Survival is a natural instinct found in every animal, including us humans. However, what happens when in order to survive, one needs to switch off feelings and resign one’s conscience? Would you sacrifice everything to stay true to yourself? Even if it will certainly lead to your death?
Strangers to the World is a dramatized documentary film about Franz Jaegerstaetter (Oscar Redding) and Etty Hillesum (Rachel Griffiths), who rebelled against the Nazi regime and paid with their lives. Their individual moral courage was immense, and it should be praised. Their stories are told through the diaries and letters they wrote, in a mix of re-enaction and archival footage.
Franz Jaegerstaetter was a farmer from a small village in Austria. Married and with children, it was expected that he joined the war as a Nazi soldier, following the collective conscience (or the lack of it) as everyone else did. He decided not to, ignoring all the warnings and even going against the Bishop’s orders. His choice meant relinquishing what he loved: his farm, his wife, and children. But he was certain that he was doing the right thing: “I will not take an oath in favor of a government fighting an unjust war”, he wrote.
Etty Hillesum was a Dutch-Jewish woman living in Amsterdam. With the Nazi regime in power, she worryingly observed the Jewish persecution, and realized “they are trying to destroy us completely”. Instead of letting fear and anger win, she kept a diary that became a testimony to the difficult times her people were living. She was offered the chance to try and remain hidden by some friends but refused their help. She and her family were then sent to Auschwitz, where they all died. Etty’s biggest bravery was not surrendering to the hatred, not losing her positive personality. “We may suffer, but we must never succumb”, she wrote, and “love and goodness will survive”.
Both Jaegerstaetter and Hillesum were anonymous people. Their act of rebellion didn’t follow any doctrine; they didn’t belong to any political party or organized group. They were brave, strong, heroic; without expecting any kind of reward or recognition. They could have been saved, they could have lived, but instead chose to die. They stayed true to their conscience and faiths until the end. “Neither a prison, nor sense of death, can rob a man of his faith and free will”, wrote Franz.
Grant Fraser directs this thought-provoking dramatized documentary about a couple of individuals with astounding bravery. The 73-year old Geelong-based producer has extensive professional experience as a teacher of English and Law, an actor, lawyer, and poet. His background can be felt throughout Strangers to the World in the choice of aesthetics and the way the stories are told. The documentary often adopts a theatrical style and setting, and written words come alive with the actors’ re-enactments and monologues. The 54-minute film is very poetic and full of visual metaphors, like the vase of flowers on Etty’s desk.
In an interview, Fraser explained that he is good friends with some relatives of Griffith, and it was through them they got in touch. According to the director, she was moved by the script and immediately agreed to be part of the film. “Some stories just must be told”, the actress said. The budget of the film didn’t match that of Hollywood, but Griffith wanted to star in the film anyway.
The film spreads a very powerful message of hope in humanity, even during devastating times. One of the reasons why the film succeeds is the impeccable performances by its two prominent Australian leads. The only flaw that can be taken into account is that the actors speak with their true accents. Maybe it would have been more believable if Griffiths had adopted a Dutch accent and Redding an Austrian one.
The stories told in the documentary are highly interesting, but the format and structure of the film fail to make it entertaining. It’s slow, filled with monologues and long conversations, with little action. But watching the film is totally worth it just to discover the amazing true stories of Jaegerstaetter and Hillesum, and if one is interested in history, Strangers to the World will definitely be a hit.
The name of the film is taken from a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran priest and Nazi dissident killed in 1945. It says: “The world dreams of progress, of power and of the future, but the disciples meditate on the end, the last judgment, and the coming of the kingdom. To such heights, the world cannot rise. And so the disciples are strangers in the world, unwelcome guests and disturbers of the peace.”
Strangers to the World has been able to see the light thanks to the Australian Cultural Fund, with which a three-step crowdfunding campaign was organized. This is why the film has taken so long to finish. Its pre-production began in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2017 that the filming was complete. Later that year post-production began, and the movie was completed by 2018. It is currently available for an online screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival website until the 2 August 2020.