Based on real events, "A Hidden Life" is the story of an unsung hero, Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), who refused to fight for 'The Nazis' in 'World War II'. When the Austrian peasant farmer is faced with the threat of execution for treason, it's his unwavering faith and his love for his wife Franziska (Valerie Pachner) and children that keep his spirit alive.
"A Hidden Life" is based on the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant farmer, 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, 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 Maria (Sarah Born), Rosalia (Karin Neuhäuser) and Aloisa (Franziska Lang). When Franz is called up to basic training, a requirement for all Austrian men, he's away from his beloved wife and children for months. Eventually, when France surrenders and it seems the war might end soon, he's sent back home. His mother and sister-in-law Resie (Maria Simon) 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 German State'. 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.
Meanwhile Franziska 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, she's iostracized 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 Franziska's love and support. He's imprisoned, first in Enns, then in Berlin; and waits months for trial. During his time in prison, he and Franziska 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's disingenuous, in order to save his life. Franz continues to stand up for his beliefs and is executed by 'The German State' in August 1943. His wife and three daughters survive. The relationship between Franz and his wife Franziska endures. The film portrays their bond as deeply as Franz’s devotion to his cause. At every turn Franziska 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.
Franz Jägerstätter is born on May 20th, 1907, in the Austrian village of 'St. Radegund'. His mother is an unmarried farm servant, Rosalia Huber (Jasmin Mairhofer). His father died in 'The First World War'. Franz’s formal education is slight and brief. From 1913 to 1921 he attends the one-room school in 'St. Radegund', where a single teacher taught seven grades. At a given time, there are about fifty to sixty children in all. But one sees from his writing that he's a quick learner with a well-organized and independent mind. Franz’s birthplace is as inauspicious as his education. The village of 'St. Radegund', on the 'River Salzach , is on the northwestern edge of Austria. The village, with a population of about five hundred, appears only on the most detailed maps of Austria. Mozart’s 'Salzburg" is to the south, 'Linz' to the east, 'Vienna' much further east. The closest major German city is 'Munich'. Hitler’s birthplace, the Austrian town of 'Braunau', isn’t far from 'St. Radegund'. Franz grows up mainly among farmers. 'The Jägerstätter' farm is one among many in the area. It's a region in which 'Catholicism' is deeply embedded. The idea of not being 'Catholic' is, for nearly everyone Franz knows, as unthinkable as moving to another planet, though he has a cousin who becomes a 'Jehovah’s Witness'. One reads in the accounts of saints lives how pious some of them are from the cradle to the grave. The stories local people tell of Franz as a young man go in the opposite direction. In his teens he isn't hesitant to get involved in fistfights. He enjoys all the pastimes that his friends enjoyed.
Along with all his neighbors, he goes to church when everyone else did, but no one would have remarked on his being a saint in the making. In 1930, at age twenty-three, Franz works for a time in the Austrian mining town of 'Eisenerz'. Returning to 'St. Radegund', Franz surprises his family and neighbors by arriving on a motorcycle he has purchased with money he earned in the city. No one else in the area has a motorcycle. The most important single factor attributed to bring about a change in Franz is his marriage to Franziska Schwaninger. Nearly everyone who lives in the area saw this as the main border-crossing event of his adult life. Franz is a different man afterward. Franziska is six years younger than Franz. She's very strong having been brought up in that area. She comes from a deeply religious family; her father and grandmother are both members of 'The Marian Congregation'. Her grandmother belonged to 'The Third Order Of St. Francis'. Before Franziska’s marriage, she has considered becoming a nun. After a short engagement, the two marries on April 9th, 1936. Franz is almost twenty-nine, Franziska twenty-three. It's a happy marriage. In one of his letters to Franziska during his period of army training in 1940, he mentions how fortunate and harmonious have been their years of marriage. Years after her father’s death, 'The Jägerstätter’s' eldest daughter, wondering aloud whether she would ever marry, recalls her mother warning her that married couples often fight. They've three children, all daughters; Rosalia in 1937, Maria in 1938, and Aloisia in 1940.
