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Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film Broken Lullaby could have served nicely as a warning for the approaching Second World War. But since Lubitsch didn’t know quite what was coming, the film—about a French soldier who travels to Germany one year after the Treaty of Versailles to meet the parents of his slayed German friend—ends on a happy note.
French director François Ozon, who is perhaps best known for his sexual, provocative works like Swimming Pool and Young and Beautiful, has given Lubitsch’s classic an alternative storyline with his new film, Frantz. Not only do things not end favorably in his truer-to-history version, but the film—created long before Brexit, Donald Trump’s election, and the nationalistic patriotism sweeping the globe—feels all the more relevant today.
Adrien (Pierre Niney) is the attractive young Frenchman who appears one day in the cemetery of the small German town of Quedlinburg, placing flowers on the grave of his friend who died in the trenches, 20-year-old Frantz Hoffmeister. Anna (played by Paula Beer in a breakthrough performance) is Frantz’s fiancée and is still deeply mourning; she lives with Frantz’s parents and visits the cemetery every day to tend to his grave. Touched by Adrien’s presence, Anna encourages him to visit the Hoffmeisters. The grieving parents first treat Adrien with coldness—“Every Frenchman is my son’s murderer,” the father declares—but they are soon stirred by the brown-eyed boy’s stories of his and their son’s friendship, which began while Frantz was living abroad in Paris before the war. Despite the nationalistic pushback Adrien receives from many of the townspeople, he decides to stay in Quedlinburg for a while, and becomes close to the Hoffmeisters, and to Anna, with whom a romance seems possible.
Filmed in a somber black and white and laced with symbolic moments where color bleeds into the screen, the period drama might feel like a departure from the writer-director’s oeuvre, but don’t be fooled. There is a Ozon-esque twist in the middle of the plot that you’ll spend the first half trying to solve, and the second half trying to recover from.
We spoke to Ozon about the differences between his and Lubitsch’s film, the senselessness of nationalism, and why it’s sometimes easier to believe a lie than the horrible truth.
This film has a unique, unforgettable plot, but the original by Lubitsch is relatively unknown. How did you arrive at this adaptation?
The idea actually came from a French play written after World War I by Edmond Rostand, and I love the story. As I began to work on the adaptation, I realized that Ernst Lubitsch already did one, and I was totally devastated. I thought, How can I make a film after Lubitsch? But when I discovered his film, I realized his perspective was totally different from what I wanted to do. His story was told from the point of view of the French soldier, and my idea was to tell the story from the point of view of the Germans, the losers of the war, and especially, from the point of view of the girl. That way you can keep all the mystery.
There are some very good scenes in Lubitsch that I kept for my adaptation, but I changed many things. In the first minutes [of the original] you know exactly why the Frenchman has traveled to Germany. It was more interesting to me to keep this secret. It’s better not to know, to be in the same mood as the girl, who falls in love with this French guy and then discovers the truth, which is very disturbing for her. And the big difference between me and Lubitsch is that he didn’t know that the Second World War would happen. So he was more optimistic in his movie than I am, because I know another war will arrive and the rise of nationalism in Germany will create the Nazis.
There’s really a sense of tension throughout, especially before the reveal. How did you maintain that wound-up feeling?
It was the big challenge of the film, to keep a kind of suspense. And to let the spectator have the freedom to imagine what they want. I think we are a little bit like the German family. Do we really want to know the truth, or do we prefer to believe in a lie? That’s the dilemma of the film.
Which is also Anna’s dilemma when she knows the truth, and she doesn’t know if she should reveal it. She doesn’t want to break down this beautiful story that’s been created for the parents.
We are in a period now where everybody wants to know the truth, everything has to be transparent, we have to know everything about everything. But sometimes you realize that some secrets and some lies in difficult situations can be helpful to survive. For me the lies and the secrets are like a metaphor for fiction, for cinema. We need to go to cinema to believe in incredible stories to escape reality. I think it’s a little bit of what happens in this film.
While watching the film, you can sense that there is something being kept secret. It was a maddening experience, and I found myself thinking through all the various things the secret could be.
I’m very perverse. I play with you. [Laughs.]
The nationalism expressed in the film feels timely with Donald Trump and Brexit. Was that your intention?
I didn’t know! I didn’t know these things would happen.
But do you see those comparisons now?
Yes. I wrote the script at the moment in France when we had all of the attacks, the Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan theatre. And we were very shocked by this situation. Suddenly everywhere in France people were singing La Marseillaise, which is a nationalist, patriotic song, and if you hear the lyrics it’s very violent. I thought it would be interesting to hear again this song in the context of a war, in the context of nationalism.
When I was working on the script I knew it was a film about 1919, but there were a lot of echoes of today, with the rise of nationalism everywhere, in Europe and in America, too. I didn’t know Brexit would happen. But I felt, and I feel today, that in France there is a lot of fear against the foreigner. There are many people who want to come through the borders. We don’t want to have a wall like Trump, but you feel a nationalist crispation in all the world today. People are afraid of globalization, and of course they are people who are totally lost.
It’s interesting that it’s World War I in the film, and when you’re watching you know it’s only going to get worse.
We know about the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles, and the fact that the Germans thought they should have won the war. Nazism is born from all the effects of the First World War. I had a feeling that speaking about this period would be a way to speak about today. And maybe to understand better what is happening to us. There is much to be learned from the past.