A director as inventive as François Ozon would never remake a film in the conventional sense. His latest work Frantz (2016) is technically a re-staging of Broken Lullaby (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932), which follows a German widow, Anna Hoffmeister, in the wake of WWI as she encounters a mysterious Frenchman at the gravesite of her fiancé, who claims to have known her fiancé before the war. Ozon’s film, however, alters and extends the drama to tell it from Anna’s perspective rather than Adrien’s (the Frenchman’s) and to explore how she carries on with her life once she discovers the stranger’s secret.
Rather than reveal Adrien’s backstory at the very beginning as Broken Lullaby does, Ozon has the audience sift their way through the drama’s mysteries along with Anna. From the very first shot, we are situated inside her nervous yet intrigued sensibility as she watches Adrien place flowers on her fiancé tombstone. When he tells her he was a friend of Frantz in Paris before the war, she invites him to meet Frantz’s parents. Despite some initial hostility from the father, they begin to treat Adrien as a surrogate son uniquely capable of reconnecting them with the memory of Frantz, even as the film hints that he may not be telling the truth about their relationship. Anna alone comes to know the truth about Adrien, and her conflicted position is deepened to a greater degree in Ozon’s remake.
Ozon explains that he devised the second half of Frantz as “an answer to Lubitsch,” having Adrien return to Paris instead of remain with the Hoffmeister family so that the film can explore Anna’s inner turmoil as she, in turn, travels to Paris to find him. Has she fallen in love with the Frenchman or is it really the underlying memory of Frantz that she clings to? Will she reveal Adrien’s secret to her parents or choose to preserve the comforting simplicity that his stories of Frantz have given them? Actress Paula Beer lends her character incredible interiority. “You reach a moment during the shoot when you realize that the true subject of the film is the actress’s face,” said Ozon in his interview with Sight and Sound, recalling how impressed he was by the 20-year-old Beer’s nuanced performance. Asked how Frantz relates to his previous work, Ozon replied that it too features a heroine who must reinvent herself after a loss.
In addition to the feminine perspective furnished by Frantz, the film is noteworthy as one of the few French war dramas to portray Germans sympathetically. It retains Broken Lullaby’s pacifist message, its harrowing flashback of the trenches echoing the anti-war drama All Quiet on the Western Front, while Frantz’s father confronts the French-hating members of the town’s nationalist group with a blunt reminder that they were the ones who sent their sons off to fight and are ultimately responsible for their deaths. Though Frantz hardly takes on the immediacy that Broken Lullaby did for interwar Europe, it underscores the period’s festering jingoism in a way that can be seen to address the continent’s current rise in xenophobia. “I never started out with the intention of making a political film,” Ozon told Sight and Sound, “But I definitely had the sense when I toured round with it in France that it was giving people a chance to talk about what’s going on today.”
Though Frantz is far from the director’s best film, its moral ambiguities and historical tensions are bound to prompt discussions among viewers. With his unique re-conception of Broken Lullaby, Ozon has proven that remakes are just as rich in experimental possibilities and has reminded us that sometimes the most interesting way to retell a story is simply to view it from another perspective.