Valerie Pachner, the Austrian actress who plays Franziska in A Hidden Life, told CNA she enjoyed portraying a real person because of the depth it lends the role and because of the responsibility she felt toward the real-life Franziska.
“I identified so strongly with the character. And that was in a way both wonderful and beautiful but also very challenging,” she said.
It was inspiring for her, she explained, “to witness two people who know so well what is right in their hearts and follow that” even though it means putting their own needs and survival last.
“That was definitely something that impressed me a lot. And trying to get close to that through portraying that character really gave me a certain sense of strength and empowerment,” she said.
“I just felt it’s amazing what human beings are capable of and I found it very wonderful, this approach that they had to that decision. And it really gave me a lot of strength.”
A Hidden Life starts in St. Radegund in 1939 when Franz is already a strong Catholic. But the real-life man did not start his life with a strong faith.
Franz’s mother, Rosalia Huber, was unmarried when she gave birth to him in 1907. His biological father was killed in World War I. His mother later married the man who adopted him, Heinrich Jagerstatter, when he was 10 years old.
Franz was a womanizer as a young man and fathered a daughter out of wedlock. There were periods during which Franz stopped going to Mass.
He became a farmer and met Franziska, whom he wed on Holy Thursday 1936. They then traveled to Rome, where they received the blessing of Pope Pius XI.
Through Franziska’s influence, Franz became the sexton of the local church, taking care of the property and grounds and assisting at liturgies. He started attending daily Mass.
The husband and wife had three girls together and also remained close to Franz’s older daughter.
When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, Franz was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Germany.
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In 1940, he was called up for military service. The mayor helped him to return home shortly after, but he was again called up for active service from October 1940 until April 1941, when the mayor was again able to intervene for his return home.
During the time he was away, Franz and Franziska exchanged letters. These and other letters between the husband and wife were published in English in 2009.
Pachner said reading those letters was the most important thing she did to prepare for the role. “There’s a lot in those letters. And you feel their love, their faith, their day-to-day life,” she said.
The letters also play a major part throughout the film as they are heard through narrated voice-overs.
Franz became convinced that it was wrong for him to fight and decided to refuse if he should be called up again, which happened in February 1943.
He offered to carry out other, non-violent military service in place of fighting. However, his request was refused, and he was taken into custody in Linz for two months, then transferred to the Berlin-Tegel prison. He was tried on July 6, 1943 and condemned to death for sedition. He was executed by beheading on Aug. 9, 1943.