There's not a marriage out of touch with the world beyond their farm. Franz and Franziska are attentive to what's going on just across the river from 'St. Radegund' in Germany. On March 12th, 1938, 'The Eighth Army' of 'The German State' crosses 'The German-Austrian' border. Assisted by 'The Local Nazi' movement and supported by the vast majority of the Austrian population, German troops quickly take control of Austria then organized a national plebiscite on April 10th to confirm the union with Germany. With few daring to vote against what have already been imposed by military methods, 'The Annexation' of Austria by Germany was even ratified by popular ballot. Austria, now an integral part of 'Nazi-Germany', ceased to exist as an independent state. Well before 'The Annexation', Franz has been an 'Anti-Nazi', but the event that brought his aversion to a much deeper level is a remarkable dream he has in January 1938. Perhaps it's triggered by a newspaper article he has read a few days earlier reporting that 150,000 more young people have been accepted into 'The Hitler Youth Movement'. In his dream he sees a wonderful train coming around a mountain. This train is going to hell. The train, he realizes, symbolized the glittering 'Nazi Regime' with all it's spectacles and it's associated organizations, 'Hitler Youth' being one of the most important and spiritual corrupting. In 'St. Radegund' it's widely known that Franz, ignoring the advice of his neighbors, has voted against 'The Annexation', but, in the reporting of the new regime in Vienna, Franz’s solitary vote was left unrecorded.
It's seen as endangering the village to put on record that even one person has dared raise a discordant voice. After all, as Franz is painfully aware, even Austria’s 'Catholic' hierarchy had advocated a yes vote. Afterward 'Cardinal' Innitzer (Thomas Prenn), principal hierarch of 'The Catholic Church' in Austria, signed a declaration endorsing 'The Annexation'. Having become citizens of Germany, every able Austrian is subject to conscription. Franz is called up in June 1940, taking his military vow in 'Braunau', Hitler’s birthplace, but a few days later he returns to his farm, as farmers are needed no less than soldiers. Franz realizes that a return to the army is not possible for him. Even at the cost of his life, he would have to say no. Franz readily talked about his views with anyone who would listen. Most often he's told that his main responsibility is to his family and that it would be better to risk death in the army on their behalf than to take steps that would almost certainly guarantee his death. While he would certainly do what he could to preserve his life for the sake of his family, Franz notes that self-preservation did not make it permissible to go and murder other people’s families. He points out that to accept military service also means leaving his family without any assurance he would return alive. Franz even managed to meet with the bishop of Linz, Joseph Fliesser (Michael Nyqvist). Franziska is in the adjacent waiting room. When Franz comes out of the bishop’s consulting room, Franziska recalls that he's very sad. They don’t dare commit themselves or it will be their turn next.
Having gone through his training, nearly two years went by without Franz’s receiving a summons to return to the army. Throughout that period, each time mail is delivered to 'The Jägerstätter' farm, both husband and wife are in dread. Finally on February 23rd, 1943, the fateful letter arrived. Franz is ordered to report to a military base in 'Enns', near 'Linz', two days later. At the station in 'Tittmoning', Franz and Franziska could not let go of each other until the train’s movement forced them out to separate. Franz is already two days late for his appointment at 'Enns'. The following day Franz is placed under arrest and transported to the military remand prison in nearby Linz. No one knows better than Franziska how carefully thought out is the position Franz is taking. Even so, it's impossible for her not to encourage him occasionally to search for some alternate path that might not violate his conscience but perhaps would save his life. In the army base at 'Enns' people traps him by means of trick questions and so as to make him once again into a soldier. It's not easy to keep his conviction. It may become even more difficult. Without warning, on May 4th, 1943, Franz is taken by train to the prison at 'Tegel', a suburb of 'Berlin'. Here Franz would spend the last three months of his life in solitary confinement.
