Seven years after the Armistice of 1918, Paris-born playwright Maurice Rostand published a three-act play, L’homme qui j’ai tué (The Man I Killed), about a Frenchman seeking forgiveness for killing a German soldier in the trenches of the Great War. Seven years later, Berlin-born Ernst Lubitsch directed an American film version of Rostand’s work, retitled Broken Lullaby to avoid spoiling the open secret of the story’s climax. And now, emerging from the long, century-old shadow of that war, Paris-born François Ozon renames the story yet again and retells it–mostly in German–from the perspective of the family of Frantz, the German pacifist soldier who was killed in Rostand’s title. All these permutations result in Ozon’s 2017 Frantz, whose complexities take full advantage of the developments in film, in politics–and in philosophy–over the past one hundred years.
Ozon begins his narrative in 1919 at a cemetery in the German town of Quedlinburg, where Anna visits the empty grave of Frantz, her fiancé who was killed in the war. She notes other flowers and soon discovers that an unknown Frenchman has placed them there. This young man, Adrien Rivoire, first attempts to see Frantz’a father, Dr. Hoffmeister, who forcefully refuses to treat or even talk to him: “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.” When he later visits the family, Adrien gradually reveals that he knew Frantz when they were students in Paris before the war; they played the violin together and saw the paintings of Manet at the Louvre. His stories console Anna and the Hoffmeisters even as the town turns against them for harboring a onetime enemy, and it seems apparent that in all their minds, Adrien will replace Frantz as surrogate son and lover. Finally, however, Adrien reveals the true reason for his trip to Germany when he confesses to Anna that it was he who killed Frantz. Actually, though, this revelation is not so final. Although Broken Lullaby ends soon thereafter, when the young lovers decide to protect the Hoffmeisters from the truth, Ozon places the revelation only halfway through his version of the story. During the remaining half of the film, Anna lives out the results of these comforting lies, following Adrien to Paris, then to his mother’s country estate, where truth becomes even more problematic, and hence to the Louvre and the film’s cryptic coda.
One of the complex layers Ozon adds to the familiar story is his decision–two decisions, really–to present the film mostly in black and white, with a few enigmatic swatches of color. The critical consensus–as well as Ozon’s own explanation–is that because our cultural memory of the Great War in is monochrome, shooting the film in black and white made it more realistic both historically and cinematically. Moreover, as Ozon continued, “It is difficult to imagine [this period of mourning and suffering] in color.” However, the selective use of color proves less straightforward–for both audience and director. Critics have ascribed the director’s use of color to prewar scenes, memories of Frantz, “flashbacks,” “fleeting moments of joy,” a “respite from melancholy,” “uplifting moments”–even the lies at the crux of the story. Ozon himself embraced all these interpretations in an interview with the Boston Herald, acknowledging that “the use of color is each time different,” expressing moments when “some feelings come back, like blood in the veins of the characters.” But he also told AlloCiné that the choices were “sensory” rather than “rational or logical.”
However, I have arrived at an explanation of the nine polychromatic intrusions into this monochrome tour-de-force that seems more satisfying even than those of Ozon himself. The film is awash in allusions to the arts. Anna and Frantz met in a bookstore as each was looking for a book of poetry; she liked Rilke, but he preferred Verlaine. Soon after meeting Adrien, Anna recites for him Verlaine’s “Chanson d’automne,” and she consoles herself with Verlaine’s poetry while recuperating after a suicide attempt. Paintings also play key rôles in the action. Adrien and Frantz visit the Louvre during their heady time together in Paris. The wilderness retreat to which Anna leads Adrien replicates the romantic paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, and several critical junctures in the plot involve Manet’s “Le suicidé.” And of course there is music. With the hands of a lover, Adrien teaches Frantz to play the violin, and he collapses in the Hoffmeisters’ home after playing a Chopin nocturne on Frantz’s violin. Significantly, these artistic references are all rendered in color, as are two other scenes in the film–when Anna dreams that she hears Frantz playing the violin and when she reads a letter (actually a blank page) in which Adrien says he is again playing in an orchestra in Paris. Moments of joy or melancholy, settings before or after the war or even after the story itself, faithful representations or comforting lies, all these scenes of color take place when art is revealed as the most successful means of comprehending the human experience.
