Figure from the Past: Francois Ozon’s ‘Frantz’ plumbs a World War I mystery

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François Ozon’s Frantz, from Music Box Films, is a definite departure for this maker of gleamingly taut modern dramas and thrillers. It’s a sort of remake of the one great flop in the career of the great Ernst Lubitsch. Broken Lullaby was made by the German genius in 1932, and was a stern, stark indictment of war, with a uniformly miscast Phillips Holmes, Lionel Barrymore and erstwhile delicious comedienne Nancy Carroll, morosely playing a Frenchman and two Germans devastated by the deadly effects of World War I.

In Ozon’s revision, a German girl, Anna (Paula Beer), grieving the loss of her fiancé, Frantz, in the war, encounters a mysterious Frenchman, Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), who also lays flowers on his grave. She is intrigued by him and even falls in love with him as she slowly divines the truth about Frantz and his demise. We recently met with the prolific Ozon in New York City.

Film Journal International: What drew you to this project?

François Ozon: I discovered first the play by Maurice Rostand, who was the brother of Edmond, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, and was gay. Maurice actually wrote a short story first and he made an adaptation for theatre, a play which was very successful. A friend had told me about the play, which was about lies and secrets and I wanted to make a film about that. So I read the play and loved the plot. I began to work on it, step by step, and then I discovered that another director had done it. I tried to find out who this was and when I realized it was Lubitsch, I became totally depressed. How can I make this film after Lubitsch? I did some research and the film was hard to get because it’s from the 1930s. I read that the film was a big flop, the only drama of Lubitsch. When I saw the film, it was very touching and quite close to the play.

I realized I wanted to make something different because I wanted to be in the point of view of the girl. In the play and film, you know from the first minute what happened to the French guy and my idea was to be of the point of view of the losers of the war and follow the character of Anna. It was not to be a betrayal of Lubitsch, but something different, based on the same story.

And because Lubitsch made this in the 1930s, he didn’t know there was a second world war coming and I had to have a new perspective, being French. Lubitsch was a German who made it from a French point of view, and I am French, making it from the German point of view. So this was a beautiful—I hope—answer to Lubitsch, 80 years later.

FJI: Was this your first period film?

FO:I made one called Angel, not released in America, which took place in England, but for this film I wanted it to be very realistic. I did a lot of research and shooting it in black-and-white was a way to be closed off in this period. We have seen so many archives and films and pictures of the First World War, so it’s not a difficult period to recreate, and the black-and-white adds a lot to make it true. I worked with a new cinematographer, and had done some short films a long time ago in black-and-white.

FJI: That cobblestoned village looked so authentically period, like you didn’t have to change anything.

FO: That was in the center of Germany, in the former eastern part. There are some beautiful locations there because the communities didn’t have the money to rebuild. So a lot of places are still like they were in the 1920s. Lots of American movies go there when they want a period location. Wes Anderson shot Grand Budapest Hotel in the same city where I shot the cemetery, and George Clooney made Monuments Men, his film about the Second World War, close to the village where I shot. We shot for eight weeks in Germany and around Paris.

FJI: Pierre Niney was terrific, so fragile, and what a face. He’s the very image of the romantic, shattered World War I veteran. How did you cast him?

FO: I needed someone very strong, and also able to speak German, play the violin and dance the waltz. I knew he had a theatrical background and has worked a lot. I saw him as Yves Saint Laurent in that film, and he was very touching, very fragile. It was quite obvious to cast him for the part. He was very involved. He didn’t speak German, but he learned it for the film, and the violin.

He has a period face, which is good for this movie. When you put a moustache on him, you see an old picture from the beginning of the last century.

FJI: And Paula Beer matched his strength and delicacy perfectly, as Anna.

FO: I didn’t know the young German actresses, so I made a big casting and met many girls. I wanted a kind of young Romy Schneider and Paula was perfect because she was very young but very strong. She has a big soul. She was just 20 years old when we shot this film and showed great maturity for this kind of part.

FJI: Both actors are so young, and yet they moved and behaved perfectly in period.

FO: Yes the costumes helped a lot, and the black-and-white.

FJI: Actually, all the acting was pretty spectacular. I really loved the two who played Frantz’s grieving parents.

FO: I only knew the father from before. I saw him in German films a long time ago. The mother was very good, too. I met many actors, did some tests. They come from theatre and they were very involved in the story and very helpful because I speak some German but am not fluent. So I asked them for help with the language, the dialogue and they were all very strong together.

FJI: As usual, your use of music was very effective.

FO: The music arrived step by step. You can feel the melancholy of the film, the malheur. Music plays a very strong part in the film because he is a violinist and the memory arrives through the music, so it’s very important.

FJI: We are now living in such crazy times, hopefully with not another world war on the way. The timing of this film is a bit uncanny.

FO: I didn’t know my film would become political. When I wrote the screenplay, I didn’t know that Brexit would arrive and Trump would be elected. I realized that speaking about yesterday is a way of speaking about today, too, because there was then the rise of nationalists, a lot of fear against foreigners and many people were asking for borders. And we have the same problems today. So it’s interesting to understand what happened in the past compared with today.

FJI: It was said that when Lubitsch realized that the Nazis were using caricatures of his face to publicly depict what a typical, and demonized, Jew looked like, he wept. How was your film received in France?

FO: It was very well received, although it was difficult because of being in black-and-white and part of it in German. Maybe Germany loved the film more, because they were very touched that a Frenchman made a film about them. Usually Germans are the bad guy in our films, the Nazis, so they were surprised to see some nice German people in a French movie.

FJI: What do you want people to get from this movie?

FO: I don’t have a message. But people realize that lies and secrets can be necessary and helpful. We live in a period when everyone is obsessed with transparency, they want to know everything. But you realize that sometimes maybe things need to be secret and keep hidden. I like this paradox, and at the end I think you understand why this young German girl didn’t tell the truth. She wants to protect Frantz’s parents and I love this irony and complexity.

FJI: What’s coming up for you?

FO: I’m finishing the editing of an erotic thriller [L’amant double], with Jérémie Renier, Marine Vacth [and Jacqueline Bisset], which should be released in France by the end of the year. I realized this film was very chaste, so I wanted to go back to sex. I needed sex after this.