Presenting a moving portrait of post-war Europe in mourning, Frantz is the latest film from provocative French director François Ozon. In a small German village devastated by the immediate aftermath of First World War, a young woman named Anna (Paula Beer) is going to lay flowers on the grave of her fiance, Frantz, when she notices a mysterious man standing over the grave. She discovers the Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney) claims to be a close friend of her deceased fiance, and she becomes close to him despite resistance from the community.
Ozon notes in the closing credits that the film was inspired by the 1931 film Broken Lullaby by Ernst Lubitsch, which features a similar plot. WWI is a topic that has been covered adequately in cinematic form, and it is depicted here with the sensitivity and attention to detail that is expected. The scars of war are visible everywhere – veterans with missing limbs moving down cobblestone streets, and a poignant moment where the ravaged French countryside passes by in the reflection of a train window. A pacifist message is very strongly on display – there are no winners in a war: a sentiment that Ozon does not lose track of. Especially when you consider the two mirroring scenes featuring a group singing their country’s national anthem. You can’t help but cast your mind toward Rick’s Cafe as Die Wacht Am Rhein is belted out with a similar passion, yet Ozon is considerably more sympathetic toward the German civilian side than Casablanca was.
Like the film it pays homage to, Frantz is shot predominantly in black and white, with sparing moments of colour used to great emotive effect. At times, though, the black and white scenes are a little short of beautiful, lacking in contrast, and looking a little muddy. The few colour scenes radiate with a real warmth despite their muted colour. Frantz lacks the masterful touch of careful lighting that black and white film demands, that the 1930s and 1940s films it is so clearly inspired by did so well.
In the classic French style, Frantz is long, sad and a little soul destroying: the real scars that are focused on are emotional ones. Paula Beer, a relative newcomer, is exceptional as Anna, and we really feel for in her grief. Loss and longing pervades Frantz through both its setting and its characters, and it’s an impressive change of tone for Ozon.