Broken Lullaby

by Glenn Erickson Mar 29, 2022

The lasting horror of war is the blight it leaves on the lives of those left behind. Early sound pictures tried to deal with the guilt and pain of WW1, and the great Ernst Lubitsch took time out from romantic comedies and musicals for this very grim rumination on lies and responsibility. A French soldier decides to contact the family of a German he killed in the trenches; with no clear purpose or plan, he’s apt to make things worse for everybody. Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll are wonderful, but you’ll choke up in the scenes with the German mother, played by Louise Carter. The film is best known for its opening montage, in which Lubitsch openly attacks the hypocrisy of militarist patriotism. It’s an exceedingly effective, non-hysterical piece of anti-war filmmaking.

Broken Lullaby
KL Studio Classics
1932 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 76 min. / The Man I Killed / Street Date December 7, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Nancy Carroll, Phillips Holmes, Louise Carter, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Douglas, Zasu Pitts, Frank Sheridan, George Bickel, Emma Dunn, Reinhold Pasch, Marjorie Main, Tully Marshall, Torben Meyer.
Cinematography: Victor Milner
Assistant cameramen: Lloyd Ahern Sr., Lucien Ballard, William Mellor
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Music: W. Frank Harling
Screenplay by Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda based upon the play The Man I Killed by Maurice Rostand and its English-language theatrical adaptation by Reginald Berkeley
Produced and Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch

World War 1 was the first war covered in depth by the new film industry, with dramas, comedies and propaganda pictures produced in several countries. We’re told that the big studios waited a few years before considering the war a subject for mainstream drama, and in any event 1925’s The Big Parade was promoted as ‘telling the truth’ in capital letters. The same went for the later Wings and Hell’s Angels, which were first escapist spectacles but also emphasized the tragedy and injustice of the millions of young men lost to combat and disease. All Quiet on the Western Front surely divided audiences with its message — if Lew Ayres had played an American shouting that the war was blind murder and patriotism a fraud, the show would likely not have been popular, let alone an Academy Award winner.

Pacifist themes have contributed to great filmmaking, but as with most all political films few can be proven to have influenced public opinion. Both Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun and Richard Attenborough’s Oh! What a Lovely War lead with anti-militarist messages, sardonic humor and an ironic, downbeat air. Telling the Truth is important, but the waves of social change never seem to follow. Other cinematically great films can only be called well-intentioned. Abel Gance made J’Accuse twice, eventually confusing an anti-war messages with religious hysteria and self-promotion.

When did the notion of ‘closure’ come about, the idea that finding a way to shut the door on terrible things is needed to go forward?  Do people think that crimes and injustice can really be resolved?  We’ve seen excellent examples of ‘lost generation’ movies, my favorite being The Last Flight, William Dieterle’s film about aviators too disenchanted to come home, who linger around Paris to drink and ‘recover,’ F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway- style.

And finally, there are poignant movies about remembrance and regret, and learning hard lessons. Every war casualty breaks hearts and tears up families. Stories about mothers, widows and fianceés coping were guaranteed tearjerkers. I remember being moved by John Ford’s 1933 Pilgrimage. An American mother must reevaluate her convictions ten years after the death of her son in France. She got him to enlist to separate him from a woman she didn’t want him to marry; and she also refused to acknowledge his illegitimate son. Her crime of the heart comes back to haunt her on a later ‘Gold Star Mother’ trip to France. The fact that the film’s message is messy isn’t a bad thing — but Ford only rarely had bad things to say about Motherhood of any kind.


1932’s Broken Lullaby is something else again. Producer-director Ernst Lubitsch was the top talent at Paramount and able to make most any movie he wanted. He was in the middle of an impressive run of innovative musicals (One Hour With You, The Smiling Lieutenant) and sophisticated comedies (Trouble in Paradise) and was soon to become head of production. Yet he chose The Man I Killed, a play by Maurice Rostand about a French ex-soldier’s crisis of conscience. Lubitsch never again attempted anything so downbeat — even though he stepped even further into unknown entertainment territory with the brilliant black comedy To Be or Not to Be, an amazing high-wire act between bad taste and courageous humanist outrage.

