François Ozon’s Frantz, the insidious way war echoes through history, and a chastening message for the dangers of division
Françoiz Ozon has said he was motivated to make Frantz, a film about the immediate aftermath of World War I and the way it weighed so heavily among the German and French populations, because of a certain way that he saw history threatening to rhyme, in dreadful cadence, once more.
Not that it was an easy project to realize: one can imagine the skeptical glances and quizzical looks raised among producers he approached—So, it’s not about the war? Where’s the action, then? Who’s going to watch a period drama?—but Ozon found a way, in no small part due to the passion he felt for making this film. As he writes in the introduction to the Frantz Blu-Ray booklet:
“Their (the producers’) lack of enthusiasm was disappointing, but not discouraging. I quickly realized in my research and early script development that by telling the story of a young Frenchman and a young German woman caught up in the turmoil of the aftermath of World War I—a frightening period of rising nationalism, populist and extreme right parties full of hatred and fear of “foreigners”—I was indirectly alluding to today. I did not know yet that Brexit would happen and tear Europe apart, or that America would elect Donald Trump.”
Ozon drew inspiration from Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby, who had adapted the Maurice Rostand play L’homme qui j’ai tué (which a friend of Ozon’s had in fact given him, and which first inspired him to make Frantz), but unlike Lubitsch, he decided to tell his tale from the perspective of a young German woman who’d lost her fiancé in the war. “It seemed a beautiful solution,” Ozon said in that same introduction. “To remake a pacifist film that would essentially contend that knowing others through culture and language is the best way to bring people together and avoid the atrocities of war.”
It was striking, to me, that Ozon focused upon an appreciation for the power of lies, that he is more interested with the lie than the guilt that might attach itself to it and fester upon the telling. If a lie is told from a virtuous place, if it serves to broker some measure of peace for the receiving party, can it still be condemned as a sin? In Frantz, lies help bridge a gap so recently broken by bloody, bloody war. Thanks to a lie, bonds of fraternity are cast anew.
It is a hopeful message for the present age, when the reaction to any event seem to be carved instantaneously down two sides. What is said does not matter so much as who said it: talk is of this side versus that side. Us v Them. Walls both real and ideological are built. Wars of opinion are waged, the rhetoric growing so foul that one wonders when an all-consuming conflagration will envelop the world in its ashy embrace. L’histoire, ça rhyme.
Perhaps it smacks of a Pollyanna-ish nature to posit, as this film does, that it would do the world some good to remember the bonds that exist between us. True, the story of one family in post-WWI Germany does not speak for the whole of human existence, but it should serve as a beacon of hope. Efforts should be made to get to know the other “side”, even if it seems frightening or painful to do so.
This is the path of Anna, the German heroine, in Frantz, and it is one of my favorites in recent memory. Upon entering France, she endures the skeptical appraisals, the probing questions, after informing a French border official that she is, in fact, une Allemande. Then she witnesses the hollowed-out towns, the broken people, society trying to find its feet. Though she does not know of the catastrophe to come in a few short decades, she can see that there must be another way. Anything, to stop this sort of madness from recurring. And yet. L’histoire, ça rhyme.
That the film ends on a painting, Manet’s Le Suicidé, reaffirms Ozon’s approach to filmmaking in the first place. That art is, by it’s very nature, a lie—but it is a noble lie in that it helps us to cope with suffering, and as the French would put it, Ça nous donne envie de vivre.
Ozon’s films are saturated with references to film, poetry, and art. And it is a poetic take on Anna’s own journey that helps her pass through the trauma of heartbreak, which she encounters first in the death of her fiancé, and then in the first man she falls for after such a long period of mourning. She learns that this is the journey one must undertake: and rather than succumb to emotional ossification, she is steeled by experience. Her nature that has been informed by the power of love and the propelling feeling of a refutation of hate.
If only there were more instances of history rhyming like that.