Drawing inspiration from and even giving screen credit to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, François Ozon’s Frantz presents the deep effects of war after the smoke has cleared, leaving people divided, burning with bitterness and tangling with survivor’s guilt. There’s hardly anywhere to find solace in such a destructive force on humanity, but somehow people survive, and this film illustrates one crucial component of overcoming such pain, trauma and difficulty. It lies in the stories we tell.
According to the film’s opening title, it’s 1919 in a small German town called Quedlinburg. The first World War has ended and German nationalism is only beginning its vital stirrings. Most of the town’s inhabitants have been directly impacted by the war, be they maimed survivors or family members who have lost loved ones. Anna (Paula Beer) mourns the loss of her fiance, Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke in vivid flashbacks and metaphysical conjurings). She lives with his surviving parents, who also grieve in their own ways. Father Dr. Hans Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) refuses to attend meetings with friends lusting for the French blood that took many of their sons and mother Magda Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber) clings to her nostalgia of whatever memory is shared about her son. When a Frenchman named Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) enters the picture to lay flowers on their deceased loved one’s grave, it doesn’t take them long to find out who he is, and what unfolds is a story that is — at first — sentimentally predictable, and twists toward a surprising but rich reconciliation that flourishes in the increasingly skilled hands of Ozon.
The film unfolds in short, efficient scenes developing the characters and plot with a precision that will keep the viewer hooked, even those reticent to approach its black and white cinematography. There’s a reason for this choice beyond heightening its period quality. Ozon offers some playful moments of color that add to plot developments and call attention to the power of memories and love. There’s a hint in the opening title sequence that this will not be your typical black and white movie with the presence of faded pink of flowers blossoming on a tree limb in the foreground of an establishing shot of the German village where much of the drama initially unfolds. A fade-in to color during certain scenes then speak to the power of the spirit of the deceased as well as how love can make the world feel more colorful. Death is given a touch of magic when loss starts to conjure Frantz in manners more vivid to the mourners than the present moment.
This would never work without multi-dimensional writing. Just when you think you might know where the film is going, a revelation in the middle of the movie turns the family’s perspective of Adrien on its head. But in the bigger scheme of the film, the viewer will come to understand that maybe the truth may not matter as much as the stories that obscure it. As Hans says in this world, “What will the truth bring? Only more pain.” This is where sentiment and nostalgia are raised to redemptive heights as something more powerful than simple memory. War is a reality that leaves all kinds of destruction. But it is the intangible longing for peace, love and happiness that becomes something great and redemptive in the face of such forces of visceral brutality.
Ozon takes his time to look at humanity on both sides, from people’s hate to their love, which no matter what side you are on, is shared. It’s about uniting people across a seeming great divide. It’s surely no coincidence that the French pronunciation of France sounds like Frantz. And as the film rides its central twist to further developments, allowing for a deepening mystery, lies become complicated, rippling with repercussions. But as they complicate communication that drive the film’s suspense, they also rise to a profound kind of honesty that has a transcendent effect on these people’s lives. Honesty is expression but connections exist beyond truth. That Ozon can allow for nuanced character development in such a dynamic kiln of perceptions and storytelling makes it one of his strongest movies to date, something that lies beyond gimmicks.
Frantz runs runs 113 minutes, is in French and German with English subtitles and is rated PG-13. It opens Friday, March 31 in our South Florida area at the following theaters:
- O Cinema Miami Beach
- Coral Gables Art Cinema
- Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood
- Savor Cinema (Fort Lauderdale)
- Living Room Theaters/FAU (Boca Raton)
- Regal Shadowood 16 (West Boca)
- Movies of Delray
- Movies of Lake Worth
For screening details in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Music Box Films provided a screener link for the purpose of this review. Frantz had its Miami premiere at the Miami Film Festival earlier this month.