However, one scene shot in color is an outlier fully explained by none of these explanations. When Adrien finally tells Anna the stark truth, Frantz’s death in the trenches of the Marne occurs in Technicolor. There’s no poetry, no music, no romantic landscape. I wonder, though, if even this moment doesn’t have its artistic allusion. The face of the dead Frantz reminds me eerily of the movie poster for another film about the war–Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), like Lubitsch’s film, a product of pre-Code Hollywood.
Auteur Ozon would certainly not hesitate to rank his own chosen form of expression with those other creative arts to which he alludes. Nor is this the only cinematic referent in Frantz. Numerous critics find Hitchcock lurking in the deep shadows–from “gripping homage” to “pointlessly spun” story, most leaning toward the former assessment and finding specific similarities to Vertigo and Rebecca. I, however, find more convincing the shots reminiscent of another film set in another defeated European city after another world war, featuring another woman named Anna, Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949).
When Frantz first appears at the Hoffmeisters’ as a mysterious visitor who rings the bell and then hurries away as a retreating shadow on the wet cobblestone streets of Quedlinburg, I was reminded immediately of similar shots of the dark, wet streets of Vienna. But the most telling parallel is of the two Annas, walking through an allée of trees in a cemetery. Significantly, the plots of both these films turn on lies told by the protagonists.
The most notable cinematic allusion in Frantz comprises a double reference to dueling nationalistic anthems–and another, darker lie. In Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion (1937), the Germans in the guardhouse begin to sing “The Watch on the Rhine” (“Die Wacht am Rhein”), and their French prisoners follow by singing over them loudly the French anthem. Five years later in Casablanca, Rick Blaine gives his famous nod to the band to play “La Marseillaise,” and the voices of the French exiles once again drown out the strains of the German officers. In both movies, the French anthem represents–for the characters and for the audience–an outburst of patriotic fervor. In Frantz, by contrast, the onetime enemies sing hymns to their Fatherlands in separate scenes, the audience (at least an audience reading the English subtitles) becomes fully aware of the bloodthirsty lyrics of “La Marseillaise,” and nationalism–blind devotion to Vaterland or Patrie–is unmasked as the most dangerous lie of all.
It is, finally, the lies at its core that transport Frantz from postwar melodrama to postmodern meditation on the nature or even the possibility of truth. Notably, the lies are not Adrien’s. Paul Rénard in Broken Lullaby decides to go to Germany at the suggestion of his confessor, who has already given him absolution. Like him, Adrien has no intention of lying when he meets the Hoffmeisters; he goes there seeking forgiveness. It is the eager Hoffmeisters and Anna who turn his guileless responses into lies:
You knew Frantz?
You met in France?
During his last trip there?
Only in his desire not to harm them further does Adrien spin the intricate web of lies about visiting the Louvre and playing the violin and dancing in Paris. And as they all become further ensnared in that web, it is Adrien who decides to tell the truth. Anna, by contrast, decides to perpetuate the duplicity, but not only in an ongoing effort to fulfill Frau Hoffmeister’s request: “Don’t be afraid to make us happy.” Like Paul in the simpler movie–and a simpler time–Anna herself visits a priest. She confesses her lies, and the priest responds, “Your silence regarding the death of your fiancé comes from a pure intention and is thus excused.” The truth, he says, would result in nothing but more pain and tears.
But we are living a century after this innocent time in a period sometimes described as post-truth. Thus, after digesting this movie described by Mark Jenkins as “a tribute to the beauty of lies,” we must ultimately ask, What IS truth? Certainly both this movie and the 24-hour news channels provide grim reminders that there is no truth in the old lie of nationalism. But what of the other lies that wind through Ozon’s film?
Frantz’s grave itself is a lie; he is not there, but buried anonymously somewhere in France. We can never be entirely sure about Adrien’s mental health and thus even the possibility of truth telling; he sees Frantz when he looks in the mirror, he confesses that he was in the madhouse when the Armistice was signed, and his favorite painting of a “pale young man with his head thrown back” is actually Manet’s graphic and grisly depiction of a suicide. Anna herself attempts suicide after learning the truth from Adrien, and it is Manet’s “Le suicidé” at which she stares at the end of the film, telling the man beside her–whose face uncannily combines those of Frantz and Adrien–“It makes me want to live.” She and he and the Manet fade to color. And we are left wondering about the value of truth, the need for lies, and the elusive possibility of healing.