In his 1993 biography Ernst Lubitsch: Trouble in Paradise, Scott Eyman argues that the term “The Lubitsch Touch” is “as insultingly superficial a sobriquet as that of calling Hitchcock ‘The Master of Suspense’” (1). According to Leland A. Poague, the term – concocted by studio PR men at the height of Lubitsch’s powers – refers to the director’s “wit […,] his gracefully charming and fluid style, [… and] his ingenious ability to suggest more than he showed and to show more than others dared suggest” (2).
Already a highly successful director in his native Germany, Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood in 1922 and built a reputation for sophisticated, effortlessly stylish comedies at Warner Bros. and then at Paramount. By 1929, as the industry grappled with the coming of sound, he made a crucial discovery:
A talking picture did not have to be all talking, nor did the sound track have to reproduce faithfully each sound on the set. In [Lubitsch’s] first talkies, The Love Parade (1929) and Monte Carlo (1930), he included many passages that were shot without dialogue or any other synchronized sound. For these, he was able to bring the camera out of its soundproofed box and proceed in the old silent techniques, moving his camera freely, changing its position frequently. (3)
Through post-synchronisation, Lubitsch was able to use sound in a highly inventive way without having to restrict his characteristically mobile camera. As Eyman notes, “[the director] conquered sound the same way he had conquered silence, with clarity and a symmetrical grace… and by making it look very easy” (4). After 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant, Lubitsch produced and directed three full features within a year: One Hour With You, Trouble in Paradise and Broken Lullaby (a.k.a. The Man I Killed, its original title). His only dramatic film of the period, Broken Lullaby was based on L’homme que j’ai tué, a 1925 play by Maurice Rostand, and was adapted for the screen by Samson Raphaelson and Ernst Vajda. Shooting began in September 1931 and was completed in six weeks. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the film tells the story of a young French soldier Paul Renaud (Phillips Holmes) tormented by guilt over his killing of a German soldier Walter Holderlin (Tom Douglas). Using the address on a letter he finds on Walter’s body, he travels to Germany to find the dead soldier’s family.
The film was well-received upon it initial release but did badly at the box office. It has since fallen out of critical favour and is generally regarded as an anomaly in Lubitsch’s filmography. However, theorists such as Jean Mitry and Gilles Deleuze have rightly noted that whilst it might not display the lightness of “The Lubitsch Touch”, Broken Lullaby is still unmistakably Lubitschian.
The film begins in Paris, at a parade celebrating the first anniversary of Armistice Day. Three brief shots of cannons, tolling bells and jubilant crowds are followed by one of the most staggeringly acid of anti-war images. Lubitsch’s camera (lensed by Victor Milner) – almost at ground level – settles behind a one-legged soldier on crutches. In the gap we are shown underneath the soldier’s left thigh, the regiment and marching band pass right to left in the background. As Mitry observes, “what the camera sees does not correspond with anything the onlookers are seeing […]. The whole symbolic architecture of the image intended by the director is thus integrated into the concrete reality and is a perfect example of a total image, film expression in its highest form.” (5) In Cinema 1: The Movement Image, Deleuze describes this composition as “an eminently bizarre angle of framing [and] an exemplary perception image” (6).
This sequence continues with shots of the parade accompanied on the soundtrack by triumphant marching music. Lubitsch then cuts to a shot of the interior of a hospital ward, the camera tracking right to left behind a row of beds. The sounds of firing cannons are shown to terrify one of the shell-shocked patients. Lubitsch’s skillful sound design, and in particular his contrapuntal use of sound is in evidence in the following sequence, at a church service attended by uniformed veterans. Starting from a high-angle, the camera draws in to a crucifix – as it does so, diegetic sounds are drowned out by the extra-diegetic roar of firing cannons. At the end of the service, another high-angle shot glides down among the empty pews to frame two hands clasped in prayer. The man raises his head – it is the film’s protagonist Paul.
In four breathless minutes of screen time, Lubitsch’s searing anti-war message – far removed from the lightness of his musical comedies – is relayed through skilful and precise interplay of sound and image. As François Truffaut wrote in The Films in My Life: “[Lubitsch’s] cinema is the opposite of the vague, the imprecise, the unformulated, the uncommunicable. There’s not a single shot just for decoration; nothing is included just because it looks good. From beginning to end, we are only involved in what’s essential.” (7) Tormented by guilt, Paul decides to visit Walter’s family in Germany. After placing flowers on Walter’s grave, he is befriended by the dead soldier’s parents (played by Lionel Barrymore and Louise Carter) as well as his fiancée Elsa (Nancy Carroll).
Although critics have derided the apparent portentousness of the film – “For the only time in his American career, Lubitsch was attempting to be Significant, and it destroys the picture” (8) – there are moments in Broken Lullaby to rival contemporaneous anti-war films such as G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 (1930) and Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). I have already discussed the film’s opening scenes but there is also Dr. Holderlin’s speech to his sceptical friends – dubious about his family’s burgeoning friendship with a French soldier – as well as the powerful final sequence in which Paul plays Walter’s violin before his victim’s parents. Lubitsch’s sprightly humour surfaces very briefly when Paul and Elsa are shown walking through the village, leading to whispers among the locals. In one typically Lubitschian moment, an old woman leaning out of a window quickly exits the frame only to return with a pillow to make her eavesdropping more comfortable.
While Broken Lullaby is not the kind of film Lubitsch is best remembered for, it is undoubtedly an important work in his filmography. As many directors struggled to come to terms with sound, Lubitsch – like Rouben Mamoulian and Jean Renoir – displayed a clear mastery of the new technology. He did not allow it to restrict his expressivity – on the contrary, sound enriched it.
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Trouble in Paradise, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993, p. 15.
- Leland A. Poague, The Cinema of Ernst Lubitsch, A.S Barnes, New Jersey, 1978, p. 13.
- Arthur Knight, “The Movies Learn To Talk: Ernst Lubitsch, René Clair and Rouben Mamoulian”, Film Sound: Theory and Practice, ed. Elisabeth Weis and John Belton, Columbia University Press, New York, 1985, p. 213.
- Eyman, p.160.
- Jean Mitry, The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema, Indiana University Press, Indiana, 2000, p. 219.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, London, Continuum, 2005, pp. 16, 72.
- François Truffaut, The Films in My Life, trans. Leonard Mayhew, Penguin Books, London, 1982, p. 52.
- Eyman, p. 183.
Broken Lullaby/The Man I Killed (1932 USA 77 mins)
Prod Co: Paramount Pictures Prod, Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda, adapted from the play L’homme que j’ai tué (The Man I Killed) by Maurice Rostand Phot: Victor Milner Art Dir: Hans Dreier Mus: W. Franke Harling
Cast: Lionel Barrymore, Nancy Carroll, Phillips Holmes, Louise Carter, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Douglas, Zasu Pitts, Frank Sheridan