The painful aftermath of World War I in Germany and France provides the setting for “Frantz,” opening this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center. It is an intimate portrait of a German family, the Hoffmeisters, and their son Frantz’s fiancée, Anna, grieving the loss of Frantz, who died at the front. Director François Ozon has based the story on German-American director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 film, “Broken Lullaby.” Ozon won the Cèsar, France’s equivalent of the Oscars, for Best Screenplay Adaptation.
Paula Beer, who won the César for Most Promising Actress, plays Anna, and Pierre Niney plays Adrien Rivoire, the young Frenchman who met Frantz during the fighting. Niney won the Best Actor César for his role in “Frantz,” as well as one in 2014 for “Yves Saint Laurent.”
Bringing flowers to her late fiancé’s grave, Anna sees someone else has also laid flowers there. She discovers it is Adrien, and brings him home to meet Frantz’s parents (she lives with them) and share his memories of Frantz. Although at first Dr. Hoffmeister denounces Adrien as a murderer, he changes his opinion once he learns of Adrien’s friendship with his son.
Embraced by the Hoffmeisters, Adrien describes his relationship with Frantz in Paris when they were students, with visits to a Manet at the Louvre, as well as shared violin playing and pacifism. The intensity of Adrien’s attachment to Frantz hints at a homosexual relationship, but that turns into a red herring. Instead, other revelations in Adrien’s stories stun Anna, although she does not share what she learns with the Hoffmeisters.
Adrien’s stay in Germany is not welcomed by Quedlinburg’s citizens, still bitter from their loss of the war and many of their sons in battle. In a subplot, Anna rebuffs a German suitor who makes clear his dislike of Adrien. Dr. Hoffmeister counters the growing hostility with an impassioned speech about the responsibility of German fathers for encouraging their sons to fight. Under pressure, Adrien returns to Paris despite Anna’s growing attachment to him. When he seems to disappear, she travels to Paris to hunt for him, encouraged by the Hoffmeisters. At this point the movie turns into a detective story, with Anna learning some unsavory aspects of Frantz’s life. More surprises await Anna once she tracks down Adrien in the chateau where he lives with his mother.
“Frantz” is shot primarily in black-and-white, enhancing its dark mood and the era, while flashbacks of happier times appear in color. With passing scenes of cities reduced to rubble and soldiers recovering from their wounds, the movie depicts the price Germany and France have paid for their participation in the Great War and examines the nature of forgiveness. Importantly, “Frantz” also looks at the role of secrets in people’s lives, raising questions about whether revealing the truth is always the best course of action.
Information and tickets for “Frantz” and other films playing at the Film Center are available at mvfilmsociety.com.