A Mysterious Frenchman and the Wounds of War
Francois Ozun’s “Frantz” is set predominately in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919, not long after the end of the First World War, we learn of Frantz who served as a German soldier and lost his life. Anna lives in a perpetual state of mourning with Frantz’s parents, Dr. Hoffmeister (Ernst Stötzner) and his wife, Magda (Marie Gruber), and they routinely visit Frantz’s grave (which we learn contains no actual body, as the particulars of his death are impossible to sort out among a battlefield riddled with destruction and carnage). One day, Anna sees a Frenchman paying his respects to Frantz’s grave. What makes this interesting is the bitterness and hostility that exists between France and Germany after the war. Anna meets this man, who reveals himself to be Adrien (Pierre Niney), a soldier who fought for France and who claims to have inexplicably had bonded with Frantz and a strong friendship ensued.
The film is inspired by Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby” and is a black and white period piece that explores how people wrestle with conflicting feelings including survivor’s guilt, anger, desire, happiness, and the longing for sexual, romantic and familial attachments. While this not a gay themed film, it has a subtitle homoerotic undercurrent that we sense on the relationship between the two soldiers. We face the question of whether lies heal the emotional wounds of war. I cannot divulge the lie that moves the plot forward for to do so would spoil the viewing experience. What I can say is that this lie was invented to comfort those in pain especially when the war seemed to overtake the sanity of the world causing chaos.
What is surprising here is that this is a very low-key anti-war movie and the worst we see are simply quick images of ruined cities and wounded soldiers. There is a distinct mood of bitterness, despair and exhaustion prevails and we even see the cultural similarity of two warring nations who are geographical neighbors and who appreciated the same music and art. Parallel scenes show Germans and Frenchmen singing patriotic anthems even after the Armistice was signed.
Frantz (Anton von Lucke) is only seen in flashback and he is a handsome German in his 20s who died in the trenches and is memorialized throughout the movie. We feel his parents’ anguish as well as that of his fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), who lives with them. Another mourner, unknown to them, is his French friend Adrien (Pierre Niney). Adrien is a thin and mustached French soldier with a timid manner who traveled from Paris to Germany and is first seen by Anna when he is placing flowers at Frantz’s grave.
As Adrien and Anna speak, he recalls a close friendship that began in Paris before the war, in which the two often visited the Louvre. Both played the violin and there is the possibility of romantic attraction making us wonder if they were lovers.
The film brings to mind the mourning periods that follow great national tragedies as seen through the eyes of the war’s “lost generation.” Anna is so touched by Adrien that she brings him home to meet the Hoffmeisters, but Hans resists accepting him and says that every Frenchman is guilty of murdering his son but he later softens when Adrien tells him about his and Frantz’s long walks and museum visits, their shared pacifism and tastes in music and poetry. Hans relents, and as time passes, Adrien becomes a surrogate son whose recollections bring the couple a sense of consolation.
In its early scenes, we have a mood of a solemn, romantic period piece whose melancholy is accentuated by Philippe Rombi’s Mahler-influenced soundtrack. There are moments when this mostly black-and-white film changes into color. By the time Adrien returns to Paris, he and Anna have developed a deep unvoiced attraction. However, after one of Anna’s letters to Adrien is returned without a forwarding address, she goes by train to Paris, hoping to find him. It is then we are taken into a world of secrets, lies and moral uncertainty that eventually leads her to consult a priest for advice on how to proceed. What we see asks profound questions about honesty and the possibility for redemption if the truth is withheld.
Looking at today’s ambiguous moral climate that is filled with terms like alternative facts and fake news, we come to understand that humans really cannot deal with the truth of reality.
When we first meet Anna, she’s is morose and quiet and mourning the love of her life to war. We see flashbacks of Adrien’s time spent with Frantz in Paris as well as a beautiful scene that of Anna and Adrien growing closer over the course of a long hike in the mountains.
The Hoffmeisters are happy with what was developing between Adrien and Anna but not everyone in the town feels this way. Kreutz (Johann von Bulow), who has been pressing Anna hard to marry him despite her utter lack of interest is upset by this and he is shocked by the prospect of losing her hand to anyone else, let alone a Frenchman. It is only a matter of time before Adrien abruptly returns to France after revealing some shocking news. Anna then finds herself trying to discover whether she sees Adrien as just a substitute for her dead Frantz or as the beginning of a new chapter in her life.
Ozun has attempted to shift the focus of the story from antiwar sentiments in order to emphasize the romantic elements. The emphasis of the story shifts to be centered on Anna and her inner turmoil rather than on the relationship between her and Adrien but for whatever reason it does not work, as it should. For one thing, Adrien demonstrates more genuine on-screen chemistry with Frantz than he does with Anna. This shift also means that Frantz’s parents disappear from the second half of the film and we really feel that. Nonetheless, I feel in love with the film.