Terrence Malick released a new movie in 2019 called A Hidden Life. It’s set in rural Austria during WWII and follows the story of a man who is threatened with execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis. The protagonist, Franz Jägerstätter, feels morally opposed to the war and refuses to fight despite the consequences of social isolation and imprisonment, leading to his execution.
I wasn’t enthralled by the movie because it was made in the same aesthetic that Malick has been using since he directed The New World in 2005: an ethereal transience that comes across as visually theoretical; however, my thoughts keep coming back to the film because I’m engrossed by the moral implications of the protagonist’s decision to oppose the war. Many characters in the film told him that 1.) his decision was meaningless because it would make no impact on the war and 2.) it’s important to follow the rules of authority if he wants to be a part of his community—he has a duty to the fatherland. In response to the latter point, he asks: “if our leaders are evil, what does one do?” The entire movie grapples this question, and by the end, it appears to have resolved it, but what I find alluring about the film is that it plants seeds of doubt throughout the entire narrative, and by the end, I couldn’t decide whether or not he’d made the right choice.
The protagonist is morally opposed to the war because he thinks it’s “killing innocent people, raiding other countries, and preying on the weak” so he decides to withhold from fighting. The primary consequence of this choice is that he’s sent to prison and his wife, sister-in-law, and three young daughters need to maintain their land and home by themselves. Of course, if he was sent to war, they would also be in the same predicament, but at least the war would have a presumable end. On the contrary, imprisonment does not have an end, and, indeed, when presented with the choice, Jägerstätter chooses execution instead of conceding to authorities and fighting in the war. As a result, his wife is called upon to bear the fruits of his decision.
In regards to this, my central question comes down to her: what decision could she make? Jägerstätter decided to oppose the war, making himself into a kind of martyr, but where does her agency lie? In part, this dilemma is a result of social organization: men, not women, are called upon to be active agents in social affairs. Fani Jägerstätter, the protagonist’s wife, was never asked to fight in the war in the first place, so she was not provided with the moral opportunity to oppose it; only to support or not support his decision to oppose it. In his book Masculine Domination, Pierre Bourdieu describes how there is “a radical dissymmetry between man, the subject, and woman, the object of the exchange; between man, who is responsible for and controls production and reproduction, and woman, the transformed product of this labour” (45). A Hidden Life is an appealing case study depicting the “radical dissymmetry” of social organization between men and women because the viewers gain access to the dichotomous relationship shared by Fani and Franz that culminates in the “liberation” of his consciousness and the deterioration of her’s. The irony, of course, is that he attains his elevated spirituality while in prison whereas she experiences the resulting hardships of his actions while maintaining their idyllic farm located in the Austrian countryside.
His decision brings forth a question surrounding negative responsibility: if he participates in the war, he is making a decision that will have foreseeable consequences on those he impacts, not to mention that his participation would be a symbolic acquiescence to Hitler. On the other hand, by not participating in the war, he is choosing to desert his family and community, which also has foreseeable consequences because it means that his wife and children have to bear the responsibility of his decision in their day-to-day lives: harassment, denigration, isolation, hardship, etc. In such a scenario, what is the right choice?
In the movie, Fani tells Franz that she supports his decision, but other scenes in the movie suggest that she secretly feels otherwise and doesn’t express this to him. I think this is a failure of the film. If Fani had told Franz that she did not agree with his decision to oppose the war, then it would have given her more agency, even if it had no effect on Franz’s actions. As it stands, her agency melds into his agency: his identity is her identity. She is the “transformed object of his labour,” which, to me, is disappointingly average in a movie about the consequences and resulting impact of challenging group consciousness.
Works Cited: Pierre Bourdieu, Masculine Domination. Translated by Richard Nice, Stanford University Press, 2001.