“But I am Free”


It is a week or so now since I watched Terence Malick’s “A hidden Life” but it still haunts me. It must be among the finest films I have ever seen. It moved me deeply. Like all great works of art it strikes in lots of different levels and like all great works of art it cuts to the core of things. It digs deep into the struggle of the human heart with what must be one of life’s greatest dilemmas.

James Macmillan has said that listening to music involves sacrifice, but watching a film like this involves sacrifice too. It is not the ticket price or giving up an evening but the demand to sit for three hours in silence and simply absorb the work in its entirety. Many may find the length and the apparent slowness of the action, the long scenes and the minimal dialogue wearisome. Half way through, that thought also crossed my mind, but by the end I realised it needed all the time. It needed the long shots to communicate the anguish of the story It needed the space to let the thoughts sink in and the economy of words meant that when words were spoken, they were deeply significant and profound.  

The cinematography alone was breath-taking. The stunning landscape of the Tyrolian Alps with their crazy spiked peaks snow-capped and bathed in beautiful sunshine or clouded with forbidding skies and thunder. The sloping land with the constant, digging, planting and harvesting barley, turnip, tending goats among the simple dwellings and outhouses, grinding wheat with children playing in the cornfields. It was an idyllic scene. The human love and joy in the family that spread out to the community was portrayed with a delightful tenderness. Even the shadow of what was to come was treated with such sensitivity that in so many ways it seemed perfectly reasonable. The soldiers the the town major, the local priest and even the villagers who turned against them with their ugly glances, spitting and the children throwing stones, were not evil, but people with their own demons to fight, their own families and lives to protect.   

The music throughout, sensitively and beautifully arranged under the hand of James Newton Howard with pieces from Handel, Gorecki and  Pert woven seamlessly into the whole provided the backdrop

The towns and prison courtyards with all the of skilfully underplayed. Malick understand more than most how the greatest impact is achieved with the merest hint. There was no gratuitous violence or sex which under another director’s hand would be exploited. You don’t need to be shown everything. The brutality was clear and the passion real.

The principal actors: August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter and Valerie Pachner his wife Franziska (Frani),

along with the supporting cast, none of whom were known to me, worked with astonishing skill and sensitivity drawing you directly into their anxious internal struggle in what can only be described as an exquisite performance. They are totally convincing and believable. Erma Putz, Jägerstätter’s biographer who based her account on his letters from prison has said that it was an accurate representation of the principal characters from what she learned from the letters and directly from Franziska.

Many, I am sure, will use the film to support some current political stance and point up the dangers of populism and xenophobia. Others may take it as a statement on conscientious objection. There may be something in that, but I saw it as something much deeper and altogether more significant. For me it was about that undervalued virtue of Integrity, the cost and the ultimate sacrifice to be true to the lord of your life.  Jägerstätter’s issue was not over military service or war but in swearing allegiance to another God. That was where he could not go.

Despite all the persuasive arguments arraigned against him: From the mayor of his town, “You are worse than our enemies. You are a traitor”, the local priest, “Have you thought about the consequences of your action?.. Do you know what this will do to your family?. Don’t you know that you will almost certainly be shot?…your sacrifice will achieve nothing.”. Just say the words, God knows what is in your heart”, the Bishop “St Paul told us to be subject to the governing authorities whoever they are…your loyalty is to the fatherland” The atheist inmate “Your God doesn’t care. He didn’t even listen to his own son”

His own family, his mother , his sister in law and even his wife at one point offers him, a little shyly, a possible way out. From the plausible, the reasonable to the aggressive and dismissive each charge must have shot arrows into his heart. After almost each accusation he remains silent, as if accepting that it may be true, but that make no difference. Before his court appearance his solicitor is frustration and bewilderment offers him the easiest way out. “Just sign here and you will be free”  Frantz responds which for me are the most revealing words in the whole film  “But I am free”.

Crawford Mackenzie

1 thought on ““But I am Free”

  1. Thank you. I had not heard of it, but I just watched the trailer and get what you mean…I think.

    Reminds me that our Dad apparently tried to apply as a conscientious objector.


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