Frantz Hoffmeister, a soldier, fiancé, son, and friend, is dead and thus physically absent, but you know from the first five minutes of the film that he will continue to be unnervingly present. Like memories of World War I and the resentment between Germans and French at that time, Frantz is kept alive. His young fiancée, Anna (Paula Beer), grieves like an older widow, faithfully tending his grave (even though his remains are somewhere in France), wearing black, and rejecting suitors. The Hoffmeister family have kept all his belongings and left his childhood bedroom untouched. Frantz’s pre-war French friend, Adrien (Pierre Niney) also keeps Frantz alive by describing to the Hoffmeisters, in full detail and color, the joyful friendship that they had in Paris. And many of the villagers keep alive the memory of Frantz and their sons who died in the war by retelling stories and grievances, attacking the Frenchman in their midst, and breaking out into Die Wacht am Rhein at the pub. Verlaine’s poem ” Chansons d’Automne” runs through the film: “I remember / the past / and I cry / And I go along with the ill wind / which tosses me / here and there / like a dead leaf.”
Beware of the dead: they are frequently more dangerous than when they were alive (see Hitchcock’s Rebecca and Visconti’s Sandra). In this film, memories of Frantz engulf and render his loved ones helpless. They cannot deal directly with the past; they have to come to it circuitously, through carefully-worded stories, Chopin nocturnes, and letters unread. His early and tragic death (and by extension, the war), forces a dishonest reconciliation with the past. Frantz is a potent and intimate symbol of what should have never happened. Ozon underscores the point beautifully: the present is filmed in black and white while the past and memories of the past are filmed in color. The past is more present and vivid than the present.
In the end, no amount of love, lies, or denials can prevent the truth from coming out and forcing Anna and Pierre to completely let go of their shared past. It is thus especially poignant that, at film’s end, the Hoffmeisters remain ignorant of the true circumstances surrounding their son’s death. Anna has decided that is not worth dragging them into the present when a certain version of the past gives them peace.