Just about a year ago, my wife and I went to the cinema. This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it is to us. In nearly thirty years of marriage, we have only left the house to catch a film maybe four or five times, no doubt a result of having nine children and a farm. But we went twice in 2019. The first time was to see The Biggest Little Farm, a documentary about a couple’s foolhardy adventure into biodynamic farming. When we left the theater we found a post-it on our windshield that had the words “The Cosmos Loves You” written on its face in black sharpie (we saved it—see photo). The second time was to see Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, a poetic vision of the life of Franz Jägerstätter, a Catholic and an Austrian farmer who was executed for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler. Apparently, we only go to see movies about farming and farmers.
My wife gave me a DVD of the film for Christmas this year, and we watched it almost immediately. I’m a big fan of Malick, that most sophiological of filmmakers, and I think his sophiological aesthetic may be partly due to his Catholic background and partly due to his immersion in phenomenology, particularly with the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Whatever the reasons, Malick’s devoted attention to nature in his films, his preoccupation with people and their relationships—especially with families and their myriad dynamics—and his awareness of the fluctuations of grace in human life disclose (a most Heidegerrian term) the movements of the sophianic in a way no other filmmaker has ever done. I often wonder if he’s studied Sophiology in any formal way. As far as I’m concerned, Brother Malick is a kindred spirit.
One example of this is in the opening scene of his film The Tree of Life (2011), wherein one of the film’s focal points, Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain), meditates on the ways of nature and grace:
A Hidden Life is likewise a meditation on nature and grace, which includes, as in his other films, considerations of sin and tragedy and the sometimes seeming inscrutability of God.
What struck me on this viewing is how applicable the film and the predicament of Jägerstätter (August Diehl) and his wife Fani (Valerie Pachner) is to that of my wife and me in the post-Covid era. In short, Franz and Fani just want to live their joined and hidden life in communion with nature on their farm, with their children and extended family, in the festival and liturgical life of their parish and their faith. Pretty simple. This was essentially our own way of living prior to Covid-19 and the encroaching and ominous cloud of The Great Reset. At the beginning of the film, Franz says, “I thought that we could build our nest high up...in the trees...fly away like birds...to the mountains.”
I thought so, too.
Like Jägerstätter (who, by the way, shares his date of martyrdom—August 9th—with one of my other patrons, Edith Stein), I have found that, try as one might to ignore the machinations of the world, the world eventually shows up at one’s doorstep. At this point, this threat merely exists for me in the realm of angst—the fear that political developments, already compromising everyone’s freedom to live as they wish, will more and more encroach my ability to travel (not that I’m a big traveler), make a living, and raise my children in the manner I see fit. This has to do, for one, with the very real threat of vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, but it also has to do with the dreadful way the current political narrative hinges on the limiting of free speech, free association, and freedom of conscience, and how these development have turned so many into unconscious agents of the government (or the powers behind them). In the film, we see Jägerstätter and his family integrated into their community prior to the annexation of Austria by Hitler. But following his refusal to participate with the Nazi regime, their neighbors turn on Franz and Fani, shunning them, stealing from them, harassing them for not properly serving the Vaterland. Even the Catholic Church offers no solace, encouraging the young farmer (he was only thirty-six when he died) to serve his nation in time of war. “Your sacrifice will benefit no one,” his pastor tells him. During that time, many German and Austrian priests and bishops tried to walk the tightrope between pastoral and national duties, much like the Vatican recently greenlighting Catholic participation in a vaccine made from, among other things, stem cells from aborted fetuses. Politics, indeed, makes strange bedfellows.
I, too, have felt rejection and recrimination from both family and friends over my position on our current social predicament. Haven’t you? I find myself reluctant to tell people how many of my children made it to Christmas dinner, concerned that they would out me to the authorities for violating their rather arbitrary diktats. Perhaps you would applaud them? Nevertheless, I find that to violate my conscience would be to cooperate with evil. Here I stand. I can do no other.
To be sure, the more pragmatic approach would have been for Jägerstätter to take the oath with his mouth while not believing it in his soul—advice he receives throughout the film (and received in his real life, I’m sure). What would it matter? And it would save so much trouble.
Toward the end of the film, after Franz’s execution, Fani utters a kind of prayer in voiceover:
“The time will come when we will know what all this was for. And there will be no mysteries—we will know why we live. We’ll come together. We’ll plant orchards, fields. We’ll build the land back up. Franz, I’ll meet you there… in the mountains.”
My entire engagement with farming, with religion, with the world, with my family, is encapsulated in this utterance.
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Garden.