Terrence Malick and the Passion of Franz Jägerstätter

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August Diehl as Franz Jägerstätter and Valerie Pachner as Franziska Jägerstätter

Ireland, indeed all countries in the world plagued with errant secularism, is in the throes of a battle over the issue of freedom of conscience for its citizens. Now, the great film director and auteur, Terrence Malick, is about to raise the stakes for the protagonists in this war.

If Robert Bolt and Fred Zinnemann did it for the rights of conscience in the Public Square with A Man For All Seasons in the middle of the last century, Malick is going to do it for our time. While Bolt and Zinneman nuanced their treatment of St. Thomas More’s faith and convictions with an emphasis on human character, Malick’s subject takes the issue to full frontal level on behalf of the law of God.

The Irish secularist parliament is currently passing legislation permitting the termination of pregnancy – which really means the termination of innocent human lives. This legislation was wilfully sanctioned by two thirds of the Irish electorate in a clear Yes and No referendum last May. A suggestion that practising Catholics who ticked Yes on the ballot paper might have something on their consciences afterwards was much mocked in the weeks that followed. If they dare to reflect on the hero of Malick’s new film they may be inclined to mock less. Their decision last May and the legislation now being built on it, will not only terminate lives but will require countless medical professionals – doctors, nurses, hospital staff and more – to cooperate in each of those killings in violation of their consciences.

Malick’s new film, Rudegund, chronicles the life of a martyr of the twentieth century who was executed by guillotine in 1943 for refusing to take the life of another and refusing to accept as just, a government which had made unjust and inhumane laws.

The film takes its name from the small Austrian village of Sankt Rudegund. It was the birthplace of Franz Jägerstätter, who was executed at Brandenburg Prison in 1943. The choice by Malick of this subject for his tenth film in 45 years is, one might suspect, to round off his exhaustive exploration through all his work of the struggles of men and women on this earth in their pursuit of happiness.

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Franz Jägerstätter

Of all his heroes – or anti-heroes – Franz Jägerstätter is the one who by the authority of the Roman Catholic Church can be said definitively to have achieved just that. He was beatified on ‎26 October 2007, Linz, Austria by ‎Pope Benedict.

He was born on 20 May 1907, to his unmarried mother, Rosalia Huber, and to Franz Bachmeier, who was killed during World War I. After the death of his natural father, Rosalia married Heinrich Jägerstätter, who adopted Franz and gave the boy his surname of Jägerstätter in 1917.

Franz received a basic education in his village’s one-room schoolhouse – Rudegund still has a population of a little over 500 souls. Rosalia’s father helped with his education and the boy became an avid reader – but not in any way a “saintly” child or teenager. He was the first in his village to own a motorcycle and he flaunted it to great effect – winning the hearts of the local girls, with not very moral consequences.

However, things changed when in 1936 he married a young girl in the village. She was part of the gift of graces which God gave him and which would eventually flower in his martyrdom. They went to Rome for their honeymoon and there a kind of conversion took place under the influence of what he saw in both the city and in his young wife’s simple piety and devotion.

He returned to his small farm – left to them by step-father – and worked as hard as any small farmer must. They had three little daughters and he took on the job as sacristan in the local church to help add to their small income. He now went to Mass and Holy Communion every day that he could. The character and depth of his piety could be sensed from his resolve to refuse the customary offering for his services at funerals. He preferred the merits from the spiritual and corporal works of mercy over any remuneration.

Then came the Nazis, the annexation of Austria by Germany, the Anschluss, and war. In the gathering storm of the mid to late 1930s, while much of Austria was beginning to follow the tide of Nazism, Franz became ever more rooted in his Catholic faith and placed his complete trust in God. He began thinking deeply about obedience to legitimate authority and obedience to God, about mortal life and eternal life and about Jesus’ suffering and Passion.

Franz was in no way political nor part of any resistance movement, but in 1938 he was the only local citizen to vote against the Anschluss, because his conscience prevailed over the path of least resistance.

When war broke out and the Nazi grip on Austria became vice-like, Franz was called up for military service and sworn in on 17 June 1940. His resistance to active service on the field of battle for conscientious reasons was known and for a period and with the help of some officials he managed to serve while still working his farm.

He had, however, by now become convinced that any participation in the war was a serious sin and decided that any future call-up had to be met with his refusal to fight. “It is very sad”, he wrote, “to hear again and again from Catholics that this war waged by Germany is perhaps not so unjust because it will wipe out Bolshevism…. But now a question: what are they fighting in this Country – Bolshevism or the Russian People?

“When our Catholic missionaries went to a pagan country to make them Christians, did they advance with machine guns and bombs in order to convert and improve them?… If adversaries wage war on another nation, they have usually invaded the country not to improve people or even perhaps to give them something, but usually to get something for themselves…. If we were merely fighting Bolshevism, these other things – minerals, oil wells or good farmland – would not be a factor”.

Jägerstätter was at peace with himself despite his witnessing the masses’ capitulation to Hitler. Mesmerized by the National Socialist propaganda machine, many people knelt when Hitler made his entrance into Vienna. Catholic Churches were forced to fly the swastika flag and subjected to other abusive laws.

The Battle of Stalingrad lasted from 23 August 1942 until 2 February 1943. It was the largest confrontation of World War II and decimated the Wehrmacht. The debacle increased demand for soldiers in the field and in February 1943 Franz was called up again for military service. He presented himself at the induction centre on 1 March 1943 and announced his refusal to fight.

