As we approach the 100 year mark since the end of World War I, many commemorative events have taken place. Cinema has had its own place in this remembrance.
Over the past few years, there has been a large number of highly successful films focusing on World War I or II, from Dunkirk to Darkest Hour to Journey’s End. The French-German film Frantz, however, has gone unnoticed by many English-speaking viewers, despite being one of the most powerful films released to explore the after-effects of World War I.
The majority of Frantz is set in a small German town, in mourning for the many young men it lost in the War. The film follows a young German widow, Anna (Paula Beer), and her encounter with a Frenchman, Adrien (Pierre Niney), who claims to have been friends with her husband before the war. Yet the elements of the relationship that Adrien conceals from Anna bubble beneath the surface of the film as it traverses both the dire relationship between Germany and France immediately after the war and the more intimate memories of loved ones left behind.
The appearance of Frenchman Adrien in the town is the source of much conflict, as he becomes a close friend and, in effect, a surrogate Frantz for Anna. The contempt with which Adrien is greeted by many of the town’s German residents due to his French nationality signifies the damaged Franco-German relationship as a whole, one that is certainly at its lowest point in Frantz and at times seems beyond repair.
The titular character is, à la Hitchcock, dead before the film begins. We only ever see Frantz in flashbacks, yet he manages to haunt everything about the film from its characters to its very title. The grief of the characters completely overwhelms them as Frantz becomes a figure that is all-consuming, despite his physical absence. In this way, director François Ozon emphasises how such mourning dominated life for an entire generation.
The ubiquity of loss is reflected in the sombre mood of the town. The quiet streets seem almost deserted and life seems to be incredibly monotonous and slow-paced. Ozon’s use of black and white to refer to the present and colour to refer to flashback scenes of life before the War is especially poignant. The colourful pre-war memories (which offer eye-opening revelations in themselves) contrast with the present to depict war’s capacity to strip away lives that seemed full-of-life and offer a darker world in its place. The sharp shadows created by the monochrome further reflect the brutality of life that war leaves in its wake.
The extreme, often violent, nationalism of both sides is captured in Ozon’s use of parallel scenes, one in Germany and one in France, in which citizens proudly sing their respective national anthems. The nationalistic lyrics of both and, in the French anthem, the blatant violence of them, signify a desire for revenge upon the ‘enemy’ even after the Armistice. As Anna sits in a French café surrounded by men chanting violent lyrics about killing foreign women, Ozon’s earlier depiction of the violence of the Germans against the French is deliberately brought to mind. Taken in the context of French soldiers’ letters exclaiming a desire to rape German women in revenge for their lost men, this scene of perverse sexual charge is especially difficult to watch.
Yet Frantz’s depiction of post-war trauma is only part of a larger attempt to commemorate World War I in its centenary year. Most significantly, Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old ingeniously colourises old war footage to bring it to life. Black and white film creates an inevitable sense of disconnect between viewer and events, making it more difficult to relate to the individuals; they appear confined to the past and distant from our society today. Jackson’s colourisation therefore adds an intense realism to the footage which enables a fresh look at the archival film. It allows us to feel more deeply connected with the individuals. We are reminded that the soldiers were people just like us and there seems to be an added level of humanity in this reminder. Jackson compels us to see and hear World War I just as the soldiers experienced it, a pivotal act for the commemoration and memorialisation of the War.
Film – both in the form of drama and documentary – is therefore a salient method of commemoration. Through cinema, we can connect with characters and become emotionally involved in their experience. We can gain a deeper understanding of what soldiers actually went through either through this empathetic engagement with character as seen in Frantz or the immediacy and tragic vitality of documentary footage as seen in They Shall Not Grow Old. In this centenary year, neither should be underestimated in their ability to provide a crucial insight into the War and its effects on soldiers, citizens, and international relations.