You couldn’t say that there is a dearth of World War I films, still even now. Most of these focus on the violent horror of the conflict itself - that is to say, the trenches, the wounds, the unfairness with which the soldiers were treated, the incomprehensible deaths. Much fewer of these movies give us a glimpse of the home front, and even more seldom do we see anything examining the aftermath of the war and its impact on day to day life.
Enter François Ozon’s Frantz, a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1931 A Broken Lullaby (which is turn adapted from a play by Maurice Rostand). Set in 1919, Frantz centres on a young German woman, Anna (Paula Beer), grappling with grief following the death of her fiancé (the titular Frantz) during the war. She lives with his parents, and they all exist in a grey, dull world of muted pain (beautifully underlined by the film’s black and white). It’s been a year since his passing, and nothing is really moving forward. Yet one day Anna finds Adrien (Pierre Niney), a Frenchman she’s never met, visiting Frantz’s grave.
Ozon is a writer-director unusually prolific with genres - ranging from earnest dramas to unhinged comedies. With this quiet period piece, he absolutely shines. Frantz is heart-breaking at every turn.
It’s all down to Anna, who makes for a fascinating, multi-layered, real character, played superbly by Beer. The actor conveys her character’s pallid pain, and ultimately, determined courage, brilliantly. With Niney, in their bilingual Franco-German conversations, there is a touching chemistry - tentative, desperate, guarded. They’re both devastated, and yet still attempt to find each other in the ruins.
And so Ozon takes command of our emotions effortlessly. Frantz flickers between despair and hints of hope, ultimately, to lead us to Anna’s awakening in a wholly unexpected and satisfying finale. But above all, it gives a thoughtful glimpse into the lives of the Germans and the French at the time, who sunk themselves both in a fever of national pride, perhaps as a way to cope from so great a loss. We see each side slur the other in bars and restaurants; national anthems sung with near-anger; as well as petty day-to-day discriminations.
In other words, the film is a soberer, crueller Testament of Youth (director James Kent brought Vera Brittain’s famous memoir to the screen in 2014). It’s a frank observation of lies, deceit, mourning and forgiveness. And through this, it makes a familiar chapter in history almost unbearably concrete. It’s a must-watch.
Frantz was screened at the 2016 London Film Festival and will be released in the UK on Friday 28th April 2017.