If you don’t see Ernst Lubitsch’s “Broken Lullaby,” playing tonight at the Stanford Theatre at 6 p.m. and 9:15 p.m., you’ll miss out on one of the most emotionally powerful movie outings you’ll ever have.
Its gripping and horrifying scenario — a Frenchman kills a German in a World War I trench, finds a letter on the German’s body, and decides to meet the dead man’s family to absolve his sins — lends it a jaw-dropping heft and weight unusual for its usually airy, fancy-free director, Ernst Lubitsch (to whom the Stanford is dedicating a season-long festival). “Broken Lullaby” is a crucial watch for our times, both as a humanist-political testament and as an unusual summation of the Lubitschian philosophy.
This melodrama, co-adapted by longtime Lubitsch collaborator Samuel Raphaelson from a 1931 play called “The Man I Killed,” tracks the guilt and redemption of a French soldier named Paul, played by Phillips Holmes. (By a strange twist of fate, Holmes later enlisted in World War II and was killed in a 1942 mid-air accident.) He is haunted by memories of him killing a German soldier named Walter. He confesses to a priest, but this does him no good. Paul convinces himself that, to truly exorcise the demons that plague his memory of the killing, he must visit Walter’s family, deliver Walter’s final letter and confess that he was the man who killed Walter.
Instead, overcome with emotion at the grief of Walter’s suffering family, Paul refuses to tell the truth. In fact, he falls in love with Walter’s fiancée Elsa (Nancy Carroll). The town, plagued with anti-French sentiment, gossips relentlessly about the trans-national relationship. Eventually, though, Elsa learns the truth; and when she does, and as the final reel of film barrels relentlessly and unforgivingly forward, you are beside yourself in agony and emotion.
“Broken Lullaby” is rightly recognized as one of the most bizarre entries of any film director’s oeuvre. Lubitsch sandwiched the shooting of the film between two of the most sparkling musical-comedy productions up to that point, “The Smiling Lieutenant” and “One Hour With You.” It is nothing like the tone or style of any of his films before and since, perhaps with the sole exception of his comparably melancholic “Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” (1927).
And yet, thematically, “Broken Lullaby” is totally a Lubitsch film. It has sharply divided critics. Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader calls it “sublime” and “one of the most piercing and cinematically supple of all of Lubitsch’s films.” Jonathan Rosenbaum includes it among his canon of 1,000 masterpieces of cinema. Yet Pauline Kael hates the actors (finding the lead actress “miserably miscast”) and calls it “sentimental hokum.” And Lubitsch’s biographer Scott Eyman calls it “schematic,” “unorganic,” “barnstorming,” and “one of his worst films.”
For better and for worse, “overwrought” is the word that immediately comes to mind. But what’s wrong with calling “Broken Lullaby” “overwrought”? Well, for one, it threatens to ignore the subtle poetry of Lubitsch’s shots. Near the beginning, we see a parade of militarized German men returning from their failed conquest of Europe. They are crossing between a soldier’s legs — I see the right leg — but where’s the left one…? Oh. Wait. Oh my God. The space where there should be a left leg is not there. He is legless. In its stead is the parade.
That image startled me, stopped my heart, made me go, “Oh, God” and hold my head in my arms. And that was only shot 4 or 5 of the entire film.
Another problem with the loaded term “overwrought” is its ignorance of other things Lubitsch is doing beyond the script, namely the eerie flow of time in his maddeningly lengthy long-takes (easily the slowest of his career), making us aware of the tragic endlessness of time for victims without hope.
One unforgettable example: the German family and maid (Zasu Pitts, in a comic bit-role that proves Lubitsch hadn’t suddenly lost his sense of humor) crowd around a table for dinner, and, in a shot that lasts for a minute and a half, go from innocent laughter and faked gaiety to overwhelming pain and loss at the fact that one key member of the family — the son — is no longer with them. The players don’t need to shed tears to make us cry; all they need to do is search each other’s souls with their gentle, pleading “why us?”-faces — believably earnest, traumatized, faithless.
Buried in the term “overwrought” is the view that a film like “Broken Lullaby” feels like a sledgehammer when it should be a delicate, unassuming ice-pick — a view which I find ridiculous.
The brutal fact is that “Broken Lullaby” would not be worth watching if Lubitsch had dialed down any of the gnarled-branch acting or impassioned tablecloth speeches of the finished product. Melodrama of this supercharged kind has the ability to surprise us with its raw honesty, to make us more aware of the social and political stakes of real-world scenarios by presenting situations so packed with human-centered significance. That’s the key term here — human-centered.
Pro-situation/pro-idea (and hence anti-human) art like “The Lobster,” “The Witch” and “Manchester by the Sea” (to give three recent examples) favor round, declamatory types in favor of an authentic-feeling atmosphere, hypocritically making us aware of its own artifice while still being chained to the idea of narrative coherence and identification with drab, flat Abstract People (it is rare that a Kyle Chandler pops up in any of these Idea-Oriented films).
By contrast, the primary concern of “Broken Lullaby” is whether or not Phillips Holmes’s war-wracked eyes will ever break their bulging hauntedness. In other words, it is first concerned with the human and performance-driven elements that forge a sense of (in)coherence in the story world. The politics of the unashamedly pacifist script works hand-in-hand with, and never dominates, Lubitsch’s careful attention to all the other important, subtle elements of film: long-take editing, expressive incoherence among actors (they act different ways in different scenes, but still retain a grounded character), and an overall sense of rawness to the German loser’s town setting.
“Broken Lullaby” is basically a Lubitsch sex farce made serious. Lubitsch’s comedies and musicals always proved that the key to living a more perfect, idealistic life is through the demolition of hierarchies, a soul-searching empathy and understanding people beyond one’s own sphere of experience. What brings people together is the act of making love, playing music or creating art (and Lubitsch often shows all three as the same thing). The beauty of a film like “Smiling Lieutenant” (which plays as the main 7:30 show tonight) lies in a piano duet between Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert, where one gal shows the other how to thrive in a prudish, male-dominated world.
Lubitsch’s films privilege self-contained moments of constructive hedonism, sexual thrill and musical spectacle. These, to Lubitsch, constitute the real victories of life, which is otherwise filled with so much ungraceful, tedious, rigid, endless dread.
It is so fitting, then, that the final shots of “Broken Lullaby” show the couple — the French woman and the German man — making music as the ultimate redemption. As a stately clock keeps track of the seconds, Paul (a musician) picks up the violin of Walter (he, too, an aspiring musician). Elsa on the piano joins Paul on the violin. It is a sexual metaphor Lubitsch constantly used in his comedies, but here it is presented in a serious, dramatic context. It has the weird effect of positing love (and all its variants) as the only salve for a bitter, tragedy-festered life.
The French woman and the German man are in love, yes, but they (the young) must suppress this love with the knowledge that one man has killed another. But they must never let it show. Elsa refuses to tell her parents the truth about Paul because it would destroy them; so they, the young, must suffer, as Paul’s Christ did, for the old, the less fortunate.
Such a simultaneously bleak and hope-filled ending is where the power, shock and emotional brutality of a masterpiece like “Broken Lullaby” lies. It is a deeply moving humanist masterwork, an essential watch, unjustly forgotten today except by the good folks at the Stanford.
If you can’t see “Broken Lullaby” in 35mm at the Stanford, it is also available on home video, selling on Amazon for $19.99.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.