War. Nationalism. Things not appearing as they are. Frantz deals with all of these topics in interesting ways.
The story begins in Quedlinburg, Germany in 1919. The war is over but anti-French feelings persist. Anna, a young woman, visits the empty grave of her fiancé who never returned from the war. She continues to live with her fiancé’s parents as sort of the daughter they never had. Clearly, she has been a comfort to them following the death of their only son.
A mysterious Frenchman appears, leaving flowers at the grave and ringing doorbells. The Frenchman enters their lives, presumably a friend of their son from his time in Paris where he studied before the war. Adrien reluctantly relates tales of Frantz and their time in Paris. He comes to dinner. He takes Anna to the spring ball. But the facade cracks and then crashes to the ground.
Adrien went along with their assumption that he was a friend laying flowers at Frantz’ grave. In fact, he came to assuage his conscience, having killed Frantz in the war. Anna is understandably distraught and tells Adrien that she will tell Frantz’ parents herself rather than Adrien telling them.
Only she never does. She maintains the second facade in the movie. Rather than allow them the pain of knowing the lies and that they let their son’s murderer into their home and their lives, she does not tell them the truth.
Adrien writes her, assuming that she will transmit the letter to the parents. Only she doesn’t. She reads a fake letter to them—facade number three. By the time she gets around to writing him, he has moved; her letter is returned to sender.
Frantz’ parents decide that she must track him down in Paris. A German man has been pursuing her, but they feel that Adrien is the one she should be with.
So off to Paris she goes. She stays at the same hotel that Frantz did when he was a student and another facade crumbles. The hotel is less than reputable and perhaps Frantz was not the stand-up guy they thought.
Adrien is not easy to track down. She ends up at the hospital, looking through records to see what happened to him. (A conversation with a doctor suggests depression and possible suicide.) She sees his name in the records. When she learns that he has been buried at a certain cemetery, she realizes her feelings for him. She lost Frantz. And now she lost Adrien.
Only the person at the cemetery is an uncle, not Adrien. Through relatives, she tracks him down at his mother’s estate in the country. Adrien is from money. (His mother’s house is a castle.)
Anna is relieved and all seems well. Until she meets Fanny, the fiancée—another facade. Adrien is to be married to a childhood friend that his mother approves of. Either Adrien is trapped in this marriage-to-be or never really loved Anna.
In any case, Anna boards a train for Paris, never to return to Germany. She continues the facade by writing letters to her adopted parents about the wonderful times she and Adrien are having.
The film touches on post-war ultra-nationalism. Adrien is reviled by Germans during his visit. In one scene, bar-goers break into singing Die Wacht am Rhein. In a parallel scene, when Anna is in Paris, café-goers break into Les Marseillais. She too faces xenophobia.
Another theme throughout the movie is suicide. Adrien is fragile, bedeviled by poor health, which is not helped by the guilt he carries for killing Frantz. He flirted with suicide after the war. Anna herself attempts to drown herself but is saved. In a later conversation, Adrien confesses that one has to live for others.
Interestingly, the painting that he claimed Frantz liked so much in their pretend trips to the Louvre, was Manet’s Le Suicidé, a copy of which hangs in the room that Anna stays in at Adrien’s mother’s castle. It is as if after discovering Adrien is betrothed to another, Anna is being mocked. In the end, she overcomes suicide, visiting the painting in the Louvre again as a strong, independent woman living in Paris.
The movie is shot in black and white with certain scenes in color. Memories that Adrien constructed of him and Frantz in Paris are in color. Adrien and Anna visiting the spot by the lake where Frantz asked for her hand in marriage is in color. The scene when Adrien plays Frantz’ violin is in color. Memory of the war when Adrien kills Frantz is in color. And in the end, Anna’s visit to the Louvre to see Manet’s painting Le Suicidé is in color. I am unsure of the common theme—some are fake memories, all but the last involve Frantz.
The movie is inspired by Broken Lullaby, a 1932 American film, which was based on a 1930 French play, L’homme que j’ai tué [The Man That I Killed]. Frantz is a moving story that will keep you spellbound. The dialogue switches between German and French with English subtitles. The use of black and white film makes you feel as though you are in Germany and France in 1919.