The Body is an Anvil: On ‘A Hidden Life’, ‘Fury Road’, and What We Make of Suffering

It has often felt as if the hyperobject we refer to as the COVID Pandemic was and is a failed social experiment. It’s easy to see what was tested: everything (our governments, institutions, businesses, families, relationships, emotions, psyches, and, of course, health). It’s harder to see what was proved. What conclusions do we draw? Are we weaker, collectively and individually, than we thought we were? Do we trust our bodies and our neighbors less than we thought we did? Are we prioritizing the wrong things? What do we make of all this suffering? That final question is the challenge of the Lenten season in which I’m writing. It’s the question that drives us toward and away from hope, despair, love, destruction, and each other. We respond to it, individually and collectively, whether we do so intentionally or not.

Terrence Malick’s 2019 film A Hidden Life is a beautifully rendered contemplation of many of the questions posed above. The film poetically and excruciatingly visualizes the true story of Franz Jägerstätter — an Austrian husband, father, and farmer — as he contemplates, converses about, and commits to imprisonment and almost certain death in opposition to fighting for the Nazis. A Hidden Life is overwhelming not only because of its subject but also because of the artistry in every shot’s flowing and naturalistic composition. It is a rallying cry for the inherent value and beauty in life. It is a true Gesamtkunstwerk which must be experienced. I have wanted and struggled to write about it since I saw it and will struggle to live up to its lessons for the rest of my life, I’m sure. So please indulge this first attempt. (Or at least go watch it. It’s currently available to rent on the typical streaming platforms.)

In the film, Franz and his wife Fani are protagonist and deuteragonist in the fullest etymological sense. To be an agonist is to be a combatant in a physical or mental struggle. To experience anguish and agony. The husband and wife stand simultaneously together and alone. Franz’s choice is beguiling to, and ostracizes his family from, the community in which they live and work. He is constantly questioned. Why do this? Why choose this suffering? Like Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, Franz is solitary in his seemingly meaningless sacrifice — or is he?

Excerpts of a 1941 homily from Clemens August Graf von Galen, then Bishop of Munster, are heard as Franz is committing to his decision. von Galen publicly denounced the Nazi program and the lawlessness of the Gestapo. He was under house arrest for much of the war and, in 1942, Hitler threatened him by name in a public address. The image that von Galen employs to suggest a pact of non-violent resistance is that of the anvil:

“We must be strong. Stand firm. Learn the lesson of the anvil: No matter how hard the hammer strikes, the anvil cannot — need not — strike back. The anvil outlives the hammer. That which is hammered on the anvil takes its form not only from the hammer but the anvil too.”

If we can make anything out of suffering, I believe we must utilize this Anvil Theology.

The dialectical nature of this concept can be understood via the twofold reference within A Hidden Life’s title. The first is explicated at the end of the film: a quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch which alludes to the countless unknown and “unhistoric” lives that have quietly shaped our world for the better. Franz’s sacrifice was largely unknown for two decades until Gordon Zahn — a sociologist, writer, and member of the Catholic Worker Movement — discovered his story and wrote his biography, In Solitary Witness. What is revealed in Franz’s hidden life is his commitment to non-violent resistance.

We are familiar with this concept. We learn about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. in school. Yet, in our actual lives, the idea seems impossibly radical if not outright immoral. There are too many hammers. The police are aggressors rather than peacekeepers, the security state provokes and escalates conflict, and we live vicariously through those who commit assault and battery against Neo-Nazis or comedians who tell inappropriate Oscar jokes. We forget that meekness is not the same as submission — it is controlled power, not powerlessness. We refuse to turn the other cheek because we’ve forgotten what that really means.

The modern reader who misses the Judeo-Roman context of the concept thereby loses the brilliance of Rabbi Jesus’s calls to turn the other cheek, to give up your coat as well as your shirt, and to walk an extra mile. In that time, a back-handed strike with the right hand was a sign of dominance — as one would do to a slave. To turn the other cheek would provide the oppressor with a choice: strike with the left hand which was unclean, or slap with the right hand which was a sign of equality. To give up one’s shirt and coat would render the debtor naked. This would not merely shame the debtor; public nudity brought shame to the viewer as well. Finally, a Roman soldier could require an inhabitant of occupied territory to carry a message or equipment up to one mile but would themselves be punished if they tried to require an extra mile be walked.

Taken in context, these are not examples of passivity or submission. Turning the other cheek shines a light on oppression. It redirects rather than reciprocates injustice. It is transgressive but not aggressive. It challenges us to open our eyes to our own dirty hands — to our own shame. As James Baldwin said, “whoever debases others is debasing himself.” Neither violence nor suffering occur in a vacuum. Which brings us to the second component of our Anvil Theology.

George Eliot’s use of the phrase “a hidden life” recalls St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Set your minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” The apostle supplies here a memento mori: a reminder that death is inevitable, that the things of this world will pass away. However, this is not a call to suicide, to nihilism, or even to asceticism. To elucidate the meaning, I prefer the simplest, most literal interpretation of the Latin mantra: “remember to die”. Here, we see death not as a predetermination of fate but as another choice. To make the most of our lives, to be hidden within (immersed in, enveloped by, committed to) something greater than ourselves, we must die to ourselves.

Franz and Fani Jägerstätter, as we have seen, are agonists but they do not suffer alone. In their non-violent resistance, their turning of the cheek, they are struck by the hammer but also formed and fortified by the anvil. They are representatives of the agon — the Latin root, which refers to a collective — a mass or assembly of witnesses. Mother Teresa said, “if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”. Without solidarity, we are disparate pieces of a missing whole. In order to achieve this solidarity, we must allow our liberalism to die.

