Monday, July 8, 2013

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


            So, once again, the compulsion to watch a very old film because Youtube allows me to do so, and the discovery that what was once so highly praised can now look painfully stagey and dated in its technique. And once again that mystery of how an audience’s perceptions can change as technology and techniques change [look up the posting “Two Courses of Fury” on the index at right].

            The film in this case is Ernst Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, made in 1932. Adapted from a French play by Maurice Rostand and originally called first The Man I Killed, then The Fifth Commandment, the film apparently had its title changed to the gentler Broken Lullaby because Paramount Pictures were afraid the original proposed titles would raise the wrong sort of audience expectations. (Although it was actually released in Britain as The Man I Killed). On Youtube I discover a beautifully restored print of it, every image clear and unscratched and with a good, un-hissing soundtrack.

Sophisticated in my appreciation of early sound films, I am fully prepared for the conventions of the time. I have reasonably high expectations of this film made twenty years before I was born because (thanks to Halliwell’s Film Guide) I know that, in the 1930s, reputable people like the documentary film-maker John Grierson and the playwright Robert E. Sherwood called it a wonderful film and rated it the best talkie so far made.

So it must have something going for it.

It begins splendidly, with the type of ironical framing and shot composition for which Lubitsch was famed. The scene is Paris in 1919 at the time the French are celebrating their victory in the Great War. There is a huge military parade. Hundreds of uniformed French troops stride by to military bands, in what are clearly NOT newsreel shots (Paramount must have spent a fortune for such scenes). But in one shot, the passing warriors are filmed from under the crotch of a veteran leaning on crutches and missing one leg. And when cannon fire a victory salute, we cut to a shell-shocked soldier in a military hospital screaming in terror.

The scene moves to a cathedral where a victory mass is being celebrated with a congregation made up exclusively of military men. (Again, a huge expense for Paramount). On the soundtrack, the priest’s voice is heard preaching a sermon about duty and victory and welcoming peace, but as the voice continues, the camera slides along at ground level, showing all the ceremonial swords the officers are wearing, poking out from the ends of the pews; and the camera shows us the soldiers’ medals and their military boots with spurs. The accoutrements of war contradict what the priest’s voice is saying. The irony is rubbed in even further when the camera tracks in to a close-up of a crucifix and the naked and dying Christ. This war-like celebration is really at odds with the Prince of Peace.

If Broken Lullaby went no further than these opening montages, then we would recognize Lubitsch’s mastery of form and understand the praise the film once won. But alas, the characters begin to speak and the spell is broken.

After the mass is over and the soldiers depart, the camera gives us a long-shot of the empty cathedral and then slowly, slowly tracks in to a pair of hands clutched in desperate prayer in one of the pews. They belong to a young, conscience-stricken French soldier Paul (Phillips Holmes) who has never got over his sense of guilt at having killed, face to face, a German soldier in a trench. (When we see a flashback of the event, it’s like a reversal of the famous sequence in the film All Quiet on the Western Front, made two years earlier, in which it is a German soldier conscience-stricken at having bayoneted a Frenchman).

Paul approaches the priest and asks for absolution after having confessed, “I murdered a man”. The priest is kind to him, tells him he only did his duty as a soldier, and grants him absolution. But the young man, hysterical in his delivery, says this is not good enough. He is accused of blasphemy by the priest when he says “Is this the best I can get in the house of God?”

Paul is a musician. He knows the identity of Walter, the German soldier he killed, and the address of Walter’s family in Germany, because he read letters he found on the corpse. He determines that the only way he can atone for his sin and set his soul at rest is to travel to Germany, meet with Walter’s family, and beg for forgiveness.

This he attempts to do.

In Germany, he is welcomed into the house of Walter’s father (Lionel Barrymore) after he is seen grieving at Walter’s grave. But he cannot bring himself to confess that he was the enemy soldier who killed Walter. Instead he lets the family – including Walter’s fiancĂ©e Elsa (Nancy Carroll) – understand that he knew Walter as a fellow musician and friend when Walter was studying in Paris before the war. On this basis, the family come to accept and then to love him. This is in spite of the film’s suggestions of continuing and fiercely anti-French feeling in post-war Germany. In one sequence Walter’s father, formerly the most chauvinistic of Germans, defies his patriotic beer-drinking friends in a restaurant, by standing up and declaring that the war their sons have just fought was pointless and has brought as much suffering and grief to French as to German. He is applauded only by a crippled young German ex-soldier, who is not part of the older (and clearly non-combatant) drinking group of patriots.

The crisis comes when at last Elsa discovers Paul’s secret. She forgives him. She gets him to swear that he will never tell the rest of Walter’s family that he killed Walter. He agrees to this. Paul and Elsa are clearly in love. Possibly they will marry.

The film ends with Paul playing his violin and Elsa playing the piano in harmonious parlour duet, to the delight of Walter’s father. Love, humanity, music and forgiveness have overcome international hatreds.

Like all synopses, this tells you nothing of the quality of the work. It merely tells you a series of events.

The sad fact is that, in spite of a few cinematic touches, Broken Lullaby becomes a very stilted and somewhat ranty stage-play after the masterly opening sequences set in Paris. I am aware that sound-recording on film was only a few years old when it was made, and that camera and recording equipment were much more ponderous and difficult to move than they were even a decade later. But allowing for all this, and even in comparison with the better films of its era, Broken Lullaby lets long, dead pauses to develop between lines of dialogue as if the actors are not used to the rhythms of real conversation. And when the dialogue comes it is as declarative as a set of headlines, spelling out themes and ideas with an embarrassing obviousness. There is no nuance here – just a message hammered.

As a small-town German doctor, Lionel Barrymore is a good small-town American doctor. By the standards of her age, Nancy Carroll was a pretty blonde actress, but of no discernible talent. Then there is the problem of Phillips Holmes in the leading role. Phillips Holmes was one of those actors who had every opportunity to become a major star, but who never quite made it. As well as starring in this, he was given the lead in Josef von Sternberg’s version of An American Tragedy and the lead in an early version of Great Expectations (eclipsed by the brilliant version David Lean made in 1946). But, well before his death in an air crash at the age of 35, he failed to click with the public and sank into minor roles – with very good reason. In Broken Lullaby he can be hysterical, as he is in the confession scene, and he can swoon away into a faint, as he does three or four times in the film. But he can never convince you that Paul is a real human being. He has only two ways of delivering dialogue – woodenly or manically. There is nothing in between.

Lubitsch was from Germany and was a stalwart of German cinema before he moved to Hollywood. On the plastic level, the studio’s version of a small German town is convincing enough. When, in the flashback scene to wartime, we see Walter’s letters, they are considerately written in English for the benefit of the English-speaking audience (a cinematic convention that would no longer “play”). But in the German small town, street signs and hoardings are in German, as Lubitsch would doubtless have insisted they be. Yet the English language and bearing of the actors constantly breaks the sense of authenticity. We cannot shake the impression that this hymn to international solidarity was strictly made in Hollywood.

So to the big mystery.

Why was it so highly praised by highbrows in its day?

The sheer film craft of the opening sequences is probably part of the reason, but I would suggest that the film’s historical context has more to do with it. In 1932, internationalism and sentimental pacifism had a huge emotional pull. We would have to be hard-hearted not to understand why, and we would have to lack all sense of context if we were to point out that Hitler was only one year away from power and that the whole attitude to war was about to change once again. So, instead of being a powerfully emotional film for us, Broken Lullaby is an historical artefact, and an illustration of how much film techniques have changed. You sympathise with its humane sentiment, but you can’t help hearing how loudly it creaks.

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