Broken Lullaby (1932) / Drama-War
aka The Man I Killed
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but probably PG for a tragic war scene
Running Time: 76 min.
Cast: Phillips Holmes, Nancy Carroll, Lionel Barrymore, Lucien Littlefield, Louise Carter
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda (based on the play by Maurice Rostand)
Review published May 10, 2017
German director Ernst Lubitsch (The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be) goes out of his comfort zone to direct this melodramatic anti-war drama, adapted from the stage play by Maurice Rostand. Set on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the end of the Great War (World War I), the film starts with a Frenchman named Paul Renard (Holmes, Dinner at Eight) visiting Falsberg, Germany, a career musician racked with guilt over the man he killed during the war, an enemy soldier named Walter Holderlin, who he slew as he was finishing an impassioned letter to his girl back home, Elsa (Carroll, Hot Saturday). Not even a confessional and absolution will conquer the anguish he feels, eventually making contact with Walter's parents back home, including Elsa, the subject of his love letters.
By today's standards, some of the films themes may seem obvious and heavy-handed in approach, especially in how peace is exalted from people who wear weapons meant to slay their fellow man. Part of it is due to the film being in that period just after the silent era, where body movements are more pronounced, and performances are a bit more on the theatrical side.
And yet, the film's best moments come from the understated touches in the story, including the statement by Walter's father (Barrymore, Key Largo) on the last day he would see his son prior to going to battle; he cheered him on his way to his death. The nationalist feelings make Germany a particularly dangerous place for a man who fought on the side of those who killed many of the local sons. Interesting is the fact that, though Paul goes to Walter's family to find forgiveness, he has a difficult time confessing in the face of people who find a healing force in him to overcome their grief for their fallen loved one. Even further, he fosters the notion that he had actually been a friend to the man he killed, unable to inflict further anguish on an already distraught family.
Also astute are the observations that those who are far away from the war persist in activities that prove to be cancerous to their own well-being, from continuing to foster violent sentiments toward those on the other side of the fence, and the scandalous gossip at who might be romantically seeing whom in their own town.
Broken Lullaby proved not to be a very successful film for Lubitsch, a director mostly known for his work in comedies, to which he would return without attempting another drama. It's a shame that the film's pacifist, anti-nationalist sentiments didn't catch on, especially in Germany, just on the cusp of Hitler's rise to power. Poignant in spots, but a bit hammy by today's standards in execution, the film would be remade successfully by Francois Ozon in 2016 as Frantz.
©2017 Vince Leo