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Review: Ernst Lubitsch’s The Broken Lullaby on KL Studio Classics Blu-ray

Kino’s release of Lubitsch’s bleakest film provides indispensable evidence of the great comic director’s astounding versatility.

3.5

Broken Lullaby

Ernst Lubitsch is revered primarily for his sophisticated comedies and musicals, but films like The Broken Lullaby testify to his finesse with straight drama as well. While the film is by far the most relentlessly bleak in the director’s filmography, it proves the dexterity of “the Lubitsch touch,” that ineffable quality most often associated with his uncanny ability to subtly infer an idea or joke without directly expressing it. With The Broken Lullaby, that distinctive trait morphed into a visual and emotional expressionism that, while far less subtle than in the director’s greatest works, is every bit as graceful and poetic.

Set in the wake of WWI, The Broken Lullaby is a companion piece to the humanist, anti-war screeds that Hollywood produced in the early 1930s—from harrowing battlefield tales like Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front to emotionally raw dramas like William A. Wellman’s criminally underseen Heroes for Sale—that captured the overwhelming malaise and disillusionment that gripped Americans during that era. Like those films, The Broken Lullaby attacks the hypocrisies and soul-poisoning effects of nationalism and militarism.

Lubitsch explicitly announces the film’s central conflict in the opening scene, framing a military parade from beneath the missing leg of a war veteran standing in the foreground. The ironic tendency to celebrate the accomplishments of soldiers while refusing to confront the burdens they carry with them after leaving the battlefield is soon echoed in a remarkable montage of German soldiers sitting in a church. Cutting rapidly from fragmented close-ups of the soldiers’ uniforms, with particular focus on their weapons and medals, to the sullen, shell-shocked expressions of their faces, Lubitsch movingly presents the stark contrast between the highly officious, ornamental presentation of soldiers and their shattered humanity.

In just a few minutes, Lubitsch has set the stage for a more intimate drama: that of a French soldier, Paul (Phillips Holmes), who seeks to atone for killing a German soldier, Walter (Lucien Littlefield), by visiting the man’s family and giving them a letter that he found on the dead man’s body. Discovering that the French are still enemies in Germany after the war, Paul caves under the pressure of the anti-French sentiment voiced by Walter’s heartbroken father, Dr. Holderin (Lionel Barrymore), and instead of revealing that he killed Walter, he uses the letter to suggest that he had befriended the German soldier and has now come to pay his respects.

Acts of deception in Lubitsch’s films are typically performed by individuals wishing to gain access to someone’s bedroom or bank account, but trickery in The Broken Lullaby is the stuff of moral and spiritual life and death. Upon Paul’s finding consolation in Walter’s fiancée, Elsa (Nancy Carroll), and acceptance from Walter’s father, a surge of suspicion, prejudice, and resentment grips the small German town where the film is predominantly set and people begin to shun Walter’s family. In one of The Broken Lullaby’s rare lighthearted moments, Paul and Elsa, now in love, walk the streets and Lubitsch cuts to a series of shop fronts, accompanied by the jingling bells of the many doors opening and owners peeking their heads out, to convey the collective unease the townspeople feel about this newfound union.

This tension exists not only between the French and German, but also between the young and old. After being insulted by his friends at a bar, Dr. Holderin expresses his disappointment in a deeply moving diatribe. “My heart’s with the young, dead and living,” he says in response to his fellow citizen’s blind hatred and old men continuing to send their sons off to die. It’s a statement that might as well have come from Lubitsch himself, who celebrates Paul and Elsa’s love in a tender scene late in the film where Paul, who, like Walter, plays the violin, accompanies Elsa as she plays a song on the piano for Walter’s parents. By this point, Paul’s deception undeniably stands as a powerful act of rejuvenation. Indeed, even in the face of incomprehensible pain and loss, it’s in love and music that Lubitsch finds hope for the future.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s transfer comes from a brand new 2K transfer, but it still bears considerable marks of damage and some discernible flickering. Fortunately, these flaws are only intermittent, but they’re frequent enough to be slightly distracting. Otherwise, the image is sharp and detailed, while the contrast ratio is fairly strong and a healthy amount of grain lends the picture a pleasing softness. The audio is impressive, with clean, crisp dialogue and little of the tinniness or echoey qualities that often plague many pre-Code films.

Extras

The lone extra is an audio commentary by film historian Joseph McBride, author of the seminal How Did Lubistch Do It? It’s a fascinating track, particularly for the way that McBride takes issues with The Broken Lullaby’s didactic approach while still finding a lot to admire in this atypical Lubistch production. McBride does a fantastic job contextualizing the film both within Lubitsch’s career and the time it was made, and goes on to discuss this as a rare divergence from the director’s typical apolitical approach to filmmaking, comparing and contrasting it to To Be or Not to Be, which came out a decade later. He goes on to talk at length about the source novel, The Man I Killed, and François Ozon’s 2016 adaptation Frantz.

Overall

Kino Lorber’s release of what is arguably Ernst Lubitsch’s bleakest film provides indispensable evidence of the great comic director’s astounding versatility.

Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Nancy Carroll, Phillips Holmes, Louise Carter, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Douglas, Zasu Pitts, Frank Sheridan, George Bickel, Emma Dunn Director: Ernst Lubitsch Screenwriter: Samson Raphaelson, Ernst Vajda Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 77 min Rating: NR Year: 1932 Release Date: December 7, 2021 Buy: Video

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