I’ve been watching a lot of Lubitsch’s famous pre-Code musical comedies recently, so thought it would be interesting also to see this little-known serious anti-war drama which he made at the same period, starring Lionel Barrymore. Broken Lullaby – also known as The Man I Killed, after the title of the original stage play by French writer Maurice Rostand – was a flop at the box office, persuading Lubitsch that he had better not try anything else in the same vein. However, watching this, I found myself feeling that it is a forgotten masterpiece, just as richly multi-layered as his early comedies. It is sad to think that, while many of them are being reissued in lavish box sets, this film has only ever been released on region 2 DVD in Spain and France.
The one part of the film which is remembered (and, I understand, occasionally shown at festivals apart from the rest of the drama, as something complete in itself) is its opening. This is an example of the breathtaking cinematography by Victor Milner, which uses many techniques from silent film. Fortunately this two-minute sequence is currently available at Youtube, so I can post a link to it – it’s much better to see it than to read my description! However, I will describe it too, since it really is the heart of the film. The film begins with a title card announcing the first anniversary of the Armistice, in 1919, and there are a series of short clips cutting between the church bells ringing, memories of the fighting, the victorious French troops marching through Paris, and screaming soldiers in hospital haunted by their memories. The most striking image here is the angle chosen to show the parade, where the camera is directed through the gap where the leg of a wounded soldier used to be, with his maimed silhouette standing between the viewer and the triumphant marchers.
The scene then moves to the interior of a church, where a priest is urging the worshippers – former soldiers – to be joyful that peace has come. As the soldiers kneel to pray, there are more unusual camera angles, and flashbacks to the front, with cannons booming over a close-up of a tortured Christ figure at the altar. The worshippers then file out, but one soldier remains kneeling in his pew, with only his clasped white hands visible at first.
The haunted soldier turns out to be Paul Renard, played by handsome 1930s star Phillips Holmes, who was himself to die in an air crash at the outset of the Second World War. Renard, seeming extremely disturbed, reveals to a shocked priest that he has killed a man, something he describes as murder. When he is hauled into the confessional, he reveals that he killed the man during the war, and the relieved priest doesn’t really want to know any more, insisting “You were just doing your duty”. (Very black comedy here.) But Paul isn’t satisfied with this smug absolution, as he is haunted by his memories, again shown in flashback. He discovered that the German soldier he had killed, Walter, was a musician, and had studied at the same college in Paris as he himself. He keeps wildly insisting that he doesn’t know why he killed him and needs the forgiveness of his family. The priest clearly thinks he is mad and is just trying to soothe him, but eventually agrees, in that same soothing voice, that maybe he should go to Germany and apologise to the dead man’s family. You get the feeling the priest is just trying to quiet him down and doesn’t think he will do it.
However, Paul does indeed head for Germany. There, he meets Walter’s devastated parents, Dr Holderin (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife (Louise Carter), and the young man’s fiancee, Elsa (Nancy Carroll), who is living with them. At first meeting, Dr Holderin is horrified to have a Frenchman in his house and angrily orders him out – but then he learns that Paul has been leaving flowers on Walter’s grave, and jumps to the conclusion that the two young men were friends from before the war. Paul finds it impossible to confess that he is the man who killed their son, and instead starts to build a friendship with the family, which becomes even more complicated when, inevitably, he starts to fall in love with Elsa.
However, this melodramatic outline of the main plot really doesn’t do justice to the complex feeling and texture of the film. The astonishing cinematography paints a loving, nostalgic picture of a vanished small-town Germany – I’ve seen this described as the most German film that Lubitsch made in America – with all kinds of little details, often humorous, like the gossiping neighbours calling out of windows to one another. Then there is the dress shop owner constantly changing the price labels on his finery, and not sure whether to boast or keep silent about the fact that some of his dresses are the latest French designs. One scene, where two bereaved mothers of soldiers meet in a graveyard and end up swapping pudding recipes, is just heartbreaking. In these town sequences, it is worth watching out for Zasu Pitts, star of the great silent film Greed, as the Holderins’ maid, Anna.
Lionel Barrymore gives a powerful performance as Dr Holderin, especially in a scene where he has to fight against the hatred of all his old friends meeting in a pub, who disapprove of him because he has taken in a French visitor. He is rather stagey, as he always is, but very dignified. The most haunting moment is a quiet one, at the end of the scene when, after walking out of the pub, he stands against the wall for a second and remembers: “I watched my son march past here. He was going to his death… and I cheered.”
I give away the ending in this next bit.
Interestingly, this film made during Lubitsch’s sequence of musicals itself ends with a musical performance. A remorseful Paul finally confesses to Elsa, who has declared her love for him, that he is the man who killed Walter. However, she tells him he must never let Walter’s parents know, as they will be losing a second man they have come to love as a son. Instead, he must stay there and love them – and the final scene is Paul playing his violin, accompanied by Elsa on the piano at the other end of the room, while the old couple look on. Instead of the melodramatic resolution which might be expected in a film like this, Paul has to dedicate his life to taking the place of the man he killed.
Just to add that there is a great chapter on this film in James Harvey’s long section on Lubitsch in his book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, which I’m reading very slowly at the moment, while trying to watch a lot of the films he discusses!