The ‘Hidden Life’ Within Every Marriage
by Josh Noem
Terrence Malick has created a film about an extraordinary marriage. A Hidden Life is a moving film for many reasons, and one of them is that it gives us a vision of married love that is stronger than the Nazi Third Reich.
Franz and Franziska Jägerstätter were poor farmers in the Austrian Alps when Hitler rises to power in Europe. They have three daughters, and their small farm also sustains Franziska’s sister and Franz’s elderly mother. As the region is increasingly swept up into the war movement, Franz makes a decision—when he is called up for service, he refuses to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler.
It’s not a spoiler to say that this decision costs him his life—Franz was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007—but the beauty of this film is how it exposes the way in which Franz (and Franziska) made and stood by this decision. I’ve written about other dimensions of this film for my work at Grotto Network (if you’re unfamiliar with Terrence Malick’s style of filmmaking, you should know what you’re getting into — the movie is three hours long), but it’s worth examining this story from the perspective of married love.
This is a film about one person’s act of conscience, but that act is informed by dialogue with the people Franz relates to, and with God. You can see concentric circles around Franz as he shares conversation and seeks counsel with people in his life. On the outside is the Nazi propaganda machine and government officials. Then there are people in the village whom he knows. Inside there are Church clergy. Closest to Franz are the conversations he shares with Franziska, and we even get glimpses of how he relates to God.
Those innermost conversations unfold in a way that is very familiar to married couples—Stacey and I have seen this dynamic at key turning points in our life together. Every marriage faces life-determining decisions: discerning when to have a child, how to pursue a career opportunity, where to live. Those decisions unfold over time and over many conversations—a couple rarely sits down and comes to clarity over a single cup of coffee. Usually, it takes discussion in the car and time alone, and more talking over lunch and then quite reflection, and shared comments as you’re brushing your teeth before pondering in bed before you fall asleep. We’ve seen it as a back-and-forth where we circle around a topic repeatedly to uncover what we hold most deeply together.
This is the process that the film shows us. Franz and Franziska are tethered together — as they work and play and pray, they repeatedly return to one another. When Franz faces this life-changing decision, we see both of them seeking and reflecting as individuals, and they always return to each other.
Of course, neither wants Franz to die for his belief. At the same time, both can see the truth that stands behind his opposition. It’s a difficult place to be, and it’s illuminating to see that they don’t avoid that struggle—they embrace it together. They refuse to let go of the truth, which means that they stand in uncertainty.
The high point of the film comes when Franziska is able to meet Franz briefly in prison—the love they profess to one another stands as the emotional bedrock of the film. It’s what makes Franz’s decision possible, and it’s a remarkable feat of filmmaking that we get to see how their love gives him courage. In fact, we don’t just see it, we feel it with Franz.
This film resonated with me for many reasons, and one was the truth with which it portrayed married love. It’s a truthful depiction of those life-defining moments that every couple faces. It inspired me to see the example of a husband and wife who are willing to stand in uncertainty together, to refuse to fall into easy answers, to pursue truth with diligence, and to pay the cost of living with integrity.
Further Reading: Married Saint: Bl. Franz Jägerstätter.