Towns don’t get much more German than Quedlinburg. Nestled in the heart of Saxony it has about 20,000 inhabitants, but calls itself “the first capital of Germany” because King Heinrich was crowned there in 919 CE. Throughout the years of division its medieval buildings were preserved intact by the poverty of the East.
Quedlinburg is the setting for François Ozon’s Frantz, which is based on Broken Lullaby, a 1932 film by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch It’s a brave director that thinks he can improve on Lubitsch, but Broken Lullaby may be a good place to start. Most of Lubitsch’s movies were sparkling comedies but this one was a melodrama. The film received positive reviews on first release but the box office was poor, and critical opinion gradually soured. Many years later Pauline Kael would dismiss it as “drab, sentimental hokum”.
I haven’t seen the Lubitsch film yet, but Kael’s verdict sounds too harsh. Lubitsch was incapable of making a drab movie, and it’s difficult to conjure up strong emotions without a trace of sentimentality.
François Ozon is a very different director. Whereas Lubitsch was known for his distinctive touch, Ozon’s back catalogue might have been made by several different people. When he attempts comedy, or worse still – musical comedy, the results can be woeful. I wince when I think about Eight Women (2002), and groan when remembering Angel (2007), his shallow adaptation of a very good novel by Elizabeth Taylor.
Sans doute, Ozon’s best movies are low-keyed dramas where he allows us time and space to think our way through a story. Frantz is one of this class. It’s a self-consciously old-fashioned film shot in tones of black-and-white that only occasionally snaps into colour when the veil of grief that encircles the characters is lifted. Whether intentional or not it’s also a tale for our own narrow-minded era.
The time is 1919 and the wounds of the Great War are still raw. In this provincial town the Germans are feeling the pain of defeat and mourning their dead. Dr. Hans Hoffmeister and his wife Magda (Ernst Stötzner and Marie Gruber), have lost their only son, Frantz. Their grief is almost exceeded by that of Frantz’s fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), who now lives with them in a house that feels like a mausoleum.
Frantz’s body was never recovered, but every day Anna puts flowers on an empty grave. One morning she is surprised to find another mourner – a tall, willowy Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney). It seems extraordinary that anyone from France would travel to a German town while the anger of war is still simmering.
Adrien visits Frantz’s parents but Dr. Hoffmeister will not allow him into his surgery. “Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer!’ he growls. It is only when Anna begins talking to Adrien that it becomes clear he was a close friend of Frantz in Paris before the war. Slowly the Hoffmeisters open their hearts to the interloper, being touched by the magnitude of his sorrow.
Adrien is less popular with Hoffmeisters’ nationalistic neighbours, notably Herr Kreutz (Johan von Bulow), who has designs on Anna and is horrified to see her walking around with the enemy. He’d be less concerned if he could see that Adrien is febrile, highly-strung, dandified and effeminate. Pierre Niney literally quivers his way through the movie, speaking about Frantz in the tones of an abandoned lover.
Whereas Kreutz tells Anna she must forget Frantz, Adrien reveres his memory, and this creates a deep bond between them. If the relationship between Frantz and Adrien begins to seem too close for comfort, we tend to forget that in 1919 it was perfectly conceivable to the stolid bourgeois mind that young men should enjoy passionate but innocent friendships. That’s what everyone thought in Australia until the 1970s when we started watching No. 96 on late night TV.
No sooner does he win the trust of Anna and the Hoffmeisters than Adrien has to return to Paris. This creates turmoil in Anna’s mind as she realises the depth of her attachment. In the last part of the film she sets off for Paris where she will make some surprising discoveries about Adrien, Frantz, and herself. The catalyst is a painting by Manet that dramatizes the choice she must make in embracing life over death.
Despite Niney’s tremulous performance the movie belongs to Paula Beer, who was a teenager in a film I saw last year, but has suddenly emerged from her chrysalis as an accomplished actress and a strikingly beautiful woman.
Frantz is a film about lies that seek not to harm, but to heal injuries and restore happiness. We are asked whether the relentless pursuit of truth is of any value when that truth will only bring pain and hatred.
It’s impossible to view this movie and not be reminded of the rising tide of nationalism that is once again polarising countries and peoples around the world. Frantz is a timely parable about the need for tolerance and forgiveness; an aide-mémoire on the true legacy of war, which afflicts both victor and vanquished with the same irremediable sense of loss.
Directed by François Ozon
Written by François Ozon & Philippe Piazzo, after Ernst Lubitsch’s film, Broken Lullaby.
Starring Pierre Niney, Paula Beer, Ernst Stötzner, Marie Gruber, Johann von Bülow, Anton von Lucke, Cyrielle Clair, Alice de Lencquesaing
France/Germany, rated PG, 113 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 8th April, 2017