The anti-war film arguably began as a genre with the heavy-handed 1916 drama Civilization, which was released in theaters as World War I was still raging. That big-budget film, now included in the National Film Registry, briefly featured Jesus as a character in a story about a submarine commander who chose to disobey orders and not fire on a civilian vessel rumored to be shuttling enemy munitions. Billed as “An Epic of Humanity”, it was such a box-office success that historians now consider it partly responsible for the re-election of President Woodrow Wilson.
Frantz is also an anti-war film, but at other end — the subtle and quiet end — of a genre broad enough to include the action-packed heroics of 2016’s Hacksaw Ridge. In fact, because Frantz is 99.9 percent domestic, ponderously paced, shot in black and white, and rendered in a style that seems simple but provides ample space for audiences to contemplate the complexities of character and situation, it plays like a film version of an Anton Chekhov short story. Just as Chekhov’s characters were illuminated as much by silences, body language, and facial expressions as by anything they said, the characters we meet in Frantz are resonant with unuttered expression. What remains unspoken is largely responsible for the underlying tension that, along with strong visuals, holds our interest as we drift along in the slow-moving narrative current.
This French-language film, directed by François Ozon, received 11 César nominations but won in only one category: Best Cinematography. It’s possible that nominees in other categories were overlooked because the cinematography by Pascal Marti is so incredibly rich, so atmospheric, that it feels like the dominant force behind the film. It establishes the period, transporting viewers to the small towns of Quedlinburg, Germany and Saulieu, France in the months immediately following the end of WWI. It sets the mood, with a good many shots of single individuals in a frame suggesting isolation, disconnection, and loneliness. With a fair number of additional shots utilizing backgrounds that are multi-textured, the cinematography also alludes to the characters’ intricate emotional and moral landscapes. Most importantly, though, the camerawork is intimate without being intrusive, giving us a chance to draw close to those characters whose lives have been turned upside down by the war.
As the film opens, the camera follows a young woman so intently that even as she walks among townspeople we feel her aloneness. Quickly we learn that the title character was killed in battle. His fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), whom we have been tracking, is as devastated by the loss as his parents, Dr. (Ernst Stötzner) and Magda (Marie Gruber) Hoffmeister — so much so that they live together to better comfort each other. Their lives change when Anna sees a stranger crying at Frantz’s grave.
Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney) tells her he and Frantz (Anton von Lucke) were friends in Paris before war broke out, and that playing the violin and a love of art were their common bonds. She is both repelled by someone who reminds her of her lost love (and therefore heightens her pain), but also drawn to a person who could tell her more about the man she loved and lost (and somehow ease her pain). For their part, Frantz’s parents find in the young man a replacement for their own lost son.
Based on the same play by Maurice Rostand that inspired Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932), Ozon tells the story from the German perspective. He navigates the complexities of guilt, grief, and recovery with confidence, and Frantz draws its power from the psychological drama that the characters experience — a drama viewers can only infer and, like the other characters, try to understand. Though the film’s big twist isn’t as surprising as Ozon seems to think, there are several other plot turns that sufficiently surprise and then invite viewers to contemplate. But dramatic questions aren’t as important to Ozon as moral and psychological ones.
Adrien (Pierre Niney) and Anna (Paula Beer) in Frantz (2016)
When Dr. Hoffmeister first meets Adrien, he’s openly prejudiced because of the young man’s nationality. Adrien is a murderer, the doctor tells him, because he’s French … and the French killed his son. War to him at this early stage is an abstraction, but as he learns to accept Adrien his attitudes change. At a hotel lobby bar where his all-male friends gather, he offers to buy a round of beers, and one by one they refuse, setting up the film’s big anti-war speech. The French didn’t put guns in their sons’ hands and send them into battle, he tells them.
“We are responsible,” Dr. Hoffmeister says. “When we killed their sons by the thousands … we celebrated our victory by drinking beer. And when they killed our sons they celebrated by drinking wine. We are fathers who drink to the death of our children.” Fans of Casablanca will appreciate that the dueling anthems — “Die Wacht am Rhein” and “La Marseilles” — appear singly in this film, but conspicuously paralleled as they are sung by old men in hotel lobbies with the kind of nationalistic fervor that sent their sons off to war.
Because the anti-war elements are as obvious as the main plot twist, it’s the moral and psychological “truths” that are more elusive and therefore more interesting. Ozon and collaborator Philippe Piazzo explore the relationship between grief and guilt, forgiveness and acceptance, and the positives and negatives of nationalism and cultural identity. We watch characters’ attitudes change ever so slightly throughout the film, and are invited to speculate why the two main characters choose to lie or keep the truth to themselves.
Frantz features a song based on a Paul Verlaine poem, but we can’t help but think instead of WWI poets as we watch the story unfold — poets whose accounts of face-to-face confrontations with a single enemy in the trenches emphasize not war, or battles, or outcomes, but on what it feels like to look another human in the eye and feel the conflict between war’s mandate and the deeper and more sacred obligation to respect human life. Curiously, Ozon turns a lesser-known Manet painting — Le Suicidé — into a symbol that the audience is invited to interpret, and it proves to be just as elusive as Anna’s motivations… until the two intersect.
There really isn’t another anti-war movie that compares to Frantz, but if you’re a fan of the 2005 film Joyeux Noel, odds are that this one will also appeal. It’s less about war than it is about people. And that, after all, is the message that every war poet has tried to deliver.