A Hidden Life is a gem of a movie that somehow got lost in its original release at the end of 2019. The film tells the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector who lived in Austria during the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of war. In a deliberate effort to avoid spoilers, I am avoiding too much description of the story itself. It is not a fast-paced movie. The slowness seems to even play a role in the movie’s overall theme. Jägerstätter was a hero because he stood up for his convictions even against impossible odds and overwhelming social and historical forces. He was not a great orator, writer, or intellectual firebrand. He was a common man. He was a father, a husband, and a farmer. His stand was not dramatic. It was a slow but certain personal conviction that he could not bring himself to violate.
- Listen to the recent podcast episode where we discuss the movie A Hidden Life
Most of the world has never heard of Jägerstätter before the film’s release. And most of the world has never heard of the many like him who followed their convictions and refused to violate the boundaries of their conscience over the course of history. They are not remembered as national heroes because they countered their countrymen’s fervid nationalistic agendas during wartime. In their lifetimes, they were often seen as traitors and sometimes even spies. But in the broader span of history, when we take the time to remember them at all, we find something honorable and courageous in lives that stood against the flow of dark histories at significant personal costs.
A Hidden Life was one of those notable movies that left me contemplating its messages many days after the fact. Chief among those considerations was the question, what makes a hero? How do we define heroism? Hero is a term we hand out too cheaply today. Everyone in uniform is a hero. Soldiers. Nurses. Firefighters. Police officers. Essential workers. You. Me. If everyone is a hero, then no one is really a hero.
It makes us feel good to use the language of heroism, but there must be more to heroism than good intentions or even filling a great need. Of course, some individuals distinguish themselves above and beyond the rest through their self-sacrifice, commitment to duty, honor, and conviction. We know it when we see it, even if that recognition is often in retrospect, but not every dutiful act is heroic. When we pretend it is, we cheapen true heroism and blur the ideals that heroes inspire us to live towards.
Our modern culture has “Disneyfied” heroism. We have popularized politically historical stands with dramatic stories and celebration but subtracted the personal sacrifice, crises of conscience, and struggle with doubt that true heroes of conviction often navigated alone. As a result, in our age of social media and cheap celebrity heroism has become a live action role-playing event where individuals can pretend to take heroic stands without the costs that real-life heroes had to make.
Demi Lovato is celebrated as a hero for changing her pronouns – again. Spotify has a new podcast series, Resistance, that celebrates ordinary everyday social justice warriors who are making a difference. But are they really? Sports stars and celebrities lend their influence to social causes to take a heroic stance toward an issue that most popular media endorses and celebrates.
In the recently concluded NBA season, social justice was televised front and center. The playoffs included a barrage of social justice messaging from the television commercials to the commentators to messages literally written on the basketball games’ courts. NBA players even replaced the names on their jerseys with a social justice cause selected from a list pre-approved by the corporate sponsors.
Is that real heroism? The players acted out a part no different from celebrities who push their preferred social causes at high-profile awards shows.
Our culture and media celebrate these acts of individual stands and proclamation as if it is in line with the achievements of Rosa Parks, but that feels like a stretch. It is still too safe, too popular, too celebrated to fit with the real history makers. Even when the volume and repetition are on full blast, true heroism cannot be qualified in politically correct acts and messages void of personal sacrifice and courage. Real courage doesn’t trend on Twitter and Facebook.
If that is true, then the question also arises, who determines what a hero is? In an age of media saturation, social media and celebrities are incredibly influential at building up and tearing down individuals – but can we trust the judgments of popular media? How have heroes been determined historically?