- Terrence Malick
- Run Time
- 2 hours and 53 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
For the shepherds are stupid,
and do not inquire of the Lord;
therefore they have not prospered,
and all their flock is scattered.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.
With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.
Terrence Malick, after his three montage-type films (Knight of Cups; To the Wonder: and The Tree of Life), returns to a simpler narrative form in this biography of Austrian WWII conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter. He effectively juxtaposes the Eden-like tranquility and beauty of the Austrian mountain village of St. Radegund with the destructive evil of Nazis ruining Europe at the time. The blind fanaticism that backed Hitler is effectively shown at the beginning of the film in a montage of images from Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Fani) (Valerie Pachner work hard amidst the splendor of the surrounding mountains of northern Austria. Scenes of working the fields with hand tools, such as scythes for harvesting, show how back-breaking their work is. No tractors or harvesters, the only machinery being a water-powered mill and some type of contraption that splits logs. As the years pass the pair produce three daughters, with whom both parents delight playing and telling stories. A devout Catholic, Franz, had voted against the German take-over of Austria, but this at first does not diminish his standing in the village. A portent of impending danger is transmitted in the scene in which Fani is working in their house when she hears a roar. Going outside, she looks up and beholds a sky full of Nazi war planes.
Drafted into the German army, at his training camp Franz watches the Nazi propaganda films and realizes, “We’re killing innocent people.” France falls quickly, seemingly bringing to a conclusion of the war, so Franz is discharged because his farm work is regarded as important. Back home he shares his doubts about serving in the army with his priest, but the cleric counsels him that his refusal would accomplish nothing. The farmer meets with the bishop, asking, “If our leaders are not good, what does one do?” The bishop, parroting the craven compromise that had defanged the German Catholic Church, quotes one of the New Testament epistles urging Christians “to be subject to the governing authorities.” “You have a duty to the fatherland,” the farmer is told. Also he is warned that priests who resist the Nazis are being sent to concentration camps.
Franz talks with an artist restoring the church’s paintings, the man speaking of how the people turned against God’s son. The similarity between Christ and Franz is unmistakable. Nazi fever has infected the villagers, the Mayor spouting Nazi hatred and slogans of super patriotism. As male villagers are called up, opinion turns against Franz for resisting and Fani for supporting her husband. Franz refuses three uniformed Nazis collecting money for the war effort, leading children to taunt him. The Mayor raves, “They will hang you! You are a traitor!” At another time the Mayor reminds Franz that his father fought in the last war. Tension leads to a fight during hay raking.
When the dreaded call-up arrives, Fani suggests that he could hide in the woods, that he could run away. Both know this is impractical, so Franz turns again to his priest, but receives no spiritual comfort. The pressure from the villagers becomes so intense that a small rift opens up between him and Fani. “We have enough travail in our life!” she exclaims. Then she suggests that he could work in a hospital. “There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” she sobs. (You might recall that in the two films about the American conscientious objector Desmond Doss, The Conscientious Objector and Hacksaw Ridge, Doss struggled to gain this classification.)
The Nazis allowed no grounds for this, so Franz is turned down and sent to a training camp in 1943. At the swearing in his is the only hand not raised in the pledge of allegiance to Hitler, so he is arrested and imprisoned. In the series of interrogations he is subjected to, he is told basically the same thing that the clerics had. That he owes allegiance to his country, and that his resisting would accomplish nothing. Who will ever know of you after the war if you are executed? Over a period of months he and Fani exchange letters, she now offering him her loving support. We see that it is this and their faith that sustain him. Several times he is offered the chance to recant and take the oath, but like those early Christians who refused to sacrifice a pinch of incense while swearing loyalty to the emperor as a god, Franz holds out to the end.
Many scenes show how both husband and wife were made to suffer. At his induction he is accosted for not offering the Nazi salute. In Tegel prison a Nazi enjoys ordering Franz to sit down, and then he pulls back the chair so that the prisoner is humiliated by falling onto the floor. Back home a passing villager spits into Fani’s water bucket. Others throw fruit at her. People stare hostilely at her in church. Franz gives a morsel of bread to a starving prisoner and is beaten for the act. And so it goes, until…
Malick raises important questions about faith and loyalty to one’s country versus loyalty to one’s conscience. And how do you know that you are right when most everyone else is of the opposite view? These are universal questions, applicable here today as well as in 1940s Europe—remember the outrage when the Dixie Chicks dared to call out President Bush on his invasion of Iraq? The director/writer has wrestled with religious, spiritual and ethical questions in many of his films, but never as explicitly as Christian as in this film. This is a film worthy to stand alongside Sophie Scholl: the Final Days, as well as Martin Scorcese’s challenging film about the 17th Century Christian martyrs in Japan, Silence. As in the latter film, there is no happy ending, God seemingly abandoning Franz to his fate—just as he did with Christ upon the cross. This is one of those films I am eager to watch again. There might not be a happy ending, but there is a satisfying one. Far from being “forgotten,” as his brutal Nazi interrogators had predicted, the peasant farmer has emerged from postwar obscurity to world wide fame, thanks to those precious letters exchanged with Hani. And the Roman Catholic Church, a very different one from the church that went along with the Nazis during their ascendancy, has taken the first step in declaring him a saint of the Church, Beatifying him in 2007.
This will be at the top of Visual Parables Top Ten list for 2019! I hope it will also be on the minds of those who do the Oscar nominations for the year!
This review will be in the December issue of VP along with a set of questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.