REVIEW: Frantz [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 113 minutes | Release Date: September 7th, 2016 (France)
Studio: Mars Distribution / Music Box Films
Director(s): François Ozon
Writer(s): François Ozon / Ernst Lubitsch (film Broken Lullaby)

“I don’t want to forget him”

Loosely inspired by Ernst Lubitsch‘s post-WWI-set film Broken Lullaby (itself an adaptation of Maurice Rostand‘s play), François Ozon‘s latest Frantz similarly deals with a French soldier searching for the family of a German casualty of war. It doesn’t, however, focus upon this foreign stranger entering the nation his army just recently defeated, the pain still raw with grudges strong. Instead it centers on young Anna (Paula Beer), the unfortunate fiancé of this fallen German, Frantz Hoffmeister (Anton von Lucke). A shadow of the woman she once was—her studies abandoned, his parents (Ernst Stötzner‘s Dr. Hans Hoffmeister and Marie Gruber‘s Magda) despondent, their memories tied to a grave their loved one’s body doesn’t even reside beneath—she mourns the past and an impossible future like so many others.

Interestingly enough, it’s the Frenchman, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), who provides Anna and the Hoffmeisters their glimmer of solace. The town meets him with disdain as does Hans at first considering their sons died by French guns, the entire country’s people communally rendered their murderers. But in a time when those who can’t quite understand their pain use well meaning yet empty words like “time will allow you to forget,” Adrien’s appearance helps ensure no one does. For Anna and the Hoffmeisters, remembering Frantz as he was becomes their opportunity to accept his death and know his spirit will live on through them forever. Adrien—telling them he was Frantz’s friend from before the war during his studies in Paris—provides them a window back to former joy.

We know Adrien keeps a closely guarded secret, but we let Ozon have his fun because of the instantaneous vigor this character breathes into the Hoffmeisters. Anna was solemnly going through her daily motions, unsurprisingly unfeeling to potential happiness or unwelcome advances by a local named Kreutz (Johann von Bülow). Hans busied himself with work, treating patients and lamenting his role in pushing his son to war during those quiet moments in between. And Magda continued on, keeping the house going and their Frantz’s memory alive. Once they let Adrien in to relay anecdotes about Frantz, though, they discover meaning to everything. They see this Frenchman as a human like their boy, a young man forced into battle without an option. Kill or be killed; revel or regret.

We anticipate dramatic fall-out from this Frenchman’s warm welcome by the Hoffmeisters, receiving less than assumed. Ozon isn’t afraid to put the anger and rage of war’s aftermath onscreen in its cruelty, selfishness, and unmoving inability to appreciate empathy. But we also get instances of life lessons and understanding; glimpses beyond our self-loathing at the bigger picture proving how similar we are to our enemies. We each suffer and mourn. We each feel guilt and pride despite the carnage left in our wake. And the Hoffmeisters can let this sense of compassion and open-mindedness in because they have someone to epitomize it. Adrien becomes their example of goodness where they once only saw evil. Could they feel the same if he arrived as the enemy initial reactions presumed?

Ozon lets that question sit for us to interpret at the end. In the meantime he lets Anna return to joy only to rip it away and place her in the position of reconciling the happiness of those she loves with the harsh reality of which they’re unaware. Suddenly the film isn’t about war, but the ever-fluctuating morality of lies. If a fabricated story cures, is it wrong? If the intention behind deceit is pure, can it prove better than a truth that will only destroy its victims further? How do we as people weigh the pros and cons of deciding whether to take truth in our hands and mold it for others? How much is that decision to protect them and how much to protect ourselves?

This is where Frantz won me over, the moral quandaries faced by Adrien through fear and Anna through selflessness. One lie begets another with even more truths hidden from view by exclusion, intentional or not. The bravery of Adrien entering Germany at this time compounds once his motivation is revealed while Anna’s resolve to ride the emotional roller coaster she’s unwittingly made to bear on her own does too. Pain brings them together and threatens to tear them apart from the inside. But their pain also allows the erasure of it in others, a self-fulfilling cycle of sympathy and love to see beyond surfaces and easy answers towards the complexities of imperfect lives. Forgiveness meets acceptance; truth meets fiction. We’re always bending reality to save others from grief.

How it ends is no less complicated. In a mirroring of sorts, Anna must travel from France to Germany to find Adrien and tell him her own truth much like he did her. It begins to progress as a romantic adventure, the cajoling of the Hoffmeisters moving beyond simple knee-jerk reaction because of their unique position of ignorance allowing optimism where hate and disgust would otherwise reside. In some respects initial assumptions about what will transpire when she arrives are saccharine and clichéd, but in others they are also comfortingly hopeful. Reality only reveals more harsh truths instead, whether war’s destruction or Frantz’s sanitized letters dissolving to expose what he sought to distort. It plays a bit heavy-handed, but I can’t deny its depiction of disappointment authentically resonates.

Ozon shows how powerful a lie can be for good, his black and white imagery turning color in moments of bliss whether manufactured or real. Lies and actions performed as a result of them propel this quartet of tragic souls touched by war into rebirth and self-actualization. Lies give the Hoffmeisters, Adrien, and Anna closure and/or the drive to shake free from the weight of the past to exist in the present. If the war never occurred, they’d have lived happily ever after—maybe. Because it happened and Frantz died, however, they may do so anyway—perhaps more joyously than before. It isn’t fate, but choice: how specific events are personally interpreted and subsequently built upon to alter reality and create fresh meaning, death ultimately inspiring new life.

[1] Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in Frantz. © Jean-Claude Moireau – Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films
[2] Paula Beer in Frantz. © Jean-Claude Moireau – Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films
[3] Pierre Niney and Paula Beer in Frantz. © Jean-Claude Moireau – Foz/Courtesy of Music Box Films

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