The term “Lubitsch touch” rarely goes unmentioned in discussions of Ernst Lubitsch, the German-born director whose euphemistic style of suggestion and code gave rise to his solidification in film history, particularly in the comedy-of-manners tradition. While the term, in theory, could be applicable to anything, it still hasn’t really outgrown its namesake in the way “Hitchcockian” almost never refers to an actual Hitchcock film. This could be because its usage points to isolated images, readily identifiable moments, and deliberate mannerisms applied with precision, and necessarily a consistent vein present throughout. It would be redundant to say “that scene in Django Unchained really has the ‘Tarantino Touch.’” Ernst Lubitsch, on the other hand, makes deliberate use of his signature in specific ways, and while always both stately and sultry in overall tone, only “touches” a scene in select moments. Consequently, it would be hard to turn these isolated touches into a “style” one can imitate and slap over a movie like gloss. The term is more elusive than that, like “women’s intuition”. You know it when you see it.
The Lubitsch touch worked best for comedies that ran on a mode of humor very specific to their time, roughly 1930-1948. Lubitsch got his start in the silent era, but moved on to his sophisticated, high-society romantic comedies over halfway into his career. In fact, Broken Lullaby is the only drama film he made during the sound era. Based on a play by Reginald Berkely, The Man I Killed, which, itself, was based on a play by Maurice Rostant, Broken Lullaby later saw a French remake by acclaimed French auteur François Ozon entitled Frantz in 2016. It’s a testament to the story’s appeal that it has seen so many adaptations. Following a French soldier and former violinist who seeks out the fiancée of a German soldier he killed during the first World War, later falling in love with her and insinuating himself among the family without revealing his true nature, Broken Lullaby forms a tantalizing scenario, one that teases both suspense and romance, the morality of war and the resulting psychological disturbances that arise from questioning it. It’s difficult to say whether or not Lubitsch’s “touch” can be felt through the thickness of such heavy subject matter.
Broken Lullaby contains moments of suggestion, but one would be hard pressed to say they contain the Lubitsch touch, at least not in any orthodox way. They’re thematically heavy and darkly comic: a shot of a welcome home parade seen through the empty space between soldier’s stump and crutch, a bandstand pounding their drums and blowing on trumpets while a discharged veteran writhes in bed during a flashback, a montage of jubilant patriotic displays and peaceful religious services juxtaposed with images of wartime suffering and mayhem. More like a Lubitsch slap than a Lubitsch touch. The opening sequence may not align with the subtle and mannered quality of the rest of the director’s work, but it still makes for thrilling cinema on its own. Bombastic editing and fluid camera moves provide the opening of the film with a stirring kineticism, one that perfectly encapsulates the discombobulated and disoriented headspace of protagonist Paul Renard, played by a devastatingly handsome but haunted Phillips Holmes. Afterwards, the film’s pace slows dramatically, although the transition doesn’t feel inappropriately jarring—on the contrary, the change seems fitting as an authentic representation of depressive slumping and aimlessness experienced by traumatized soldiers.
The rest of the movie continues in a more or less traditional fashion, with the romance between Paul and Elsa (Nancy Carroll), his German victim’s fiancée. Carroll’s wholesome image adequately serves the character’s acquiescent attitude, a necessary quality for achieving believability. When Paul eventually reveals the truth to Elsa, she remains by his side, a more or less unbelievable notion that would topple a film by any other director, or with a less charming and persuasive cast. The quick shift from hostility to warmth in Lionel Barrymore’s Dr. Holderlin, the soldier’s father, would be comical if not for his deft deployment of mood changes in an overall performance that is both earnest and understated.
Perhaps the singularity of this film in Lubitsch’s oeuvre lends it more significance that it may deserve, but it’s undeniable that Broken Lullaby is a ridiculously watchable, moving film despite the sentimentality. Ending on a rather somber, bittersweet note, the film concludes with a sober understanding of the reality of war, the ugly truths we are forced to forget, the permanent alteration of the soul that results from seeing combat or losing family members to it. It has eerie echoes as well. Phillips Holmes, so adept at playing a surviving but traumatized World War I soldier, enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force at the start World War II and died in a mid-air collision over Toronto.
Impressively, Broken Lullaby manages to be a black sheep in Lubitsch’s career and not so much of a complete outlier, which makes it all the more fascinating to students of his work. | Nic Champion
Broken Lullaby is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber and contains a great commentary by Lubitsch expert Joseph McBride, who provides an even closer look at the film than presented here.