints over the agony of choosing to do what is right.

Echoing 1 Peter 3:17, one character remarks that it is “Better to suffer injustice than to do it.” No doubt it is much easier to do injustice than to suffer it. We may say what we like, but what do we do when doing the right things means sacrifice or loss for ourselves? Will we stick to what is right even when it means suffering?

And why, if Franz is doing what is right, would God allow him to suffer injustice? The film makes no attempt to shy away from this question; yet, both Franz and his wife maintain a steady trust in God throughout, even in the midst of doubts, questions, and frustrated hopes.

“I Am Free”
Some would argue that Franz brought his death on himself. Was it worth it? Was refusing to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler really worth losing his family and his life? It seems ridiculous. Indeed, several characters in the movie make this argument, including the local priest, who tells Franz that he can think what he wants, but it would be wise to sign the oath so that he can save his life and care for his family. “God doesn’t care what you say; only what’s in your heart,” he says. But these words ring false as soon as we hear them. God cares about what we say and what we do. It is not enough to merely have a private faith. The Gospel necessarily affects our actions, words, and behavior or else it’s not the Gospel. The Gospel trains us in righteousness as Titus 2:11-14 indicates.

This training in righteousness is a daily, ongoing activity. We can only become people who are “eager to do good works” (Titus 2:14) by the power of the Holy Spirit and by daily practice. It is tempting to think about how we would resist Hitler if he were alive in our own day, without actually preparing to do so. If we are not faithful in obedience and growing in Christ daily, how can we say that we would not go along with the crowd the next time Hitler comes along?

Doing the right thing is not usually an “on the spot” decision to do what it is right. Rather, it is, as Eugene Peterson phrased it, “a long obedience in the same direction.” It is making the small choices to do what is right every day that prepares us to say no to the Hitlers of our time.

However, if you’re like me, at this point you might be asking what difference it makes. Many times, even if we do the right thing, no one knows about it. What difference can one person really make? One interrogator asks Franz this very question. Does he think that his defiance will make any difference? No one will ever know. It won’t change the course of things. Franz’s wife, Fanni, in a moment of doubt, makes a similar statement: “You can’t change the world,” she says, “The world’s stronger.”

On the one hand, they are right. We can’t change the world. There is still evil, suffering, hunger, torture, and death. But Christians know a different truth. Christ has overcome the world (John 16:33), and it is he who will one day set the world to rights and fix all that is broken and corrupted by sin. One day, suffering will end and pain and sorrow will be no more (see Isaiah 11 and Revelation 21). This hope blossoms in Fanni by the end of the film, as she reflects after her husband’s death, “Someday we will know what all this was for.” She looks forward to a time when she will be reunited with Franz, working together with him in what sounds very like the biblical picture of Heaven and Earth reunited.

It does seem hard to believe that the things we do here make much difference in the long run. The world seems stronger, and few people will know or care about the times when we choose to do what is right instead of taking the easy way. However, the author George Eliot sums it up well in this quote from Middlemarch, which appears at the end of the film: “. . . for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”²

Yes, what we do here matters, even if no one ever knows, even if it doesn’t seem to make much difference. Our calling is not to change the world but to be faithful to Christ. We are invited to work with Christ here and now, anticipating the future when all will be well.

As Franz’s journey nears its end, his lawyer tells him that he merely has to sign a piece of paper and all the charges would be dropped. Swear allegiance to Hitler, sign the paper and you can walk out free. Franz replies, “But I am free.” And with that freedom, a new world was opened to him. Franz learns grace and forgiveness, forged through suffering and trust in God. He has become a follower.

Following Christ is no easy task. Choosing the right thing when everyone else is going along with the cultural tide will eventually bring suffering. But out of that suffering can grow greater faith, hope, and love. May we have the courage to follow Christ down the road of suffering.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.