Thursday, April 20, 2017

Frantz, The Sense of an Ending

                             Past Tragedies, Present Reconsiderations

                                                            Review by Ken Burke
 My chance viewing of these 2 films in succeeding days left me with a sense of similarity in their essences despite vastly different details in their narrative structures so I’ve decided to swirl them together into one of my occasional-combo-reviews so as to better explore how they resonate.
                                                   Frantz [2016] (François Ozon)
In 1919 Germany a young woman mourns her fiancée’s death in WW I but is surprised to see his grave also visited by a young Frenchman who tells her the 2 men were friends in Paris before the war; after some initial shock (and resentment toward all French from the locals) he’s welcomed by the deceased’s parents, but there are other important revelations still to come.
                                      The Sense of an Ending (Ritesh Batra)
An elderly London man is divorced, on strained terms with his ex-wife and pregnant adult daughter when he learns the diary of an old friend has been left to him but is currentlystubbornlyheld by his girlfriend from their college days; in seeking her out to reclaim it he has many recollections of his past life (shown in flashbacks) that complicate this engaging story.
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): There’s an essential sense of similarity in the crucial plot devices of these cinematic stories so I’m going to explore them in direct comparison, with just enough detail in this opening-abstract to give you reason to seek them out (if you still can in that they’ve both already been in release for quite some time), providing you’re in the mood for sober tales of human interest rather than the sort of slam-bang-action drawing in the heaviest component of current box-office-dollars.  Frantz is a German film (with subtitles, if that’s a negative consideration for you, but I hope not) about a woman in 1919 grieving the loss of her fiancée on the battlefields of WW I when suddenly a Frenchman shows up in the graveyard, also giving honor to a man, he later tells her, who was his great friend in Paris prior to the hostilities.  After initial rejection by the deceased’s father (and most everyone else in this German town), the stranger is welcomed into the parents' home where the female former fiancée has taken up residence with a sense of growing interest between the younger protagonists until such time as a dark secret is revealed (thus ending what I can tell you about this film unless you’d like to look at the plot spoiler details below).

 I can probe just a bit further into The Sense of an Ending because its secrets aren’t unlocked until much further into the plot but there’s still quite a (possible, although you may pick up on it) shock to come there as well, after having spent a lot of time getting to know the main characters as both their younger and older selves.  Essentially, this is a story set in the present about an elderly man in London who learns that the mother of his long-ago-ex-girlfriend has left him a diary that belonged long ago to his closest college chum, although the former lover now has it and won’t turn it over.  This opening situation (in which we also see the reclusive man has rocky relationships with his ex-wife and their adult, pregnant daughter) leads to many flashbacks of the main character’s more passionate younger life, which sets us up for the dramatic situations that eventually will be revealed.  I recommend both of these films for their mature themes, exquisite acting, and—in the case of Frantz—a unique opportunity to see some excellent black-and-white-cinematography utilized in a contemporary film.