The resulting film is maudlin, if not entirely morbid. Its main setting, a small German town, reminds us a bit of Universal horror movies, some of which seemed to relate unnatural horrors — disfigurement, grotesque curses — to the grim emotional aftermath of WW1 (as professed by author David J. Skal). Lubitsch’s methodical, consistent direction never veers off message.


Guilt-driven ex- soldier Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes) can’t forget the horrified eyes of Walter Holderlin (Tom Douglas), the young German he killed in trench combat only a year before. Paul finished signing Walter’s letter home and saw that it got mailed. Unable to shake his obession with ‘the man he killed’ Paul pours his heart out to a priest during confession, and then recklessly travels to Holderlin’s hometown in Germany to explain himself to the German boy’s family … for what purpose he does not know.

The German hamlet is hostile to the visiting Frenchman, as many have lost sons. Some harbor a desire for revenge, an attitude one father is proud to instill in his small son. Paul drops in on Walter’s father, Dr. Holderlin (Lionel Barrymore), who when he learns that Paul is French, starts to throw him out. But Walter’s former fiancée Elsa (Nancy Carroll of Hot Saturday) recognizes Paul as the stranger leaving flowers at Walter’s grave. That Paul has no plan becomes obvious when he allows his hosts to assume he was a friend of Walter in Paris. Elsa and the Holderlins are overjoyed and welcome Paul into the household. Dr. Holderlin’s anti-France grudge soon softens. Confronted by his angry friends at a pub — who have been galvanized against Paul Renard by Herr Schultz (Lucien Littlefield), an unsuccessful suitor of Elsa, the doctor launches into an anti-Nationalist tirade, expressing agony for all the lost sons of the war, on both sides. A wounded veteran shakes his hand.

Paul and Elsa have obviously fallen in love, but Paul eventually has to face up to his lie. The Holderlins think he no longer has ties to Paris and will stay, and Paul looks for a way to tell Elsa that he’s instead going to be leaving for good.

The serious and impassioned Broken Lullaby is played in a ‘heavy’ style that leaves big gaps between lines of dialogues; people will momentarily hover in expressionist poses. Ernst Lubitsch has just as much control over our emotions here as he does in his comedies. We know we’re hooked when Frau Holderlin (Louise Carter of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang) smiles and accepts Paul as a substitute son, a vestige of her boy who can make the family whole again (as if Elsa were her daughter, not the hired help). We don’t question that Elsa and Paul belong together, even though the entire setup is strained by Paul’s dishonesty. If Paul can’t be talked out of his personal guilt for killing a man — one man out of thousands killed indiscriminately all around him — then he probably needs to go become a monk, join the French foreign legion or drink himself to death. Phillips Holmes performs the role of Paul as well as anyone could. He eventually becomes tiresome, as do most characters driven to take the guilt of the whole world on his shoulders, as do the fairly insufferable characters Abel Gance plays in his hysteria-filled anti-war dramas).

(Spoiler) Dishonesty seems the best policy in this play, as the solution to the Holderlin / Renard relationship is to maintain a comforting lie. It may make poetic sense, but the foundation of lies certainly doesn’t bode well for the Paul-Elsa relationship. We’d hate to see Elsa’s attitude change if Paul — who still seems functionally impaired — disappoints her enough to make her regret her ‘benign’ choice.

The final shot of Herr & Frau Holderlin sitting enraptured as beautiful music plays is meant to be an image of well-deserved bliss, relief from despair. Few people get to go through life in an aura of truth and virtue, but stories with moral foundations get shaky when we find that the basis of belief is a lie, even a well-intentioned lie. I’ve never sided with those that approve of John Ford’s wretchedly dishonest notion that telling lies about Colonel Owen Thursday or Rance Stoddard was the best thing for all concerned. The two old folks aren’t feeble nitwits incapable of facing the truth. Would no viewers in 1932 see Paul and Elsa’s deception as a different kind of cruelty?(end Spoiler)

Broken Lullaby is slow and ponderous yet very well-told. It’s abundantly true that the moral compromises of many classic films can now make us scratch our heads in disapproval or disbelief. Samson Raphaelson & Ernst Lubitsch were an amazing team, and there’s no denying that this show comes to a powerful and very different finish.


