December 22, 2019 – Award-winning writer-director Terrence Malick (“The Tree of Life”) takes aim at autocrats who demand, above all, personal loyalty, in this anti-fascist saga of an Austrian farmer who refuses to swear allegiance to Adolph Hitler during World War II.
This film is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter (played by August Diehl) a farmer living in the rural village of St. Radegund in Upper Austria. A devout Catholic, he opposes Hitler and refuses to swear and oath to Hitler and the Third Reich when conscripted into military service. Franz is willing to serve in a non-combat role in the German Army, but that service is available only to those who take the oath.
Franz views Hitler as an evil man and views the German wars as wars of conquest, not wars to protect his country. His views are in sharp contrast with most of his countrymen, who welcomed Hitler into their country, after a campaign of economic and political pressure from Germany against Austrian independence. On March 12, 1938, Germany's 8th Army crossed the border into Austria. Franz was the only person in his village to vote against Austrian unification with Germany (called the Anschluss) less than a month after Germany troops had marched into Austria.
Franz and his wife, Franziska (played by Valerie Pachner) are treated like outcasts by most people in their village because of Franz's views towards Hitler and the war. He is viewed as a coward and a traitor. Arguments sometimes turn into fights between Franz and other village men, loyal to Hitler.
The legal process that Franz goes through as a conscientious objector is lengthy. Franz is able to stay on his farm for two years under a farm exemption after first refusing to take the oath in 1940, but is once again conscripted into the German Army and once again refuses to take the oath. This time, he is arrested and imprisoned.
The village priest tries to persuade Franz to take the oath, arguing that it doesn't matter what piece of paper he signs, what really matters is what he believes in his heart, but Franz is adamant, and the ominous German legal case against him continues on. Franz is often told that his resistance is futile and meaningless, but he continues to resist the powers that be.
Back on the farm, Franziska (nicknamed Fani) and her sister, Resie (played by Maria Simon) are left to work the farm alone, since nobody in the village will help them, aside from their father, Lorenz Schwaninger (played by Ulrich Matthes) and Franz's mother, Rosalia (played by Karin Neuhäuser). Farm work here is done mostly by hand, with very few machines, aside from a water-powered sawmill and flour mill which serve all the locals.
Terrence Malick's films are known for their glorification of nature, and this film is no exception. The beauty of the Austrian mountains, forests and farm lands is in sharp contrast to the ugliness of the Nazi regime and the hateful actions of its sympathizers. Cinematographer Jörg Widmer (“The Tree of Life”) captures the beauty of nature in a number of filming locations.
The actors are very convincing in this film, and the story is compelling. The only drawback is the running time, at just under three hours, and the leisurely pace of the film, featuring many static scenes. It is not a boring film, but it does pass slowly.
Front and center in this film is the religious faith of Franz (who was beatified by the Catholic church in 2007) and Fani. His priest, Father Furthauer (Tobias Moretti) and even the Bishop of Linz (Michael Nyqvist) don't seem to support Franz in his refusal to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Reich. They are more willing to compromise. Not everyone was afraid to take a stand in those days, however, Franz was inspired by Austrian priest Franz Reinisch, who was executed by the Nazi regime because of his refusal to take the oath.
It is hard to miss the similarities between Franz's stance and those “antifa” anti-fascists of today. Some veterans of World War II must be appalled to see Americans wearing the swastika in public marches, and to see these Nazis enjoy support from within the White House in Washington. The head of the FBI, James Comey was fired, in part, because he would not swear personal allegiance to President Donald Trump, who now commands the allegiance of many voters, and people in government as well. He highly values personal loyalty, as opposed to loyalty to country and the U.S. Constitution.
There are those who deny that this movie can be interpreted this way. I saw one such article today, in RT.com (a Russian government news outlet) of all places. President Trump, of course, is often criticized for his pro-Russian stance, and his support of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as his affinity for other autocrats.
This looks, and at times sounds, like a German movie, but most of the dialog is in English. This is a film written and directed by an American, and it can be viewed in an American context. The title is based on a quotation from the last lines of George Eliot's novel, “Middlemarch,” shown during the credits: “... 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.”
There was a time when I, as an American, looked down upon the Germans for their willingness to swear allegiance to Hitler, and to blindly follow him down the dark paths of evil and destruction. Now, I realize we are just as vulnerable as they were, to follow a leader who offers us scapegoats instead of solutions. Our fate, like that of Austria and Germany in the 1930s, hangs by a thread. This film rates a B.
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