Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl) and his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) are hardworking farmers who live in a beautiful stretch of land in northern Austria. This film, inspired by true events, follows them through the years of World War II as he decides to make a stand against the Nazis, an act for which the real-life Jagerstatter was declared a martyr and beatified in the Catholic Church.
As the film opens, we see that Franz and Franziska are very much in love, reveling in the memories of their first meeting, joyous wedding ceremony, and years raising their three young daughters. The couple have a rewarding appreciation of the natural world and the simple life they share beneath the clouds. Their fields of grain, flowing water, and majestic mountains, captured in the breathtaking cinematography of Joerg Widmer, is a Garden of Eden for this devout Catholic couple.
But World War II and the Nazi annexation of Austria will soon destroy their happy existence. Convinced that the country needs farmers, they are hopeful that Franz will not be asked to fight. Their land is a solace and even a place to practice peace. We were reminded of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's antidote to war in his book Love in Action: "The most important practice for preventing war is to stay in touch with what is refreshing, healing, and joyful inside us and all around us. If we practice walking mindfully, being in touch with the earth, the air, the trees, and ourselves, we can heal ourselves, and our entire society will also be healed. If the whole nation would practice watering seeds of joy and peace and not just seeds of anger and violence, the elements of war in all of us will be transformed."
But much to the Jagerstatters' dismay, Franz is called up for service in the Austrian army. After training, he decides that he must follow his conscience and refuse to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. He tells his local priest (Tobias Moretti) and the Cardinal (Michael Nyqvist) that since he has been given free will, he also has a responsibility to resist evil, and what Hitler and the Nazis are doing is evil. The churchmen counsel that by taking this stand he will be putting his life at risk and threaten the livelihood of his family. What's more, nobody will hear of his sacrifice, and it will therefore benefit no one.
The town's major (Karl Markovics) is even more vehement in his opposition to Franz' stand, calling him a traitor. A local artisan (Johan Leysen), who is restoring some paintings in the church, predicts that a dark time is coming when individuals will not battle with the truth, they will just ignore it. Everyone tries to convince him that his family will suffer too much. Franziska has to tend the farm with only her sister (Maria Simon) and mother-in-law (Karin Neuhauser) to help.
Franz's resistance leads to his being imprisoned. Back in the village, Franziska is shunned because of what her husband is doing. When he finally gets a trial, the judge (Bruno Ganz) seems to understand his position but nonetheless condemns him. Given one last chance to see her husband, Franziska tells him, "Whatever you do, whatever comes, I am with you always."
Mallick allows this story to unfold slowly and quietly, aided by the nature scenery which invites our lingering, and the beautiful musical score by James Newton Howard which invites our emotional involvement. Although Franz makes his conscientious objection early, he and his family do not learn its consequences and his fate for years. So it often is with resistance, this story mirroring so many others where those who oppose evil must persist and persevere against often overwhelming societal pressure. And like so many other conscientious objectors, Franz is supported not only by his family but also by his Christian faith.
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