Cinematographer Pascal Marti gives us cobblestoned markets, highly romantic lake scenes, and 1918 postwar strivings that are uplifting and haunting. A cemetery, a parlor, and a bar are reoccurring sites that are exquisitely filmed in gradations of gray. If the images and the story are lovely, this period piece is even more elevated by the acting of Paula Beer. Director Francois Ozon has centered his film on her, the German female protagonist, rather than the French soldier, Adrian ( Pierre Niney) , who attempts to gain solace as he claims to have been close school friends with her dead fiancé, Frantz Hoffmeister.
The source material for “Frantz” is the play, ” The Man I Killed”, by Maurice Rostand ( 1891-1968 ). In 1932, director Ernst Lubitsch adapted the story in his film ” Broken Lullaby”, starring Lionel Barrymore. Eighty years later, writer -director Francois Ozon collaborates with writer Philippe Piazzo using the same Rostand tale. Ozon films an anti-war themed romance that shows that forgiveness is more important as a virtue than nationalism.
We are in the small German town of Quedlinburg in the cradle of the German Reich. In the Bode River Valley, with the Harz Mountains to the South, Quedlinburg is one of the best preserved medieval and Renaissance towns in Europe. Marti makes good use of his lens in capturing the ancient facades of Abbey and stonework. Black and white with alternating color frames are used. Some flashbacks are in color, but I saw no pattern kept. Stark black and white and muted tints fade and bleed into each other, like the psychological scars of war.
Beer, only twenty-two, is stunning as the would-have-been bride, Anna. She lives with her would-have-been in-laws as they all grieve their fallen soldier. A year has passed, and Anna is in resigned peace, more then emotional turmoil. She visits Frantz’s grave daily and leaves fresh flowers. She strides down cobblestoned streets with the clomp of a soldier herself.
Ozon, who has done erotic thrillers like ” The Swimming Pool” ( 2005) with Charlotte Rampling, takes a tender, Truffaut-like stubbornness to the screen here. Anna reminds me of his ” Adele H”, ready to sacrifice all for her man~ even one that may not be worthy of her. Edouard Manet’s painting ” Le Suicide”, will have a different reason to be included in ” Frantz”.
Anna has quit her studies and lost her will, yet she is self-possessed enough to use a sharp tongue toward Mr.Kreutz, an intrepid suitor. When Adrian regales her and Frantz’s parents with “stories from Paris”, he brings some comfort. In his hotel room mirror, he sees himself as Frantz.
Anna takes Adrian to the river bank where Frantz proposed. In a sensual scene Adrian stripes to his underwear and swims. Anna sees the scars of a wound on his stomach, and hears him say that his only wound is Frantz. Anna reads Adrian Frantz’s last letter to her, and the two silently reflect on the dead Frantz. At this point in the film, I thought that Adrian may have been gay. As she reads her fiancé’ s description of a ” sea of corpses”, Adrian abruptly says he must go.
Later, Adrian reads poetry from Verlaine and plays the violin in sweet, high tones only to collapse in the Hoffmeister parlor. He leaves town, and Anna leaves to find him.
All of this mystery is superimposed on the guilt war brings: to the survivors, to the enemy , and to the fathers that urged their sons to serve the fatherland.
In France, older fathers sing “La Marseillaise” and with surface nationalism hiding deep prejudice. Peace is not easily made: War is not easily over. In juxtaposition, the German father has told his household that ” Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” When Herr Hoffmeister gives Frantz’s violin to Adrian, he says it is like giving his son’s heart to his friend. We find out that this is not the case.
Wind blows throughout the film, and the lies fall like leaves. One of the most beautiful scenes is again auditory. The letters from Frantz are read with both the Frenchmen’s and the German’s voices merging. Humanity is humanity.
Anna does a Virginia Woolf, but is saved by Mr. Kreutz. Frantz’s parents respond by putting her to bed and saying, ” you helped us survive, now we must help you.” Anna goes to confession, and takes good advice from a priest, who does not believe that truth conquers all. Forgiveness is beset with ” return to sender” missives. A savvy French mother, a fragile artist son, and a fiancée named Fanny, and the proverbial train station scene keep us guessing until the end. And love makes us want to live. Enjoy this retro film, it has much to say that should not be lost.