In moving ‘Frantz,’ postwar Germans yearn for both truth and lies

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A German war widow (Paula Beer) gets to know a Frenchman (Pierre Niney) who knew her late husband in “Frantz.” | MUSIC BOX FILMS

“Frantz,” a moving film set in post-World War I Europe, looks at truth and lies and the necessity for both in a grieving world that makes no sense.

It’s a kind of reworking of the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film “Broken Lullaby,” but director François Ozon takes it in a new direction by changing the film’s perspective.

The story is told through the eyes of Anna (Paula Beer), a young German woman whose fiance, Frantz, was killed in the war. She lives with his parents, who have more-or-less adopted her; they live in a cocoon of grief and loss, not unlike the country in which they live.

One day Anna notices new flowers on Frantz’s grave. The next day she sees a stranger there, paying his respects. His name is Adrien (Pierre Niney)and he’s a Frenchman, a veteran of the war. This automatically qualifies him as a pariah; Hans (Ernst Stotzner), Frantz’s father, will have nothing to do with him when Adrien visits. The people in town offer cold stares at best. Wounds have barely begun to heal.

But then Adrien begins telling Frantz’s family stories — stories of the time he and Frantz spent in Paris together. These scenes, like others in which happiness creeps in, are shot in color. The rest of the film is in blackandwhite. Hans warms to Adrien as the last link to the memory of his son, a way to keep him alive. Anna also thaws, accompanying him to a village dance, raising the hackles of the townspeople, for whom Adrien’smere presence is a reminder of their defeat and pain.

But there’s more to the story. What, truly, was the relationship between Adrienand Frantz? Ozon makes it look as if he’s heading in a certain direction, but is he? And what effect would the truth have on Adrien, on Anna, on Frantz’s parents? At one point, apriest saysthat a lie may be acceptable if the truth brings only more pain.

All this plays out against the backdrop of a country that, like Anna, is confused and unsure of how to feel about itself. On a visit to France, at a dinner with Adrien and his family, they tell her that when the armistice was signed, the nation danced. And what, a rather indiscreet guest asks, did the people of Germany do? Many were relieved, Anna says. Some of them danced, too. The world has gone mad.

“Frantz” is a fascinating film, the political and the personal playing out amidst a lie, and the uncertainty of whether the truth would make things any better. A mad world, indeed.

★★★

Music Box Films presents a film written and directed by François Ozon. In French and German with English subtitles. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including brief war violence). Running time: 113 minutes. Now showing at the Landmark Century and Wilmette theaters.

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