Review: Anti-War Classic 'Broken Lullaby' Poignant and Moving

by Frank J. Avella

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday December 7, 2021

Review: Anti-War Classic 'Broken Lullaby' Poignant and Moving

You have to hand it to Kino Lorber for unearthing buried films that should be considered classics, but somehow got lost in the celluloid dustbin. "Broken Lullaby" is a good case in point. This 1932 pre-code drama, directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch ("Trouble in Paradise," "Ninotchka"), is such a startling anti-war film I am shocked it was made by a major studio (Paramount).

The movie opens in Paris on the first anniversary of Armistice Day (1919), using actual footage. We soon meet our hero, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes), a French violinist who is haunted by the war. "I wanted to bring music to this world, but I brought murder," he cries to a priest who absolves him, telling him he did his duty. These words provide no comfort to him, and he decides to travel to Germany and find the family and fiancée of the man he killed and ask for forgiveness.

When he arrives and meets the victim's father (Lionel Barrymore), mother (Louise Carter) and fiancée, Elsa (Nancy Carroll), he is so overwhelmed he pretends to have been the boy's friend. To complicate matters, he soon falls in love with Elsa.

Lubitsch, who is mostly known for his sophisticated comedies (hence the famous "Lubitsch touch"), masterfully takes a screenplay (by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on a French play by Maurice Rostand) that is fraught with potential minefields and does a brilliant tonal balance so it's not just believable but incredibly poignant and strangely moving.

The film feels like a direct rebuttal to the war-mongering pictures that Hollywood normally put out at the time.

Holmes is terribly handsome, and his overwrought characterization works well. There is no getting over what he's done. Carroll shows a sweetness and grace not often seen in her comedies. And Barrymore and Carter just break your heart.

François Ozon remade (or, better said, reimagined) the film in 2016 as "Frantz," and gave it an ambiguous spin; I spoke to the director about it back then.

"Broken Lullaby" was originally released as "The Man I Killed," and the title was then changed to "The Fifth Commandment" before they finally landed on the better, current title. The film has only been available via a Region 2 (European) DVD until now.

The Blu-ray visuals show scratches and lines that prove distracting. I'm guessing it's the best copy Kino could find since, it's a brand new 2K master. The sound is decent, but gets messy at the end, which might have been a soundtrack issue when it was made.

The only Extra is an audio commentary with film historian Joseph McBride, a Lubitsch expert who speaks at length about the director and his technique.

"Broken Lullaby" is a powerful pacifist pre-code film from a truly iconic director that is highly recommended.

Blu-ray Extras Include:

  • Brand New 2K Master

  • New Audio Commentary by Film Historian Joseph McBride, author of How Did Lubitsch Do It?

  • Trailers

    "Broken Lullaby" will be available on Blu-ray on December 7, 2021.

    Frank J. Avella is a film journalist and is thrilled to be writing for EDGE. He also contributes to Awards Daily and is the GALECA East Coast Rep and a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. Frank is a recipient of the International Writers Residency in Assisi, Italy, a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship, and a NJ State Arts Council Fellowship. His short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com) and won awards. His screenplays (CONSENT, LURED, SCREW THE COW) have also won numerous awards in 16 countries. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute