JCC Chicago Jewish Film Festival Special Screening of A Hidden Life
A Hidden Life is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer (August Diehl) who refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler during World War II, sacrificing everything, including his life, rather than to fight for the Nazis.
Born and raised in the village of St. Radegund, Jägerstätter is farming his land when war breaks out. Married to Franziska (Fani) (Valerie Pachner), the couple are very much in love and involved with the tight-knit community. They live a simple life in the fertile valleys and mountains of upper Austria, with the passing years marked by the arrival of the couple’s three girls.
When Franz is called up to basic training, a requirement for all Austrian men, he is away from his beloved wife and children for months. Eventually, when France surrenders and it seems the war might end soon, he is sent back home. His mother and sister-in-law Resie come to live with them, and for a while things seem to go on as normal.
Instead of retreating, the war escalates, and Franz and the other men in the village are called up to fight. The first requirement of a new soldier is to swear an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. Despite pleas from his neighbors, fellow soldiers and commanding officers, Franz refuses the oath—objecting to Hitler and the Nazi regime. With his quiet act of resistance he asks the question, “if leaders are evil, what does one do?” With a sense of personal responsibility and the inability to do what he believes is wrong, Franz refuses.
Meanwhile Fani is left to deal with the aftermath of his decision. Not only is she now the caretaker of the family’s farm as well as her three young daughters, Fani is ostracized from her community. Fear of Hitler forces once kindly neighbors to turn their backs on the Jägerstätter family.
Wrestling with the knowledge that his decision would mean arrest and likely death, Franz finds strength in Fani’s love and support. He is imprisoned, first in Enns, then in Berlin— and waits months for trial. During his time in prison, he and Fani write letters to one another and give each other strength.
After months of incarceration, the case goes to trial. Franz is found guilty and sentenced to death. While Franz’s faith drives him to resist taking the oath to Hitler, representatives from religious, civic, government and military institutions plead with him to disavow his beliefs and swear his allegiance, even if he is disingenuous, in order to save his life. Franz continues to stand up for his beliefs and is executed by the Third Reich in August 1943. His wife and three daughters survive.
The relationship between Franz and his wife Fani endures. The film portrays their bond as deeply as Franz’s devotion to his cause. At every turn Fani is there for Franz—strong, unfaltering and supportive of his path while raising their daughters and running the farm alone, eventually with help from her mother-in-law and sister.
Terrence Malick’s film draws on actual letters exchanged between Franz and Fani while Jägerstätter was in prison. The collection was edited by Erna Putz and published in English by Orbis Books. Some lines have been added to the letters, and sometimes the letters are paraphrased.
The story was little known outside of St. Radegund, and might never have been discovered, were it not for the research of Gordon Zahn, an American who visited the village in the 1970s.