WASHINGTON — With the release of a film biography of Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, the conscientious objector who was martyred by the Nazis, Orbis Books is reissuing its 10-year-old collection of the Austrian farmer’s letters and other writings from prison.
Director Terence Malick, who directed “A Hidden Life,” which had its U.S. premiere Dec. 13, obtained the rights to adapt Blessed Jagerstatter’s prison writings for use in the movie’s screenplay.
The Orbis book, “Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings From Prison,” now has a new cover featuring a still from “A Hidden Life.” The 2009 original featured a photograph of Blessed Jagerstatter on the cover. But what’s inside — especially the letters to his wife, Fani — are interspersed throughout the script to “A Hidden Life,” which also was written by Malick.
“This goes back quite a long way,” said Robert Ellsberg, publisher of Orbis Books, during a Dec. 17 phone interview with Catholic News Service conducted from his car, which was stuck in a traffic jam outside New York City that had stretched into its second hour.
“The original producer Elisabeth Bentley, an aspiring producer and screenwriter who I had known many years ago — I taught her in college, actually — was interested in acquiring the film rights to the book we had just published,” he said. “We made an agreement with her, and she was working on a screenplay for some years, and also trying to find a director.”
Ellsberg added, “Many years went by, and I read in a trade publication that Terence Malick was doing a movie on Franz Jagerstatter, so I contacted Lizzie and said, ‘Do you know about this?’ and she says, ‘Yes, that’s our film.’ I did not know Malick had stepped in until that point.”
Bentley is listed as a producer of “A Hidden Life.” It turns out Ellsberg also knows Malick from a mutual friendship with actor Martin Sheen, who had starred in Malick’s 1973 big-screen debut, “Badlands.”
Ellsberg demurred at Orbis’ role in bringing Blessed Jagerstatter’s nonviolent resistance to light. He credited Gordon Zahn’s 1964 book “In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jagerstatter,” as “really the book that made Jagerstatter’s story known to the world. It had an effect on me personally. … It’s why I leapt at the opportunity to publish these letters.”
The reference to “Franz Jagerstatter: Letters and Writings From Prison” in the movie’s closing credits — it appears even before the cast list — leads Ellsberg to hope filmgoers will seek out the book.
“I don’t see how it can hurt. When we knew the film was scheduled for release, we put out a new cover for the book based on one of the stills from the film. We’re hoping there will be one benefit to that link,” he said.
“In my next publisher’s letter, which I do every month online, I begin by talking about the film and the book. Anybody who is interested in pursuing more information about Jagerstatter will certainly come upon the book, and that will lead people deeper into this story and his own words.”
Ellsberg drew a comparison between Blessed Jagerstatter and another martyr whose conscience led him to an early death: St. Thomas More.
“What was unusual about Jagerstatter, of course, is that he was an ordinary man, not a great scholar and theological mind like Thomas More. Just an ordinary farmer. The fact that he very specifically did not have the support of his local church” is worth noting, Ellsberg told CNS.
“It raises the question: What was it about Jagerstatter that made him see things in this way? All of us can strongly object to a president, for instance, or a policy, but when it comes down to laying down our life, leaving our children orphans or a wife widowed, left to endure the scorn of her neighbors, because of your strong convictions about what your faith demands that you do?”
At two hours and 53 minutes, “A Hidden Life” is a ” luminous, though deliberately paced, drama,” wrote a review of the film by John Mulderig, assistant director for media reviews at CNS. “Beautiful both to look at and to contemplate,” he added, Malick “celebrates Jagerstatter’s quiet heroism unreservedly,” although there is no escaping ” the dread of what, at first, may lie ahead and later certainly does.”
“A Hidden Life” has a classification of A-II — adults and adolescents — for “mature themes, scenes of physical violence and an ambiguous portrayal of Catholic clergy.”