The only Ernst Lubitsch sound film that is not a comedy, Broken Lullaby is widely considered his worst feature. The earnest antiwar drama received favorable reviews upon its release in 1932 but languished at the box office. Its reputation only sank from there: Otis Ferguson dismissed it as a “Teutonic tearjerker,” while Pauline Kael later tarred it as “sentimental hokum.” The movie has never been released on home video in the United States.
Broken Lullaby screened in March at Anthology Film Archives in a series entitled “Auteurs Gone Wild,” a program of outlier titles from the filmographies of pantheon filmmakers. (Two other examples: Fritz Lang’s noir musical You and Me and Josef Von Sternberg’s Japanese pantomime The Saga of Anatahan.) The plot of Broken Lullaby is a radical departure for Lubitsch, and he seized the opportunity to experiment with contrasting formal strategies, from rapid-fire montage to ritualized long takes.
It was the first of three movies that Lubitsch directed in 1932, preceding One Hour With You and Trouble in Paradise. The project came about partly because the filmmaker had seen and admired Samson Raphaelson’s 1925 play The Jazz Singer, which he had tried to develop into a film (eventually directed by Alan Crosland). And Raphaelson, having seen The Love Parade (29), said of Lubitsch: “I . . . admired him beyond any director whose work I’d seen.” He was finally assigned to work with Lubitsch on The Man I Killed (Broken Lullaby’s original title) by Paramount head Budd Schulberg, and the two would go on to write nine films together, from Broken Lullaby to That Lady in Ermine (48). In a 1978 interview Raphaelson recalled balking at the story, adapted from a 1930 French play: he thought the main character was a “self-important, self-pitying son-of-a-bitch,” and wanted to “change the situation, the character, all of it.” But Lubitsch assured him it would all work on screen: “It’ll be up there.”
In the film, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes) is a World War I veteran wracked with guilt over bayoneting a German, Walter Holderlin (Tom Douglas). In order to salve his guilt, he travels to Germany after the war with the intention of putting himself at the mercy of Walter’s family. Unable to bring himself to confess, he falls into posing as Walter’s friend, feeding the parents lies to buoy their spirits. The villagers despise having a Frenchman in their midst, and when he begins courting Walter’s former fiancée, Elsa (Nancy Caroll), his façade begins to crack under their pressure, and his self-hatred mounts.
Broken Lullaby fits alongside Lubitsch’s other tales of con-men who act a part until it comes true, but here the tale is tragic, and conveyed mostly in an unvarnished declamatory style. It is a bold experiment in heightened cinematic naturalism whose only Hollywood contemporary are the proto-neorealist sound films of D.W. Griffith, like The Struggle from one year earlier. A blast of Eisensteinian dialectical montage fuels the film’s opening, but once the setting shifts to Germany, the style switches to long, unbroken takes. Lubitsch moves from a cinema of speed and collision to one attuned to bodies and gesture.
The extraordinary stylistic experiment begins with the editing of the first three minutes, which mimics the speed of gunfire. Celebratory bells are ringing in a Paris belfry on the one-year anniversary of the Armistice, intercut with non-diegetic images of battlefield cannons blasting. Lubitsch and DP Victor Milner then frame the parade through the gap left by an observing soldier’s amputated leg. The marching and drumming is intercut with more shots of cannon fire and a tracking shot through a veteran’s hospital, ending on a patient sitting up and screaming. His panic then dissolves into a scene of a memorial mass: while a priest talks of peace, the camera isolates a row of scabbards poking out of the church aisles, and then the lines of boots kneeling for prayer, abstracting the officers into images of a vast human war machine.
When the mass ends, the soldiers leave—but the room is not empty. In a brilliantly executed crane shot, the camera swoops from the ceiling above the altar down to a seemingly empty row, where it settles on a pair of clasped hands perched on the top of a pew. A head rises, and Paul Renard appears, seemingly the only one in the war praying for forgiveness. When Paul gets up and seeks counsel from the priest, Lubitsch ditches the expressionistic montage and extreme camera angles for longer takes and eye-level compositions, making his frames fit for humans again after the chemical and mechanical apocalypse of World War I.
Lubitsch even becomes reluctant to cut into close-ups, often dwelling on lengthy master shots with deeply moving results. When Walter’s mother Mrs. Holderlin (Louise Carter) visits his grave, she stops to console another grieving parent (Emma Dunn), and they speak for over two minutes without a close-up or shot-countershot sequence. Lubitsch lets the scene run in full, which allows the actors to develop a story through gesture; they are framed from the waist up, turned three-quarters away from the camera. They deflect their emotions through a discussion of their children’s love of cinnamon rolls, trading recipes over a grave before once again facing their fate: “We must learn not to weep, and learn to love what we have left. There are so many years . . . ahead of us.” In that ellipsis, Carter turns her head away from Dunn, looking screen left while holding onto Dunn’s arm. Dunn stares at the ground. Neither can bear to look at the other, for fear of weakening those stiff upper lips. Their gestures betray their doubts.
No one is wracked with more doubt than Paul, and Phillips Holmes gives a quivering, highly theatrical performance that has drawn fire from the film’s detractors. Kael called him “unspeakably handsome but an even more unspeakable actor.” I found his beseeching, silent film-era openness to be profoundly moving, though this film, perhaps more than any other, toes the line between the ridiculous and the sublime. If you find Holmes’s trembling sincerity to be absurd, the film will collapse. The great German critic Rudolf Arnheim considered Broken Lullaby to be kitsch, because it lacks the distancing effects of Erich Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly, but Lubitsch is not trying to analyze or dissect his characters. Rather, he captures the particularity of their being in the world—an intense gaze at surroundings that D.W. Griffith mourned in 1948 when he told Ezra Goodman: “What the modern movie lacks is beauty—the beauty of moving wind in the trees.”
Lubitsch achieves extraordinary effects through adopting Paul’s point of view. When Paul sits down with Mr. Holderlin (an avuncular Lionel Barrymore), he stares intently at the back of a framed photo on the father’s desk, immediately aware the other side contains a portrait of Walter. As he continues to gaze with suicidal intensity, Lubitsch and Milner pull back to reveal the actual photo to the camera, as if we were glimpsing into Paul’s mind’s eye—his vision of what lies inside the obscured picture frame. When Paul sacrifices his desires for those of the Holderlins, never revealing the truth of Walter’s death in order to preserve their happiness, the camera detaches from his POV and begins to roam. The final shot envisions their separate togetherness, floating from Paul and Elsa in opposite corners while the Holderlins beam on the couch, accepting the joy of this replacement son without question, truly happy in the lie.