So, curious readers, if you can abide plot spoilers in order to learn much more about the particular cinematic offering under examination this week please feel free to read on for more of the traditional Two Guys in-depth-explorations in our brilliant (!)-but-lengthy review format.
What Happens: I’ll begin the explorations of this combo-review with the chronologically-earlier-narrative of Frantz (released in Europe last year, just now making its way to our side of the Atlantic) where we meet Anna (Paula Beer) in 1919, living in the central German town of Quedlinburg with an older couple, Doktor Hans (Ernst Stötzer) and Frau Magda Hoffmeister (Marie Gruber), who would have been her in-laws had not their son/her fiancée, Frantz (Anton von Lucke, shown in flashbacks), been killed during the brutal battles of WW I a year earlier.  Anna’s getting along the best she can with no clear future direction in the war’s aftermath—although one of the Dr.’s patients, Mr. Kreutz (Johann von Bülow), seeks to marry her, a decision the parents support but which she’s not ready to commit to given his notably-older-age along with her continued sorrow over Frantz.  She frequently visits Frantz’s grave until one day, when she’s a bit farther away in the cemetery from his burial plot, she’s surprised to see a young man also laying flowers in tribute to the fallen soldier.  Upon seeing him there again she inquires who he is, learning he’s Adrien Rivoire (Pierre Niney), a close friend of Frantz from their pre-war-days in Paris (she offers a revelation as well, that this is really an empty grave because Frantz’s body is in some unmarked-wartime-location); Anna invites Adrien to visit the Hoffmeister home, so he tells them all of the young men’s friendship (including their mutual violinist skills) where they reveled in the culture (and the women,
with no show of jealousy from Anna because this earlier aspect of Frantz’s life predated her as well; this is also where we start seeing those days in flashback, along with being the first time in this usually-black-and-white-film that the images are rendered in full color), with an excited focus on the Louvre's paintings, especially the stark vision of Le Suicidé (1877-1881), done by Édouard Manet, until Hans can hear no more, both in disgust at this former-enemy-Frenchman being in his home and a father's guilt over having been the one to actively encourage his son's participation in the war.  If we now jump ahead almost a century we find ourselves in contemporary London following The Sense of an Ending (based on a novel of the same name by Julian Barnes [2011], for which he won the prestigious Man Booker prize), with another troubled older man, Anthony “Tony” Webster (Jim Broadbent), who often narrates this story of his life where he now runs a tiny camera shop (specializing in expensive Leica models) but doesn’t do much else except have testy conversations with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and single-but-pregnant daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), although he does (begrudgingly) agree to accompany her to the
various Lamaze classes and prenatal checkups, as Margaret’s schedule becomes too hectic to do so, as originally planned.  … Ending also gets us into flashbacks about an earlier time but now much earlier in the lives of the main characters as we frequently (flowing in and out of the present scenes) return to the 1960s to see Tony with his closest friends in school then at university, with these old memories stirred up by the current notification from a lawyer that Sarah Ford (played well here by Emily Mortimer, even in brief scenes; shown in this film, as we saw with the titular character of Frantz, only in a few brief flashbacks), mother of Tony’s long-ago-girlfriend, Veronica (Freya Mavor as the student), has left him some money and a diary that belonged to his one-time-best-friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), but present-day-Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) has the diary, refusing to turn it over, much to Tony’s chagrin, although we don’t yet know why, given the flashbacks show Tony much enamored of her; she introduces him to Leica cameras and—based on a car-backseat-scene—almost to the intimate parts of her anatomy but never consummates their mutual sexual desires (something that seems to be brewing in Frantz between Anna and Adrien as well, especially in a [color] scene of a hot day where he encourages her to jump in a lake with him to cool off but she just watches from the shore as he strips down only to his pants so neither of these scenes ends as provocatively as it starts).

 Adrien’s mild rebuff from Anna on the spontaneous swim doesn’t impede their growing friendship, though (with implications that it may deepen into something that could be more romantic, especially when he asks her to a local dance where the editing pace picks up in some nice swirling shots), with Hans even coming to accept this odd, intrusive stranger, especially after defending him from the insults of Hans’ close colleagues at the local pub where a Frenchman is barely tolerated, even to the point of the group bursting into a patriotic German song intended to annoy Adrien.  (Much like the similar attempt in a classic scene from Casablanca [Michael Curtiz, 1942]—with this burst of jingoistic-patriotism thrown back at Anna later but this time with no intention by a Parisian crowd to hassle her, they just feel elated, likely from their wartime-victory, not even knowing who she is; the same “La Marseillaise“ is also sung in Casablanca but in the same scene with the German celebrants, with the Moroccan-French-patriots drowning out the attempts of their oppressors [however, Anna is shunned at other times by other French folks in the same manner Adrien was insulted in Germany]).  In another brief bit of partisan-antagonism to Adrien, one night he returns to his hotel room to find a tiny coffin left there as a comment on his generic contribution to the demise of many of this region’s sons (pushed into combat by their fathers, as Hans angrily reminds them).