As Ha-Joon Chang writes in Economics: The User’s Guide, “few words have generated more confusion than the word ‘liberal’.” So please allow me to define my terms before you write me off completely. By “liberal” I do not mean “member of the US Democratic Party”. Rather, returning to Chang, I refer to the classical definition “that gives priority to freedom of the individual.” It is hard to overcome this notion because, for generations, we have been conditioned to believe it is the natural order of things. We desperately want to be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls. We convince ourselves that competition is productive and efficient; that the marketplace was ordained by God and can propel us to freedom. We are all just one idea, one promotion, one hustle, one barrier away from independence.

My favorite image of liberalism is the often-misapplied metaphor of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. To picture a literal version of this expression, one would not be surprised to learn that its first usage was sarcastic. Attempting such an action would result in nothing more than a sore back and broken bootstraps. The image is absurd. The notion is a lie. Still, we are conditioned to lionize the Great Man.

We often process or metabolize our worldviews via art. And while fiction and fantasy need not be factual, art must be truthful in order to be instructive. By now it should be clear that our preconceived vision of the striving, heroic, meritocratic “Protagonist” is largely superficial. Let us consider a work of art that dispels the myth.

Though it may not appear so on the surface, A Hidden Life has quite a lot in common with George Miller’s 2015 film Mad Max: Fury Road. Besides spectacular cinematography, breathtaking performances, and visionary authorship, both films express the struggle to find humanity within the ugliness and chaos of life. Both can be read as Biblical epics. And much like the Bible, Fury Road is rife with violence, selfishness, and opportunities for self-reflection.

The titular Max is a failure. He spends most of the film trying to run, to escape his inner demons, to go his own way, only to be tripped up, caught, and entangled in a plot that is not his own. The plot belongs to Furiosa, a fearless female leader who has fled the desert oasis known as the Citadel that is controlled by the evil Immortan Joe and his gang of fundamentalist War Boys. She absconds with Immortan Joe’s “wives” who have refused to exist as his property any longer. As they embark on a quest to reach a mythic paradise, The Green Place, Max supports their efforts. Begrudgingly at first, and then openly. When they discover that their promised land is merely more desert, they make a pivotal decision: to return. To retake the Citadel for themselves and for its destitute inhabitants.

This turn, this metanoia, is important but I share the story of Fury Road to get to its final moments wherein Furiosa and the now-freed women ascend the Citadel while Max fades into the crowd and disappears. I won’t explicate a gender-reductionist interpretation because I don’t believe the movie implies one. What we can find in this scene is another memento mori: a reminder that we must let our ego, our stubborn independence, and our unnecessary demons fade and disappear. We find in this scene a vision of democracy and reconciliation — a pluralized and liberated community — that does not rely on liberalism, hegemony, or dominance. As Mother Teresa goes on to say, “if everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?” The protagonist fades into the agon.

Franz Jägerstätter found victory in surrendering to something greater than himself. A notion that history need not bend toward the hammers of selfishness and destruction. Suffering does not make sense when we are only considering our own suffering in isolation. Why me? No purpose, no good can be found. Yet, when we consider the suffering of others, we are faced with a choice. We can act or we can ignore. We can oppress or we can uplift. St. Paul said that those who are unified in their hidden lives transcend mere individualism and become the Body of Christ. The Body is the unified whole that Mother Teresa beckons us to remember. It is the home, the oasis, to which we must return.

These ideas represent many of the reasons why I am both a Catholic (the fulfillment of The Body) and a Socialist (a true expression of The Anvil). If either practice interests you, I suggest further studies of Liberation Theology and the Catholic Worker Movement. Since you’ve read this far, I consider you a friend and so I’ll admit to you that I’m notoriously bad at praxis. This essay has been tumbling around in my head for years — and writing is the easy part. I must commit myself to a higher standard. To action.

So how do we respond to life’s great and terrible tests? The answer is found in the Corporal Works of Mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned, give alms to the poor, and bury the dead. Let not the etymology of these works be lost on you. What do we make of suffering? We make the corpus. We make The Body. The Body is an Anvil.

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Mother Teresa’s essay for Architects of Peace:

The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.

Let us not use bombs and guns to overcome the world. Let us use love and compassion. Peace begins with a smile. Smile five times a day at someone you don’t really want to smile at; do it for peace. Let us radiate the peace of God and so light His light and extinguish in the world and in the hearts of all men all hatred and love for power.

Today, if we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other-that man, that woman, that child is my brother or my sister. If everyone could see the image of God in his neighbor, do you think we would still need tanks and generals?

Peace and war begin at home. If we truly want peace in the world, let us begin by loving one another in our own families. If we want to spread joy, we need for every family to have joy.

Today, nations put too much effort and money into defending their borders. They know very little about the poverty and the suffering that exist in the countries where those bordering on destitution live. If they would only defend these defenseless people with food, shelter, and clothing, I think the world would be a happier place.

The poor must know that we love them, that they are wanted. They themselves have nothing to give but love. We are concerned with how to get this message of love and compassion across. We are trying to bring peace to the world through our work. But the work is the gift of God.

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Chris Perkins

Chris Perkins

Catholic socialist. Explorations (in design, philosophy, politics, etc.) via film criticism. Twitter: @chrison_