Given he’s one of our very favourite directors working today, it’s of great relief that Francois Ozon is such a prolific filmmaker, moving on from one project to the next in rapid fashion. This also means he releases a lot of films, which in turn, means we get to interview him a lot. Our latest meeting with the creative auteur was in Paris, to mark the release of Frantz…
So why the black and white aesthetic?
Actually the film was supposed to be shot in colour, but I decided one month before the shoot to change everything because after the location scouting, we found some very good places, especially in Germany, but it was full of colour, and I realised walking in the city, I saw some pictures of the place in black and white from the beginning of the century, and realised nothing had changed, and even in black and white everything seemed more realistic, so I decided to change everything. I love colours too, so I decided to keep some scenes in colour and to play with that. But all of our memories of this period are in black and white because the documentaries and films are in black and white, and I had the feeling it would be more realistic and would involve the audience in the story more.
Was The White Ribbon in any way a reference?
Actually this was a very good reference because it’s a beautiful film shot in black and white too, and it was a way to convince my producer it was still possible to make a film like this today and have it be successful.
Was it difficult to convince your producer?
It was work, I had to fight a little bit because the finance of French movies comes very often from television, and because the film is in black and white it means it won’t be shown at prime time. The fact the film was already in German, it was a lot of work.
Was the technique of shooting in black and white a challenge?
Actually we shot in colour, the big difficulty was the DoP kept asking me, are you sure this scene will stay in black and white or will it become colour, and sometimes I didn’t know. So we had to shoot some scenes when I did not know if it would be in colour or in black and white, and for him it was another way to light the scenes, and when in black and white we put some filters, red, and blue, and we didn’t know, so there were a lot of discussions there. It was very strange because when I saw my actors they would be in colour, but then at the monitor it was in black and white, it was strange.
So what made you decide which scenes would be in colour and which wouldn’t?
It’s not very rational, there’s no real logic, it was more sensitive.
So when you watch the film back now and watch certain scenes, do you see it in black and white or do you remember seeing it with your own eyes, and therefore in colour?
That’s a good question. I have forgotten the colours.
Maybe one day you’ll release the colour version?
No, but you know television ask you when you make a film in black and white to give them a version in colour too. I know that when Michel Hazanavicius when he did The Artist he made a version in colour, but the film was so successful nobody asked for it. But the television gave him money for the colour version.
When we first meet Adrien, I couldn’t work out if he was Frantz’s murderer, his lover, or just a creep wanting to seduce Anna. Was that the idea, to play with our perceptions and maintain this mystery?
The big difference between the play and the film by Lubitsch, was to change the point of the view of the story. In Lubitsch’s film and in the play, you know from the first minute who Adrien is. I decided to change the point of view and tell the story from the perspective of the Germans, and especially Anna. For me it was more interesting because during the first part of the film you don’t know exactly the relationship between Frantz and Adrien. It was the idea to add this ambiguity.
What’s your favourite Lubitsch?
I love his comedies, The Shop Around the Corner is one of his masterpieces.
Would you ever consider remaking that?
No, no. Actually when I discovered Lubitsch had done an adaptation of the play I was totally disappointed and depressed, because how can I make a film after he did? I wanted to give up. But when I saw his film I really enjoyed it but realised you have to see it in context, today the film is a little bit difficult to watch and I realised his point of view was totally different. He didn’t know the Second World War would happen, so it helped me, the fact it’s a good film but not a masterpiece. It helped to accept I was making a film after Lubitsch.
How would the story of Frantz be different if it was a German soldier visiting France?
It’s funny you ask this question, because when I went to my producer to propose the project I was asked why I wanted to shoot in Germany, but for me it was not interesting otherwise. I wanted to tell the story from the perspective from the people who have lost the war, I thought it would be interesting as a French director to make a film from the point of view of the Germans. Also to tell the story from the perspective of Anna was obvious.
It was also obvious, I guess, that everybody should speak their own language?
Of course, I have no problem with that. In Hollywood in the 50s everybody spoke English but now it’s not possible to make this kind of movie, except in TV series where they all have English accents.
One of my favourite scenes was when they are performing Nuits d’Etoiles – were they all playing the instruments themselves?
Yes, they had to learn. The actress singing, that’s not her real voice though, but Pierre learnt the violin, and Paula can play piano so she learnt this Debussy piece.
Was the Renoir film La Grande Illusion important for you?
It’s weird but no I didn’t think about La Grande Illusion for this movie. I loved it when I saw it, but I had in mind an American movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, and I didn’t know this film before and I thought it was amazing, still very modern, very strong. It was important.
What sort of research did you have to do? Did you discover anything that surprised you?
I did research into German history because there are so many French movies about the war in the point of view of the French. I was surprised to see that the Germans don’t have many historians working on the First World War, they are focused on the Second World War. Even the young people do not learn so much in history classes, they don’t know, so it was surprising because the German producers were so happy to produce the film, they were very involved and grateful that as a Frenchman I was making a film about German people, and for once it’s not a film about Nazis. They don’t play the bad guys like they usually do in French movies.
How was the reaction to the film in France when compared to Germany?
I think the reactions in Germany were better than in France. I think the French still aren’t very interested in Germany, but the Germans are very grateful I made such a film.
Do you think your approach to storytelling has changed? Do you look for different stories to what you used to?
Yes, I think so. When I was younger I was more aggressive in my way of telling things, more violent and more provocative, maybe. I think I can still be provocative, but in a more perverse way, because I try to really involve. My first films had people too shocked to follow the story, now I’m more able to put the audience in a strange story.
Frantz is released on May 12th – you can read our review of the film here.