When the German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982, François Ozon was 15 years old. Thirty-five years later the French director still acknowledges Fassbinder's cinematic influence on his formative years. “When I discovered his films, I had the feeling that all of my problems were solved. I had the feeling of real freedom,” Ozon said in a recent telephone interview. “It was very important for me to know that it was possible to feel like that, totally free to follow your instincts making movies.”
From Water Drops on Burning Rocks (2000) to Frantz, Ozon's latest release, Fassbinder’s impact on the contemporary director is unmistakable. Most obviously: Ozon adapted Water Drops from a Fassbinder play. With Frantz, opening March 24 in Bay Area theaters, the influence is more oblique; in the period piece Ozon harkens back to Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974), depicting a world of forgotten etiquette and a society insistent on emotional restraint.
Ozon first discovered the story of a French soldier carrying the trauma of World War I home in a play by Maurice Rostand. After he’d made Frantz, a loose adaptation of Rostand's play, Ozon discovered that director Ernst Lubitsch beat him to it in the 1932 film Broken Lullaby.
“I was a little bit depressed. I wanted to give up,” Ozon says. But given Broken Lullaby’s age, Ozon reconsidered the idea. “Lubitsch didn't know that the Second World War would arrive," he says. "So his film was more optimistic. It was about reconciliation and you didn't think that something as terrible as the First War could happen again, you know?”
Ozon’s Frantz also brings something new to the tale: a heroine. Instead of focusing on French soldier Adrien's point of view (played by Pierre Niney), Ozon shifts the narrative to Anna (Paula Beer), the German fiancée of the late, titular Frantz. “My idea for the adaptation was to tell the story from the point of view of the loser of the war, which is the opposite of Lubitsch,” Ozon says. “I thought it would be a good answer 80 years after to a German director like Lubitsch, that a French director like me could give a different vision of this story.”
Frantz is a tonal departure from Lubitsch and a stylistic one from Fassbinder. “The film was supposed to be shot all in color," Ozon says. But two weeks before filming began, he changed his mind. "I decided to change everything and put the film in black and white, because I had the feeling it would be more realistic,” he says. At the same time, he didn’t want to give up entirely on the use of color: “I had the idea to keep a little bit of color in some emotional, key scenes in the film.”
Most of those key emotional scenes involve a stifled and halting romance between Anna and Adrien. Her loss of Frantz doesn't destroy her -- instead, the film follows her slow awakening. And it’s not the Prince’s magic kiss that opens her eyes. “She has understood that Prince Charming maybe doesn't exist," Ozon says. "She was the victim of this situation and now she's becoming a modern woman.” The director says, proudly, that was his idea.
Despite his many influences, Ozon rarely sticks with any one genre for long. “When you make a film a year," he says, "you don't want to always make the same thing. I like to go in new directions and to experiment. I don't want to repeat myself.”
Ozon's next film is as far from Frantz’s roundelay of unhappiness and unrequited war-torn love as he could possibly get: an erotic thriller called L’amant double with Jacqueline Bisset.
'Frantz' opens in Bay Area theaters on Friday, March 24. For more information click here.