Mercy and empathy in the aftermath of war
By Zeke Trautenberg
François Ozon’s Frantz is an allegory of Europe and Franco-German relations over the past century, told through the story of two young people and their families. The film is set during the first year of peacetime after the First World War. The first two acts unfold in the small German town of Quedlinburg, where Anna (Paula Beer) lives with Mr. and Mrs. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber). The three are mourning the death of Frantz, Anna’s fiancé and the Hoffmeisters' son, who was killed in the war.
A mystery set the plots in motion. Arriving at the cemetery to lay flowers on her fiancé's grave, Anna discovers that someone has copied her loving gesture. On a second visit, she spies Adrien (Pierre Niney) weeping next to Frantz’s resting place—which we later learn holds no bones, only dirt. The visitor is a violinist and former French soldier who has come to the town to meet Frantz’s family. When he finally work up the courage to visit the Hoffmeisters, he cautiously introduces himself as Frantz’s friend. He tells the Hoffmeisters and Anna about meeting Frantz in Paris before the war. He tells of their visits to the Louvre and the hours they spent playing violin together.
We immediately suspect that Adrien is not telling the truth. His recollections are blurry at the edges and his pain is incongruous with the loss of a friend he knew only briefly. As Anna and the Frenchman strike up a romance, Adrien changes story. When he finally confesses the truth to Anna, she finds it too painful to share with Frantz's parents. Even the town's priest urges her to keep it to herself: “What would the truth bring? Only more pain. Only more tears.”
Frantz is loose adaptation of Ernst Lubtisch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby. Frantz’s closest cinematic cousin, however, is another allegory of Franco-German relations, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer (1949). Set during the Second World War, Melville’s film depicts a German officer who forcibly moves in with a French family amid the Nazi occupation. In the evening, the officer launches into long soliloquies before his silent audience, in which he struggles to reconcile his love of French culture and his unyielding sense of obligation to the fatherland. Nationalism also looms ominously in Frantz. Among the elders in town, Doctor Hoffmeister, Frantz’s father, is the only one pushes back against this sentiment. He reminds the men in town, many of whom also lost sons, that the French and German fathers are united in complicity for urging their sons to fight and die in the war. “We are fathers who drink to the death of our children,” he says.
Two parallel scenes underscore the insidiousness of nationalism across Europe. In the first, Adrien enters the town’s inn where the few elders of the Quildeberg are singing the unofficial anthem “The Watch on the Rhine” (“Die Wacht am Rhein”). As the voices sing of the sanctity of the fatherland, Adrien’s face blanches with fear and he quickly leaves the room. A similar scene unfolds in the final act of the film in Paris. Anna is in the French capital looking for Adrien, who shortly after returning home stopped responding to her letters. When three French officers enter the café where Anna is writing a letter to the Hoffmeisters, the patrons break out into an impromptu rendition of “La Marseillais.” Anna remains seated and avoids eye contact as the chorus of voices call for the defense of France against the impure blood of foreigners. These two scenes reflect the enduring appeal of nationalism, which is again resurgent in Europe.
As in other Ozon films, the editing, composition, camerawork, costumes, and hair are meticulously designed and choreographed. However, the most striking feature of Frantz is its black and white cinematography (the film was shot by frequent Ozon collaborator Pascal Marti). Like Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), which is set in Germany just before the First World War, Frantz’s monochrome cinematography echoes period photographs and films and underscores the film’s thematic focus on memory. However, the use of black and white as a tonal device is made more effective by the inclusion of a handful of scenes and parts of scenes shot in color. These interludes of color are fleeting jolts of life in a world consumed with grief.
The most memorable of these polychrome scenes occurs when Frantz and Anna visit a small mountain overlooking the town. As they hike uphill, the black and white fades into color, and the scene climaxes with a shot of the two overlooking the green landscape below—a composition that echoes Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea Fog (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (1818). When Anna revisits the same place later in the film by herself, the color and joy are gone, replaced by anxiety and unease.
Although she is haunted by the numbing loss of Frantz, Anna manages to find life, or at least its shadow, in art. When Anna recites Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne,” she gives voice to the silent burden of loss:
"When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long."*
Likewise, Anna finds pleasure and a empathy in Edouard Manet’s morbid painting Le Suicidé (ca. 1877). Sitting before this depiction of a man after his solitary death, she sees and feels anew.
Director: François Ozon
Running Time: 113 minutes
Photos: Mandarin/X-Filme /Mars Films/ France 2 Cinema/Foz/Jean-Claude Moireau
*Paul Verlaine, “Chanson d’automne” (1866). The Modern Book of French Verse. Ed. Albert Boni. Trans. Arthur Symons. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1920. 210-11.