Last night’s viewing was the new Indicator release of Lubitsch’s BROKEN LULLABY, which I found intensely moving.
The opening sequence is extraordinary: a victory parade in Paris on the first anniversary of the Armistice, swords glistening in a row in Church, shiny boots marching, the Parade again, now seen between the legs of an amputee, a detour through a hospital to show veterans howling in pain, the church services finishes and as all the forces officials leave, there’s a young man remaining, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes) praying in anguish, the camera dollies to a figure of Christ, more of the young boy suffering, then the priest comes out of the confessional, the camera quickly dollies to the priest, and the young man runs to him to confess he’s killed a man. This all culminates in a close-up of the French veteran dissolving into the face of the man he killed, a boy just like him.
Totally melodramatic and totally thrilling mise-en-scène (see above). After this the young man sets off to a small village in Germany to apologise to the other boy’s family, the Holderlins, expiate his guilt and find a reason for living, which he does in the most difficult way possible: by falling in love with Elsa (Nancy Carroll) the fiancée of the man he’s killed. The film deals with prejudice, guilt, remorse, the way small communities support but also discipline and punish, the futility of war. The vehicle is melodrama and Lubitsch wrings every ounce of feeling from the mode without sacrificing complexity, whilst also getting a few laughs along the way.
The only creaks are the dated style of performing: Phillips Holmes looks beautiful and intense but overdoes the gestures; Nancy Carroll who can be so lively and magnetic is here overly subdued whilst also over-gilding the lily in her big moments; as to Lionel Barrymore as the father, I’m fascinated by him; he’s so imitable, I dislike all his loveable curmudgeon schtick, and yet here he is playing all his old tricks and being extremely effective with them. The great Zasu Pitt brings spark as the Honderlin maid, and the famous Lubitsch touch is still in evidence (see below).
François Ozon remade this as FRANZ and changed the ‘who knows what when’ form to put more emphasis on the fiancée in the second half of the film. I remember liking it then but now can’t remember much else. The script is by the great Samson Raphaelson and is based on Marcel Ronstadt’s novella and subsequent play, THE MAN I KILLED, part of a cycle of international interwar anti-war works that include JOURNEY’S END and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT.