Franz Jägerstätter was a farmer from the Austrian village of St. Radegund. Though happily married and content to live the simple country life, he felt called by his own moral compass to refuse military service under Hitler's Third Reich. This simple act was seen as such a threat to the Nazi regime that he and many other conscientious objectors were arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for their „crimes.“ Franz Jägerstätter was executed by guillotine in August, 1943. He was only 36 years old.
Franz's story was eventually adapted into a major, acclaimed film in 2019 (called A Hidden Life), directed by Terrence Malick, one of the most influential directors of the late 20th and early 21st century. Many, myself included, consider the film to be a deep and underappreciated masterpiece.
Mollie Kyle was born in 1886. By virtue of timing and her Osage heritage, she shared in the immense oil wealth her people had recently obtained. Tragically, this very wealth made her a prime target for one of the most insidious crimes committed against American Indigenous peoples in US history. After suffering the devastating loss of her entire family and the terrible betrayal of her own partner, she died in 1951 at the age of 50, a life considerably shortened by grief and illness.
This Autumn, in the year 2023, Mollie's story was brought to film by a team headed by Martin Scorcese, Leonadro DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro, three of the most famous figures of American cinema. The movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, is already considered a serious awards contender, with Lily Gladstone, an actress of Blackfeet heritage who portrays Mollie, standing a decent chance to be the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar for acting.
How does this happen? What about these two hidden lives endured long enough to be immortalized (in a sense) in film by some of the finest artists of our time?
I can't help but see resonant parallels between Mollie Kyle and Franz Jägerstätter. Theirs truly were small lives, relatively normal and powerless (Mollie's wealth notwithstanding). Had they had better timing and lived in unremarkable times and places, I see no reason why their lives could not have been longer, healthier, hopefully happier, and perhaps just as unremarkable and unremembered. And I would not sitting here, thinking about them, writing this article.
But they didn't live in unremarkable times, did they? Franz, the sort of quietly pious person whose lives fill centuries upon centuries of Central European history, just happened to be there at the height of the Nazi's power, in the middle of the greatest death machine the continent ever witnessed. Mollie had the misfortune of being not just a woman and indigenous, but wealthy, at the very tail end of centuries of active genocide committed by the United States against all Indigenous peoples within its borders, effectively painting three massive targets on her back from birth. Neither of them chose or likely even wanted to live in times and places of horrid suffering. Both would have likely preferred to just exist as they were and let the rest of the world be. Yet the rest of world insisted that such a fate would be denied them.
There is, of course, one clear difference that must be highlighted- Franz Jägerstätter chose his fate in a much more active way than Mollie did. Part of what has made his story so controversial (both in real life and in discussing the film adaptation) is that being a conscienscious objector is very much a choice. It is a deliberate act to NOT conform to the status quo. So we must be careful and not try to make a perfect 1-1 comparison of a Native American woman in Oklahoma and a White, Christian man in Central Europe. That said- and I don't want to get lost in the weeds on this- I do believe that, even though his was a much more active choice, the very fact that he faced that choice- that refusing military service in his case went beyond facing just a fine, or a stint in jail- is itself a condemnation of the situation he was in. No one should ever have to even contemplate that sort of option for simply not wanting to fight in a war.
And we return to my question. How did these two stories survive, and what meaning can we draw from them? In both cases, so many in similar situations who faced tragedies just as grave or made choices just as important, truly have disappeared in the sands of time and will never have their stories told. As is repeated in various forms over and over again in the film, it was easier to be convicted for killing a dog in America than for killing Indigenous peoples (and in many places, it still is). The cost of centuries of genocide will never be truly measurable. How many Mollies suffered similiar or worse fates whose names are lost forever?
The fact that we know so much about Mollie herself is, in many ways, a mere product of good timing. Her family's ordeals just happened to be one of the final straws that prompted action from the federal government, where at least some facts and some perpetrators were able to be identified, arrested, and sentenced. Mollie was able to see a tiny (and, granted, inadequate) measure of justice, and- at least initially- escaped the horrific, slow poisoning her tormentors had planned for her. As a result, her family's part of the Reign of Terror is the one we know the most about for certain, while so much else- even hard numbers of how many victims it claimed- is unknowable.
Perhaps that makes it all the more precious that we at least can know her and her family, to a limited extent. She tried to hold onto to the disappearing traditions of her people, in spite of the fact that she was one of the generations forced to Christianize and attend English schools. She was by all acounts an incredibly loving mother; her children- and this is a detail I wish had been included in the movie- recalled that one son suffered ear aches, so she would often blow gently on them until he fell asleep. I find such small things infinitely precious, especially in the face of those who would stamp out genuine love for the sake of power and money.
Franz is threatened even more explicitly with oblivion; he is repeatedly told, by friends, family, townspeople, judges, soldiers, even Church figures, variations of „This won't matter,“ „you can't change anything,“ „no one will remember you,“ „no one will care.“ and so on and so forth. Many have been told such things when they tried to go against the grain. And certainly, in many individual cases, an act of resistance does not provoke immediate change, and the person is indeed ground up by the wheels of time.
But that did not happen to Franz. We do remember, and we even have a movie now to help us in the remembering. He didn't end the war or directly change Nazi politics with his sacrifice, but- when taken together with all the other acts of resistance documented and memorialized- it has made something of a difference. He didn't know this at the time, of course. He wasn't playing some 5-dimensional chess game in his head to win post-mortem fame; he just felt compelled to do what was right. Just as Mollie surely did not see, wish, or expect her story to be tragic and gripping enough to merit a major movie; she simply wanted to survive and love and enjoy her family.
It is true that so much of our world is built on the toiling of the hidden lives we never have a chance to recall or honor. We will never know just how many people we owe the debt of our lives to. Yet sometimes, fragments survive. Single stories can function as a stand-in for the others we will never know. Films, just as much as books, plays, and music, provide some of the best avenues to help these stories endure, to provide us with flickers of light in dark times. As such, I am deeply grateful for the existance of A Hidden Life and Killers of the Flower Moon, of the craft and care on display in each. Ifind it deeply powerful, and even not a little hopeful, to consider the stories of Franz Jägerstätter and Mollie Kyle, to be grateful that their fames will not be so easily forgotten. Provided, that is, that we all keep at the work of remembering, which is its own herculean task at times. But we must try, at least.