 When Tony was a young man he had no such encounters with ethnic opponents (nor military trauma [the Vietnam War didn’t factor into this young Englishman’s life, a most fortunate situation for him]); however, he was devastated on a personal basis when his precious Veronica began to drift away from him to this story’s Adrian, with this new affair supplanting what Tony’d hoped to take further with Veronica (even after an odd visit to her family home where he kept getting unwelcome implications from mother Sarah, although he had to admit he was attracted to her, as he comes clean about all of this to Margaret who seems simultaneously fascinated/annoyed that he’s kept it from her although he tries to rewrite history, saying he never really loved Veronica).  Tony attempted to wish the new lovebirds well but tore up that postcard, instead sending them a long, nasty letter in which his broken heart expressed itself in many a damning phrase.  Meanwhile, back in 1919 Germany the other Adrien reaches a crisis of his own when he can no longer bear his deceptions, admitting to Anna in a gloomy nighttime conversation (which changes to color in the flashback) that he never knew Frantz at all, Adrien simply encountered him in a battlefield trench, shot him out of some sense of imposed duty but mostly fear, then found a letter home on Frantz’s body which he mailed afterward (thereby learning where this man lived but knowing little of his backstory, thereby explaining why Frantz never spoke of Adrien to his family nor of Anna to his French “close friend”).

 From these revelations our stories move in their seemingly-different-yet-ultimately-similar-ways: Tony is finally able to contact Veronica through her brother so she agrees to a meeting with him but terminates it quickly with her angry response that she burned Adrian’s diary (Tony assumes it has to do with the sad fact Adrian killed himself back in those unforgiving days in college, something he found out long ago from mutual friends but with no attempt on his part to ever contact Veronica nor make amends with her for the insulting letter) so he manages to stalk her until he learns where she lives, as well as seeing her with a group of developmentally-delayed-young adults, one of whom is also named Adrian (Andrew Buckley), with Tony assuming he’s her son.  Later, it’s made clear to him by a caretaker with this group that instead this young man is her brother, which leads Tony (and us) to understand that mother Sarah was more successful in seducing Veronica’s Adrian, which was the ultimate reason for his suicide when he found Sarah was pregnant, not some philosophical decision about the difficulty of truly knowing the impetus for an action as each person decides what their fate should be, as he’d expressed long ago in a surprising classroom discussion.  All of this new information leads to a transformation in Tony, which allows him to become much more genuinely connected with Susie, rise above past bitterness with Margaret, even send a conciliatory letter to Victoria (although with no indication they’ll ever be in contact again).  All these concluding events come in a
fairly rapid fashion in … Ending (emphasized with repeats of earlier scenes where Tony first meets Veronica, then leaves that awkward home visit but now with Broadbent in the shots, replacing the previous Billy Howle [as young Tony]), while Frantz continues on for quite some screentime after its impactful truth is told, as Anna maintains Adrien’s lies to the Hoffmeisters, telling them he needed to leave quickly to visit his sick mother (although his truth so depressed her that she simply walks into a lake one day, saved only through the quick action of a man passing by).  As Adrian’s gone for months with no contact, Kreutz comes calling again so Frantz’s parents finally convince her to go to France to find the man she seems to truly care about (as does a priest in the confessional, advising Anna to forgive Adrien) before making a marriage decision that she keeps resisting.  Her problem is she can’t locate Adrian until through some research she comes upon his aunt in Paris who directs her to his family home some distance away where she makes a surprise entrance, to be welcomed by Adrien’s mother (Cyrielle Clair), only to be surprised herself when she's introduced to Adrien’s fiancée, Fanny (Alice de Lencquesaing).  Anna and Adrien struggle with their feelings, but he makes it clear Fanny will be his bride (possibly he just can't clear his mind about everything associated with Frantz), so Anna returns to Paris, continues to maintain her lies about her new life with Adrien in letters to Germany, implying she may not return home.  Her story ends in new-found-contentment (just like Tony’s) as we leave her in the Louvre, admiring Le Suicidé as she begins conversing with a young man (who looks a lot like Adrien to me), an equal-admirer of this mysteriously-tragic-painting.

