Broken Lullaby (1932)

8 08 2009

Quite easily the best movie I’ve seen from Ernst Lubitsch so far, though I guess it is also the least Lubitsch-esque. His humor remains in tact here, but the content in which he is exploring is far more serious, perhaps even dreary. While I do enjoy watching some of his “lighter” movies every now and then, I found it much more rewarding to see him experimenting with a legitimately dramatic narrative, while still maintaining his overall humanism. In fact, he handles the story (which has plenty of melodramatic possibilities) in a very mature manner, probably more gentle than any other American film at the time.

Paul Renaud, a French soldier recently dismissed from the first World War, returns home with an enormous burden on his mind. It turns out that, in the middle of combat, he stumbled upon an (otherwise calm) German soldier, Walter Holderlin. As one might predict, he responds quickly by killing Walter, but exercises compassion towards his victim almost immediately. Haunted by Walter’s letter, Paul attempts to eliminate his guilt by meeting the Holderlin family. When they welcome Paul into their home, he cannot find the courage to tell the truth and surprisingly, he becomes something of second son to the family.

Lubitsch throws in an obligatory love story involving Paul and Walter’s ex-fiancee, which begins to tip-toe into the realm of the melodramatic. At a certain point, I was almost positive that Lubitsch was going to lose all the Ozu-like gentleness he had for his characters, but thankfully, he never does. The relationships created as a result of a family tragedy are not only fascinating on a dramatic level, they are also extremely life-affirming. While they hold prejudices strongly at the start, the Holderlin family is shown to be caring, compassionate, and open-minded. In other words, they are everything that the rest of the people in town are not.

There is a bit of that “new kid in town” element present upon Paul’s arrival in Germany, which reminds of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s (very, very different) Katzelmacher. While Fassbinder’s film is definitely the more accomplished feature, I have to say Lubitsch’s effort is much better. The two films seem to be in direct dichotomy: Fassbinder documents how evil can be while Lubitsch expresses his overwhelming faith in human embrace. While it maybe a romanticized portrait of family life, it is still a very vivid and “full” one. Considering the running time of 72 minutes, it is quite impressive how much Lubitsch can build from his characters. Paul and the Holderlin family make up some of the richest and most complete characters for a pre-code Hollywood film. Needless to say, this is a masterpiece.

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