On July 6th, 1943, a brief trial occurred. Franz is convicted of 'undermining military morale' by inciting the refusal to perform the required service in 'The German Army'. Franz is sentenced to death. On July 9th, 1943, Franz and Franziska have a last meeting. On July 14th, 1943, Franz’s death sentence is confirmed by 'The German State War Court'. During his time in 'Berlin', Franz was permitted to write only one letter to Franziska each month, plus a fourth that was written on the day of his execution. The four letters bear witness to his extraordinary calm, conviction, and even happiness. On August 9th, 1943, Franz is taken to Brandenburg where, at about 4:00 p.m., he's killed by guillotine. He dies with no expectation that his sacrifice would make any difference to anyone. He knows that, for his neighbors, the refusal of army service is incomprehensible, an act of folly, a sin against his family, his community, and even his church, which has called on no one to refuse military service. Franz knows that, beyond his family and community, his death would go entirely unnoticed and have no impact on 'The Nazi' movement or hasten the end of the war. He would soon be forgotten. Who would remember or care about 'The Anti-Nazi Gesture' of an uneducated farmer? He would be just one more filed-away name among many thousands who were tried and executed with bureaucratic indifference during 'The Nazi Era'.
The film is set in 'St. Radegund' where the events depicted actually took place, including certain interiors of 'The Jägerstätter' house, which has over the years become a pilgrimage site, as well as by 'The Salzach' river near 'St. Radegund' and in the woods below the house. 'St. Radegund' is a small village of 500 people in 'Upper Austria', near Salzburg and 'The German Border', in the same province where Hitler was born and spent his early youth, not far from Berchtesgaden, his mountain retreat during his years as head of 'The German State'. The clock visible on the wall of 'The Jägerstätter' living room is the one that Franziska is listening to when, at four in the afternoon on August 9th, 1943, at the very hour of Franz’s execution, she remembered feeling her husband’s presence. The bedroom is theirs and looks as it did then. Her embroidery still hangs on the walls. Franz and Franziska’s three daughters, Maria, Rosalia and Aloisa live in, or near, 'St. Radegund'. The story plays in churches and cathedrals, farms with real livestock, orchards, up mountains, in fields and along rural pathways. Nature and the natural environment are part of the subtext and the locations provided us with a foundation to build up from.
In addition to his work as a farmer, Franz Jägerstätter serves as a sexton at the local church. He cleanes, rang the bell, and prepared weddings and funerals; without compensation and in addition to his duties as a farmer. The family’s various pursuits required a wardrobe that reflects not just their interests but their economic status. There's always imagination with costumes. But in this case, the most important part is getting as close to the reality as possible. The historic background of the story requires modern buildings and signs of contemporary life. The film draws on actual letters exchanged between Franz and Franziska 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. Franziska passed away in 2013, aged 100. Today, the fields around 'St. Radegund' are covered in corn, a crop that's not grown at the time, as well as with power lines and modern houses, some immediately adjacent to 'The Jägerstätter’s' own.
"A Hidden Life" primarily uses natural light, turning to artificial illumination only on rare occasions. Changing lighting conditions requires a continuous attention for stop changes to ensure proper exposure. For all the other sets, including the prison cells, the film works with the sun, adjusting the schedule to the appropriate time of day. The film is shot digitally on 'The Red Epic Dragon' camera system. The camera is selected for it's ability to handle stark contrast within a scene, preserving details in both the highlights and shadows of the image, while still maintaining realistic color. The film focuses on the emotional journeys and crises of conscience of the characters, the music reflects their story. The solo violin throughout the film embodies the connection between the two main characters.
It’s an extraordinary, enduring love story that investigates human reactions and motivations and just how far people will push for their beliefs and conscience. It asks hard questions; do you've the right to hurt people that you love in service of the greater good? Ultimately, it's a timeless story of devotion, love and forgiveness. People relied on each other, and at that time that also means that you could not break out and be different. You've to toe the line. For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in the unvisited tombs.