So What? While the literary heritage of The Sense of an Ending is easily known, Frantz is also an adaptation of sorts, from the long-ago-Paramount-film of Broken Lullaby (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932 [itself based on a play, Maurice Rostand’s L’homme que j’ai tué {1930}, along with its 1931 English-language-version, The Man I Killed {adapted by Reginald Berkeley}]), which is a film I’ve never seen but based on a summary I've read it ends as the accepting German couple continue to unknowingly-embrace the Frenchman as a dear friend of their dead son, with the father giving him the young man's violin to play while the former fiancée accompanies him on the piano (a scene from Frantz as well, but one that comes before the revelation of how the opposing soldiers actually met in the trench, long before the additional material of Anna following her quest for Adrien into an unexpected future that will finally take her away from the sorrows that have consumed her after the war).  My well-read-wife, Nina, tells me the novel version of The Sense of an Ending is a bit different as well, with the whole thing narrated by Tony (rather than just the occasional use of such in the film), no pregnancy for Susie, more frequent encounters among Tony and his old school friends, as well as more meetings with the older Veronica than the few on screen, but otherwise the major thrust of the story—especially about better understanding, then re-evaluating what you assumed to be definitive events from your past—remains consistent between the written and audiovisual media.

 Even without having any familiarity with the source material of these 2 current films, though, I easily found both of them to be quite compelling, well worth an investment of time in their cinematic experiences, as Frantz gives us a sense of something that almost could have been made back in the 1940s with its exceptional use of tonal-cinematography, aided by color (although I can find no helpful publicity stills to illustrate this changed approach) as some of the events are intensified—the “memories” of the young men in Paris, the hot-day-swimming when Anna and Adrien “warm up” to each other, the battlefield killing, Adrien fainting while playing violin for the Hoffmeisters, Anna dreaming of Frantz playing his violin, the parents reading Anna’s letter from Paris about Adrien’s musical “triumphs” there, the final scene with her, the Manet, and her new acquaintance in the Louvre.*  In the press notes, Ozon says “As blood runs through the veins [in “certain scenes of lying or happiness”], color irrigates the black and white of the film.”  Frantz also relies on depth-of-field-compositions, a slow pace of long takes where human interactions casually evolve while presented with an anchored-moving-camera (instead of the jerky-hand-held-imagery of so many contemporary works) even as … Ending presents the same overall leisurely narrative exposition but accented with an excellent experience of temporal-montage as images from the story’s present are constantly juxtaposed with those from Tony and Veronica’s past, imitating the mental flow of memory which can seem so immediate even when recalling events that happened decades ago.  These are both subtly-powerful-films, requiring that you invest your interests in what motivates the characters' decisions more so than being swept up by their actions based on those motivations.