He was held in custody at Linz in March and April, transferred to Berlin-Tegel in May and subject to trial on 6 July 1943 when he was condemned to death for sedition. The prison chaplain was struck by the man’s tranquil character. On being offered the New Testament, he replied: “I am completely bound in inner union with the Lord, and any reading would only interrupt my communication with my God”.

After his sentence one last attempt was made to get him to relent – for his protest was an embarrassment even in that murderous regime. His wife and parish priest were brought to the prison to dissuade him. The techniques of persecutors never change. Thomas More faced the same challenge to his faith.

On 9 August, before being executed, Franz wrote: “If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering…. People worry about the obligations of conscience as they concern my wife and children.

“But I cannot believe that, just because one has a wife and children, a man is free to offend God”.

Franz Jägerstätter, would not bow his head to evil. No mercy was shown. He was laid on the platform of the guillotine, facing the blade and without a blindfold.

This is the man whom Terence Malick has now chosen to portray for us, a reminder that no matter what the season, as Franz Jägerstätter explained to his interrogators who tried to probe and probe why he was taking the path he had chosen, the grace of God is sufficient for every man and the ultimate cause of his salvation.

Malick, an auteur who probes consciousness and consciences like no other filmmaker of our time, is a worthy successor to his great influences, both of whom left us with masterpieces on the life of an earlier martyr for conscience , Carl Theodor Dreyer with The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and more recently Robert Bresson with The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962).

The film is scheduled for release in Germany before the end of the year. Worldwide release will follow soon after.

The riches of Terrence Malick

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We need a break from the culture wars. In the Middle Ages the Church tried on occasion to get the warring feudal kings, princes and barons – or whatever – to take time out from their seemingly endless wars. They tried to promote what in my Irish language history class was called a ‘sos cogadh’, if my memory, and my Irish, serve me right. It was a kind of ceasefire, literally a rest from warfare, like we tried to have between the IRA and the British security forces in our local Irish ‘troubles’ here at end of the last century.

So a unilateral ‘sos cogadh’ it is, for a few days at any rate. We will take a break from Abortion – sorry, Amnesty – International, same-sex marriage, Donald Trump Vs Hillary Clinton, corrupted education systems, ISIS, European football and all those stressful topics.

We will take a dive into the deep end of the cultural reservoir and reflect for a little on the deep, deep cinema of Terrence Malick.

I was moved to do this by a piece I read some time ago on the Aleteia website, posted on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the release of Malick’s magnum opus, The Tree of Life.

There, Matthew Becklo reminded us that when The Tree of Life hit movie theatres the responses were all visceral. “Some hailed it as an instant classic; others dismissed it as pretentious garbage; and a whole lot of people left the theatre scratching their heads.” He himself is in the first category and in an effort to win over those who either hated it, or were just plain confused by it, he gives us a few reasons to give this beautiful artefact another look in 2016.

His first reason is the verdict of that authoritative voice, the late Roger Ebert. Before he died, Ebert included it in his list of the ten greatest films ever made. Ebert said “I believe it’s an important film,” and will only increase in stature over the years.”

Not only has the film done so but it has done so because with the passage of time and the opportunity that this gives for revisiting it, not just once or twice but many times, you will see further into its depth with each viewing. The real reason for this is that Malick’s later films are not just rooted in the human. They connect us in some way with the divine. They are in fact prayers. They do not shy away from the sensual, albeit with delicacy. Neither does the Song of Songs. In all this Malick’s work bears a great affinity with those other masters – whose influence has had a bearing on his art – Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. Ebert in fact wrote, “Terrence Malick‘s new film is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence.”

Malick’s two films since The Tree of Life do exactly the same thing, each one taking a different angle on our existence. To the Wonder explores the mystery of love, not just human love but divine love as well – and the mysterious point where the two meet. The Knight of Cups takes us through the terrifying capacity of our kind to destroy ourselves in the pursuit of pleasure – with Hollywood as the metaphor for evil. The evil is not so much in what it produces as in the environment into which it sucks all those who participate within it.

But it is not just the spiritual meaning of Malick’s work, not just the way in which he explores the connections between our actual existence and our struggles with our destiny, which spell-bind us. It is the visual presentation of this. Here his co-artist plays his part. He was Emmanuel Lubezki, the first person to win the cinematography Oscar three years in a row: for Gravity (2013), Birdman (2014), and The Revenant (2015). He was nominated for his work on The Tree of Life – but the Academy was a bit off that year so he did not get it, nor did they. Lubezki has been Malick’s cinematographer since The New World, that other metaphorical work which explores in the tale of Pocahontas the complexities of the troubling reality of colonisation and multiculturalism.

For Matthew Becklo another compelling reason for revisiting the film is that its meaning is easier to follow the second time around. He observes that “The visual grandeur of The Tree of Life was enough to distract anyone from its storyline. But Malick also experimented freely with his characters and their locations, creating what many saw as an overly loose narrative. Even Sean Penn was displeased, remarking that ‘clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film’.”

“Malick,” he says, “does ask his viewers to keep their eyes (and minds) open, but he won’t leave them in the dust when they do. On a second viewing, the storyline becomes crystallized, and separated out from the more poetic sequences. This opens the door to a deeper dive into the meaning of the film as a whole.”

Robert Barron has produced a short YouTube essay on The Tree of Life in which he explores and comments of the themes of this visual and poetic masterpiece of cinema. Barron shows us how it is also a deep reflective work of natural theology. Perhaps The Tree of Life might be the best way of bringing us to a permanent ‘sos cogadh’ in our infernal culture wars?