In this small German town in 1918, the locals, like the wider population, still suffer the war hanging heavily on their shoulders and the anger at their close neighbours in France for having killed so many of their young men remains present in everyone's minds. One young woman, Anna (Paula Beer), tends to the grave of her fiancé, presumed shot dead in combat, not that his body was ever found, but she lays flowers there as often as she can, never wishing to forget Frantz and how much he meant to her. However, one day something strange happens: she goes to place the flowers only to find someone has beaten her to it, and on enquiring of the gravedigger is told it was a Frenchman who did so...
Broken Lullaby was an Ernst Lubitsch movie from 1932 that saw French director François Ozon, taking the Hollywood original and you might have expected, updating it for the twenty-first century audience. Yet Frantz was resolutely old-fashioned, shot in black and white aside from key moments when you could sense the gloom lifting and an optimism that they could all get through this breaking into the grieving characters' lives. He employed a restrained manner throughout, appropriately funereal in effect, as so close to the end of the Great War the psychological wounds were causing the world to buckle under the strain. They should have been happy that the conflict was finished, but all they felt was resentment and self-pity.
So who is this Frenchman in Germany at a time when you imagine he would not exactly be welcomed with open arms? He approaches Anna and the parents of Frantz who would have been her in-laws, and is at first rejected out of hand, the father barely able to bring himself to talk to him, but Anna is curious about this young man and asks him why he has made the journey. She is told that this chap, Adrien (Pierre Niney), used to know Frantz when they were in Paris together and were firm friends, so as she can imagine he is very upset that the deceased died at the hands of one of his countrymen. If you cannot perceive the actual reason Adrien is present then perhaps the subsequent twist at the halfway point would come as a surprise.
As this was based on vintage property, it was going to come across as old hat as a plotline, therefore Ozon opted to emphasise the themes, most prominently what does an individual do, never mind the collective, when they have survived the enormity of something as terrible as a world war? It is such a horrendous event that the way these characters react you would expect them never to have gotten over it, and for much of the drama that is how it plays, with the crushing guilt causing everyone to feel sorry for themselves and each other in a grimly restrictive manner. Yet somehow Adrien's presence lifts the mood of Anna and Frantz's parents after their initial scepticism, and his connection to the dead man makes his bereaved love warm to this Frenchman in a way she would never have imagined if she had never met him.
Then the twist occurs and we find out why Adrien is really there, but that presents another theme, that of forgiveness: this is how you move on from such awful circumstances and after such dreadful crimes against humanity have been committed. Frantz's father, and all the elder members of the town, are struggling with the knowledge that they forced their sons off to their certain death in war, which many of them react with a renewed patriotic fervour, unwilling to acknowledge their costly mistake, pointing ahead to the circumstances where the war happened all over again since those mistakes were not learned from and the grievances were allowed to fester with, once more, global results of millions upon millions of prematurely ended lives. But there is another way, as Anna discovers by the close of this particular story, that need not be so destructive, either personally or to others. This was a very carefully paced work; some responded to its sincerity, but others found it too precious, though the truth lies somewhere in between. Most curious was Ozon comparing himself with Lubitsch. Music by Philippe Rombi.