Much of Lubitsch’s movie is just straight & solid storytelling. Dr. Holderlin’s brief outbursts are indeed well written and powerful — when he tells off his hateful cronies in the pub, he earns our full attention. Equally genuine are the feelings of goodwill and love that the Holderlins extend to Paul. The weak link is Phillips Holmes’ morose, draggy interpretation of Paul, who indeed is a character difficult to make seem anything but a drip. Was Holmes typecast as clueless, emotionally-driven losers?  He famously played the ill-fated young man in Josef von Sternberg’s not-so-good film version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. Curiously, just one year later Holmes would star in MGM’s pro-war spectacle Men Must Fight. It’s yet another story that begins in WW1, with an unmarried mother left without a man after a battlefield death. When her son grows to manhood, he must defy her pacifist teachings to defend American from invasion. The film is from 1933 but depicts New York being bombed to bits in 1940.

Nancy Carroll’s Elsa is beautifully played in all respects. With Holmes’s Paul mostly moping about in confusion, Carroll has to do most of the work to make the romance seem vital, viable. Zasu Pitts plays the Holderlins’ maid straight and quiet, and has only two bits of dialogue, yet she adds to the film’s sense of dignity.

Why We Really Like Broken Lullaby.

Lubitsch begins his film with a bravura opening sequence that ought to be as famous as Slavko Vorkapich’s legendary‘Harpies’ Opening Montage for the 1934 Crime Without Passion, an expressionist nightmare vision. Broken Lullabye doesn’t even have a credited editor, but in just a minute or so of beautifully-constructed montage, Samuelson and Lubitsch demolish the ‘glorious & patriotic’ notion of a victory parade. The parade marches by — and we get a good view through the gap left by a veteran’s missing leg. The parade passes a military hospital, where shell-shocked patients scream in terror at the noise. A sermon in a cathedral extols the might and right of the military, to a congregation where every pew sports a uniformed, medalled old officer with his polished spurs and saber. The montage condemns the hypocrisy without showing a single image of combat, just its result – mangled young men and well-fed old officers.

It’s great that Kino could connect with the Paramount library (through Universal) for yet another obscure but worthy near-classic; it’s obvious now that Ernst Lubitsch was interested in more than frothy comedies. We’re presuming that Crime Without Passion is out of reach over ownership issues. It was only released by Paramount, not produced by the studio. The UCLA Film Archive had perfect nitrate prints of both films, and Passion played extremely well on the big screen.


The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Broken Lullaby has been remastered in 2K and looks quite good, just a little grainy at times, as if made from a surviving duplicate element. I’m told that it must be a big improvement over 2015 ‘Universal Vault’ DVD, which was reportedly in terrible shape. Victor Milner’s cinematography is atmospheric on the misty graveyard on a hill; a montage of local women spreading the news makes excellent use of Paramount’s standing ‘European hamlet’ set. The audio is quite good, from the busy opening orchestral music to the finale, where Paul and Elsa play a Schumann piece called Träumerei on violin and piano.

Joseph McBride’s forthright commentary draws heavily from his book on Ernst Lubitsch, which describes Broken Lullaby as a radical departure from the rest of the director’s Hollywood work. McBride documents that screenwriter Samson Raphaelson objected to the story’s basic premise — what an awful idea, to barge in on a grieving family, how are we supposed to like Paul after he does that? — but gave in to Lubitsch’s assurances that it would all work out in the end. McBride tells us that MoMA once distributed prints of the film’s opening as an example of superior montage work. Audiences didn’t flock to the show, and at least one reviewer slammed it as a ‘Teutonic Tearjerker,’ but it garnered high praise from critics impressed by its visual poetry and dead-seriousness of purpose.

In 2016 François Ozon directed a loose adaptation of Broken Lullaby entitled Frantz.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Broken Lullaby
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Joseph McBride.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
March 27, 2022

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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