*This achromatic to full-chromatic tactic and then back again reminds me of Wim Wenders’ marvelous Wings of Desire (1987), set in what was then present-day-Berlin where dozens of angels watch over humans, but in a melancholy manner, with a few of these divine creatures finally willing to trade in their guaranteed-eternal-existence for the passion felt by humans—even their miseries, which evoke deeper emotions than the angels are able to experience—so most of the film's scenes are shot in black-and-white, presented to us from the angelic-perspective until these images suddenly switch to full color when we’re seeing a human focus on the events.  For that matter, the bitterness the French and German supporting characters feel for each other in Frantz reminds me of an alternative view of this topic in another classicJean Renoir’s Grande Illusion (1937)which occurs during WW I but critiques the absurdity, the devastation of war, along with a willingness by some of the main characters to overcome artificial barriers plunging us into such horrors rather than the residual anger seen in Frantz.  Ozon acknowledges his debt to Lubitsch’s original version of his post-WW I story, but I think he also picked up some influence from Renoir (the celebrated filmmaker, not the equally-famous-painter of Manet’s era, although that Renoir [Pierre-Auguste] is the father of this master of the cinema) in his depiction of the vast complexities that steer human lives and emotions, at least in his characters of Anna and Adrien.  Finally, regarding Manet's bloody image on canvas, Ozon says: “In color, the painting takes on its full force, reminding us of the tragedy between Frantz and Adrien and of the whole morbid post-war period, with its two million dead in France and three million dead in Germany, and its mutilated, psychologically traumatized survivors, tempted by suicide.”
Bottom Line 
Final Comments: 
Despite my enthusiasm for both  these engaging films they’re not doing that well in the culture at large, doubtfully will they be remembered months from now when awards season once again rolls around.  Of the 2, Frantz scored best with the critics overall, garnering a very commendable 89% cluster of positive reviews from those surveyed at Rotten Tomatoes with a noticeably lower average of 73% at Metacritic, but it’s not so unusual for that group to record a less-supportive-response than RT; however, if there’s still a need to argue about how much critical commentary means to a film’s financial impact (vs. such factors as word-of-mouth or advertising blitzes) Frantz wouldn’t offer useful evidence, having taken in only about 573,000 domestic (U.S.-Canada) dollars after 5 weeks in release (although, it’s still playing, yet in only 106 theaters across northern North America making it difficult to generate much momentum; as for a global gross, there’s no info available to me on its international income over the months since the September 2016 debut in Germany and France)The Sense of an Ending did better financially, taking in about $1.2 million domestically in its first 4 weeks in release, but it hasn’t 
even made the official Box Office Mojo’s top weekend 100 during the last 2 accountings so its lifespan must be about done also, down to only 88 theaters for the March 31-April 2, 2017 tally (despite its absence on the recent Mojo lists I saw it just last week in San Francisco so you might be lucky enough to come across it if such a search would interest you); however, … Ending wasn’t so fortunate with the critics, gaining only 74% at RT, 61% at MC (more details for both of these films in the links a bit farther below).  Such a result doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to find The Sense of an Ending—or Frantz while you're at it—later on video if you like, but neither will provide much relief if what you really need is something in the vein of The Fate of the Furious (F. Gary Gray), The Boss Baby (Tom McGrath), or—if you must go to this levelSmurfs: The Lost Village (Kelly Asbury), some of the current hit movies that, among them, have grossed (in all senses of that word) around $241 million or so in domestic receipts over just these last 3 weeks.*  

*While I’m willing to invest in the occasional offering of a movie like Beauty and the Beast [2017] (Bill Condon; review in our March 23, 2017 posting) or Kong: Skull Island (Jordan Vogt-Roberts; review in our March 16, 2017 posting), which have taken in about $616 million domestically (plus roughly another $979.3 million in the rest of the world over their roughly-6-week-presence—see, I do watch some blockbuster-mentality-stuff, just preferably not those that deal primarily with fast cars, talking babies, or little blue folks), I usually much prefer the contemplative-pleasures of fare such as what's in my review this week or the unanticipated plotlines of something like Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas; review in our April 13, 2017 posting) or serious dramas drawn from largely-unknown-historical-annals such as The Zookeeper’s Wife (Niki Caro; review in our April 6, 2017 posting).

 By the way, as I begin to bring this combo-review’s cluster of comments to a close, I’ll note one theme sort of implied in both of this week’s films, but that doesn’t actually exist in their narratives, which is a gay connection between Tony and Adrian in The Sense of an Ending or, likewise, between Frantz and Adrien in Frantz.  Given Tony’s inability to connect with Veronica years ago or his ex-wife later (along with the much stronger emotional bond he shared with his sharp, intellectually-astute male friend) as well as the great sense of despair shown so frequently in French Adrien’s gloomy face as he thinks about Frantz we have every reason to believe at some point in the presentation of these stories that these men are truly longing for an unexpressed connection with their intimate same-sex-companions, yet what’s actually verified through later plot elements is that Tony was simply the left-out-member of a classic love triangle (although the loss of his lover to his best friend obviously festered in him for years, pushed to the level of tragedy when he misunderstood Adrian’s motivation for bathtub/razor-blade-suicide, assuming it was somehow connected to that vicious letter he sent) whereas Adrien is just consumed by guilt, feeling cowardly on the battlefield so he took shelter in a trench, then killed a counter-combatant more out of fear for losing his own life than any sense of nationalistic-pride/soldierly-duty, only to find out Frantz’s rifle wasn’t even loaded, then the guilt intensifies with his extensive lies to the dead man’s family and fiancée as he tried to bring some sense of joy back to their empty lives but to the further deterioration of his own melancholia. Of course you could argue that there truly is a gay subtext in these stories, not acknowledged in the above surface-explanations, but that's an ongoing debate in many aspects of narrative elucidation.

