Early in Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Paul (Phillips Holmes) voices his concern that a second war is coming. Today, we know he was right but when Broken Lullaby was released, WWII was still seven years away, making this exchange even eerier than when it seemed like a line aimed at viewers in the know.
One thing’s for certain, there’s no mistaking Broken Lullaby for a pro-war movie. The film’s anti-war stance is immediately in your face during the opening montage, which takes place on Armistice Day, 1919. In one shot Lubitsch films through a veteran’s leg (he lost the other one) to watch the parade that’s passing by to commemorate the day. At the same time, a veteran suffering from PTSD is shown screaming in his hospital bed. Lubitsch doesn’t hold back and considering how shell shock (or PTSD) wasn’t as recognized then as it is now (not that recognition means understanding), it really feels like a radical statement that isn’t designed to coddle the viewer but make them confront what was going on and not be allowed to look away.
While Lubitsch was a German director, he moved to Hollywood in 1922. He also was a Russian citizen, as film historian, Joseph McBride (How Did Lubitsch Do It?) explains in his commentary track, and didn’t have to serve in the military, which may have resulted in survivor’s guilt. Paul’s PTSD, however, stems from killing a German soldier named Walter (Lucien Littlefield). Paul was on duty at the time, but he still feels like a killer.
Unable to find solace in confessing to a priest (Frank Sheridan), Paul decides to go to Germany (he’s French) and find his victim’s family. Broken Lullaby is an outlier among Lubitsch’s films because it’s a drama, not a romantic comedy, which – if you don’t realize that going in – takes some getting used to, especially if you were counting on one of Lubitsch’s feel-good movies. Also not helping matters is Holmes. In the commentary, McBride describes his acting style as “overwrought,” and that’s accurate (though McBride also makes sure to note that “overwrought” acting was more in vogue at the time).
The turning point comes around twenty-one minutes into the movie, when Walter’s mother (Louise Carter) runs into another grieving mom (Emma Dunn) at the cemetery. It turns out she knew the woman’s son, and they end up comparing cinnamon cake recipes. Both women play the scene so well, as you get to see them briefly forget themselves, and the one mother’s surprise and joy at being able to discover something she didn’t know about her son. It all foreshadows how Walter’s parents (Lionel Barrymore plays the dad) will react to meeting Paul, not realizing that he’s their son’s killer, which is essentially the moral dilemma of this piece – should Paul tell them the truth or not? According to McBride, Samson Raphaelson (who was co-screenwriter on Broken Lullaby) disagreed with Lubitsch on Paul and found his behavior creepy (that is Paul’s), but it’s definitely a complicated situation.
From the cemetery moment forward, though, Broken Lullaby is full of profound and moving Lubitsch touches, like Paul reacting to the back of a picture frame on Walter’s father’s desk without even seeing the photo, just knowing it’s Walter. Lubitsch also does a great job presenting the kind of small town where how many lamb chops you order is carefully noted. Naturally, the townsfolk aren’t too keen on Paul but that’s another thing that stands out about Broken Lullaby (and which Lubitsch’s perspective, as a German director, might’ve brought to the film). Both sides – German and French – are portrayed sympathetically.
Broken Lullaby is available on Blu-Ray now from Kino Lorber.