French filmmaker François Ozon’s ‘Frantz’ takes place in Germany in 1919, when the wounds of World War I were still horribly raw. Indeed, the film’s title character, a powerful absence throughout, is recently dead: Frantz was a young German soldier who died on the battlefield. His fiancée Anna (Paula Beer, a standout performance) is the film’s main character. She’s now living with Frantz’s parents, the Hoffmeisters, in the medieval town of Quedlinburg in eastern Germany, and she’s shaken when a stranger, Frenchman Adrien (Pierre Niney, suave confidence masking his tremendous fragility), is spotted laying flowers on Frantz’s grave. Adrien explains that he was close to Frantz in Paris before the war, and soon he and Anna become close, although there’s much more about his story still to emerge.
Calm and wistful for the most part, and resisting a drift into meldodrama, ‘Frantz’ (a loose remake of a little-known 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film ‘Broken Lullaby’) plays out almost entirely in black and white. In a few scenes here and there colour appears before our eyes – moments that hint at the happiness of the past or hope of the future. It’s a film where the real fireworks have already happened: events play out in the ashes of grief and trauma.
‘Frantz’ is a slightly over-polite and overly careful, and the black and white palette is unappealingly washed out – more like a collection of greys. But the sense of festering postwar anger and pain is strong, and there are intriguing questions here. Is being honest always the best policy? Or are there situations in which lying protects others from the damaging truth? And, if so, what’s the emotional knock-on for the person who’s doing the hiding? Paula Beer’s performance as Anna is without doubt the film’s biggest strength: she’s a European talent to watch.