'Frantz' Portrays Lies And Regrets In Postwar Germany
When the world is as deranged as is right now, movies have a heightened ability to fit the moment precisely. At least in one sense, Frantz, from French director François Ozon, gives a picture of uncompromising anger and hostility.
The story opens in a town in Germany in 1919, right after the end of World War I. The young men are all dead, so the town looks populated only by the middle-aged and the old. And the now-childless men of the town are locked into perpetual fury about the French – the people they blame for killing off their sons.
The rage extends to a kindly doctor who lost a son in the war, and to the man who tends the graveyard. Someone has been visiting the grave of the doctor’s son – the Frantz of the title – and when the young fiancée of Frantz asks the grave keeper the identity of this foreign visitor, the man takes out a French coin and spits on it.
But Anna (Paula Beer) is curious. She finds the stranger, a Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney) and they begin to talk. She now lives with the parents of Frantz, and Adrien comes to dinner. He tells gentle stories of his friendship with Frantz in Paris before the war. Genuine affection develops between the four of them – all damaged terribly by the war.
Director Ozon, who tends to specialize in curious relationships between fragmented people, made Frantz in stark black and white with flat light that makes you wonder if there’s any possibility for brightness in this unhappy postwar world. The dullness is broken by Anna’s figure walking the streets in a striking black coat and hat that indicate something like life transcendent rather than mourning. And on occasion the film slowly fades into soft soothing color that lulls you into believing it’s true, and then puts you on edge, wondering what’s wrong here? Is someone lying?
The answer is yes, but it’s not a simple answer. The film uncovers layers of deception, and the deceptions lead to more deceptions. But one catch is that none of it is malicious, although none of it is benign either. Invariably, as in life, one lie told out of maybe misplaced kindness needs another lie to cover for it – and that next lie may be to protect the liar.
Director Ozon builds Frantz on some fearful symmetries. Just as Adrien comes by train to a Germany wracked by hatred for the French, Anna goes to Paris and in a café endures a singing of “La Marseillaise” that does not make a radiant statement for freedom the way it does in Casablanca. It’s full of the same anger that faced Adrien in Germany, and you wonder if there’s any way at all to resolve the enmity that has overcome both countries. In a moment that sounds like Lou Ayres’s great anti-war speech in the 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front, also about World War I Germany, the good doctor confronts his beer-drinking buddies in the bar for being the parents who proudly encouraged their sons to go to war – and they are unmoved.
Frantz lodges in the mind. It doesn’t want to move out quickly. The unforgettable image of Anna in her black coat almost floating through the streets. The luminous performance of young Paula Beer. But resolution stays elusive.