 The bitter secrets carried by primary characters in these films have led me, in the quest for my usual let's-wrap-up-the-review with a Musical Metaphor (to finalize my thoughts on what's been explored but now from a different perspective), to choose Carly Simon’s “We Have No Secrets” (from her 1972 No Secrets album) at com/watch?v=10JtEdqT CBA (from her lively 1995 concert performed at the unlikely venue of NYC’s transportation hub, Grand Central Station) because even though this singer and her lover in the song hold nothing back from each other unlike the tormented folks in Frantz and The Sense of an Ending, it’s clear that collectively Tony, Veronica, Adrian, Adrien, and Anna would prefer to “not always answer [their] questions [… because these inquiries] don’t always answer [their] prayers [… so that each of them could say] Often I wish That I never, never, never knew Some of those secrets of yours.”  Well, it’s no secret that I’m done for now, but as the Beatles said long ago “I’ll be back again,” real soon.  (What?  You want one more song?  OK, but free performances of Fab Four tunes are getting harder to find so here’s a quite decent cover version of "I'll Be Back" [on the1964 U.K. A Hard Day’s Night album, the 1964 U.S. Beatles ’65 album] from some Argentinian guys you might want to sing along with until I wander your way again next time.)
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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*We’re sorry to say that a Google software glitch causes every Two Guys in the Dark posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to the Summary page, but there are too many of them to go back and fix them all.  From 8/26/16 on this link is accurate, with hopefully not too much confusion caused by this latest stupid snafu from the Alphabet overlords’ programming problems.

Here’s more information about Frantz: (12:36 interview with actors Pierre Niney and Paula Beer—HOWEVER, if you—like me—don’t speak French you can use the CC [closed caption]  and Settings controls at the bottom of the YouTube screen to get an English translation, BUT the auto-translation program yields a result that offers a reasonable presentation of coherent thoughts much of the time yet at others it comes across as random dada poetry; sorry, but this is the best additional video I could find about this film for those of us who are monolinguists [also the film clips incorporated into this video will translate to French subtitles when the scenes’ dialogue is in German but that’s as far as it goes so you’ll just have to use the trailer above as a means of giving context to what’s occurring during these interludes])

Here’s more information about The Sense of an Ending: (35:00 interview with director Ritesh Batra and actors Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walker [begins with the same trailer above]) and (6:40 exploration of the relationship of the novel [of the same name], Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning-book, to the adapted film)

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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my new email at  Thanks.

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken*

*Please note that YouTube keeps taking down various versions of this majestic Eagles performance at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so I have to keep putting in newer links (of the same damn material) to retrieve it; this “Hotel California” link was active when I did this posting but the song won’t be available in all of our previous ones done before 4/12/2017.  Sorry, but there are too many postings to go back and re-link every one.  The corporate overlords triumph again.

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 25,068; below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. Frantz has made it to the Bijou in Central Texas, no mean feat considering the subject matter, German language and perhaps a bit of Texas cultural clash. However, there are still many first generation Germans in Central Texas (some recent), that may appreciate the film's primary point of view; e.g. the "Fatherland" in mourning for it's lost sons and for regret in defeat. As depicted here, most of their young men are either dead or in French jails, leaving most of the young and fetching "maidens" literally dancing with each other or fending off advances of much older men. The film's dramatic buildup creates an essentially diversionary narrative that later unfolds in a rather complex yet comprehensible storyline. Overall Frantz is a real winner; one that far exceeded my expectations in almost every aspect. I must say Ken's review, while excellent and instructive as usual, might have been even better if it singularly focused on this multi-faceted, exceptional film.

  2. Hi rj, Marvelous comments (knowing the German heritage in Central Texas, I agree this is a relevant film for the area) with useful additions to my own commentary. You make a good point that Frantz is worthy of a singular review, but it did seem acceptable to me to blend it in with The Sense of an Ending, although I welcome further comments from you (or anyone else) on the subtle impact of Frantz. Ken