Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda
Based on a Play by: Maurice Rostand, Reginald Berkeley (English adaptation)
Starring: Lionel Barrymore, Nancy Carroll, Phillips Holmes, Louise Carter, Lucien Littlefield, Tom Douglas
Country: USA
Running Time: 77 min
Year: 1932
BBFC Certificate: PG

Broken Lullaby, which explores concepts of survivor guilt and PTSD following World War I, seems like a severe departure for director Ernst Lubitsch, known for his sophisticated comedies and musicals. However, particularly earlier in his career in Germany, he had made more of a range of films, swapping between comedies and grand historical dramas, such as 1919’s Madame DuBarry. That film, in particular, caught the world’s attention and helped Lubitsch get work in Hollywood, where he would eventually stay.

There’s no doubt the director was leaning towards comedies though, as his career in the USA took shape. Broken Lullaby, in fact, proved to be his last straight-up drama. The film received largely very positive reviews upon its release but it performed poorly at the box office. As such, and due to it seeming like an anomaly among Lubitsch’s more popular comic output, Broken Lullaby remains a lesser-known work in the director’s filmography.

It’s considered by some to be a hidden gem of early 1930s cinema though and Indicator certainly think the film is of value, as they’re releasing it on Blu-ray (on the same day as a much breezier Lubitsch film, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, which I reviewed earlier). Intrigued to see what a darker example of the ‘Lubitsch touch’ might look like, I crossed the front line and attacked Broken Lullaby head-on.

The film is based on the play ‘L’homme que j’ai tué’ (“The Man I Killed”) by French playwright Maurice Rostand which, in turn, was based on a 1921 novella of the same name.

The story follows a young French soldier named Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes) who, traumatised by the memory of his killing of a soldier named Walter in World War I, travels to Germany to visit the family of the victim. There, he meets Walter’s parents (Lionel Barrymore and Louise Carter) and his fiancée, Elsa (Nancy Carroll).

Unable to tell the grieving family the truth, he goes along with the lie that he’s actually a friend of Walter’s from the musical conservatory they’d both attended. This deception becomes more complicated when the family take him into their home to stay a while and all grow to love him, particularly Elsa.

Paul’s presence seems to lift a weight from the family’s hearts but, still racked with guilt, Paul must decide whether or not to tell them the truth.

It’s hard not to compare Broken Lullaby with All Quiet on the Western Front, the other big anti-war film made in Hollywood between WWI and WWII, which came out only two years earlier. I do prefer Lewis Milestone’s film but Lubitsch’s is not without merit.

It can be a bit of a mixed bag, as demonstrated in the opening scenes. There’s great visual symbolism in the initial montage, with a one-legged veteran’s stance used to frame a shot of a victory parade, for instance. However, this is soon followed up by a rather overbaked and on-the-nose sequence where Paul confesses his war-time ‘murder’ to a priest.

Overbaked and on-the-nose are my main complaints throughout the film, to be honest. Holmes is rather hammy, in particular, and Barrymore is given a number of rather blunt monologues. Hollywood productions back then had a tendency to play things a little bit bigger than now, I guess, but it can feel to be laid on a bit thick, even by 30s standards.

However, you’ve got to admire the film for tackling such an issue, so close to WWI (granted, All Quiet got there first, but the PTSD aspects feel fresh). As such, I guess you can’t blame Lubitsch and the actors for getting passionate about the subject.

The spectre of another war looming weighs heavy on the film too and will likely be one of the reasons Lubitsch wanted to make it. There is a heartfelt nature to the production, with the director openly calling out for understanding and peace around the world, to avoid another tragedy of the scale of WWI or bigger. Sadly, this plea did little to stop WWII from breaking out seven years later and becoming an even deadlier conflict.

Whilst it’s largely quite a sombre affair, Broken Lullaby does get to show a little of Lubitsch’s famous ‘touch’. Paul and Elsa’s budding romance allows for moments of levity, such as the sounds of the neighbours’ bells going off as they clamour to spy on the loved-up couple. Lubitsch also uses some poignant visual storytelling here and there, amongst the less delicate monologues and such. Great use is made of a photo of Walter in a scene between Paul and Walter’s father, for instance. The film ends on a beautiful and poignant note too, that uses the universal language of music to soothe the pain felt by the characters.

So, whilst overwrought in some aspects, Broken Lullaby remains a powerfully emotive film that bravely tackles some then-open wounds head-on. It might not quite have the lightness of touch Lubitsch is known for, but it still demonstrates his talents behind the camera and makes for an interesting diversion from his more popular romantic comedies.


Broken Lullaby is out on 27th March on Region B Blu-Ray, released by Indicator. The picture shows some light damage throughout but it looks good for its age. Likewise, the audio exhibits some age-related problems, but nothing you could expect anyone to do anything about without butchering the source material.


– 2021 restoration from a 2K scan
– Original mono audio
– Audio commentary with author and film historian Joseph McBride (2021)
– The Films of Ernst Lubitsch (2001, 69 mins): archival audio recording of a talk by Scott Eyman, author of Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, originally presented as part the British Film Institute’s 2001 Lubitsch retrospective at the National Film Theatre, London
– The Men I Killed (2023, 14 mins): video essay by Michael Brooke on Broken Lullaby and François Ozon’s 2016 film Frantz, comparing their different cinematic approaches to adapting Maurice Rostand’s 1930 play, L’Homme que j’ai tué, and its 1931 English-language translation, The Man I Killed, by Reginald Berkeley
– Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
– New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– Limited edition exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Christina Newland, contemporary profiles of producer-director Ernst Lubitsch and star Lionel Barrymore, a brief look at the career of screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits
– UK premiere on Blu-ray
– Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK

Joseph McBride’s commentary is honest about the film’s faults, particularly noting the overblown acting. He’s perhaps too down it, leading to a track that soured me slightly on the film, which I otherwise thought was decent. He does point out the more successful aspects and sequences though, particularly the beautiful final scene, and he clearly knows what he’s talking about, so the commentary remains valuable and engaging.

‘The Films of Ernst Lubitsch’ archival recording is equally as valuable, offering a fast-paced but lengthy journey through the life and work of the director. It makes for fascinating listening and ends with some questions thrown at Scott Eyman, the speaker.

‘The Man I Killed’ is a visual essay by Michael Brooke, which uses captions rather than voiceover to compare Lubitsch’s film to a more recent adaptation of the source material, François Ozon’s 2016 film Frantz. Ozon has professed that he used Broken Flowers as his main inspiration rather than the original novella or play. As such, there are a few similarities but also a number of striking differences that take the 21st Century adaptation in quite a different direction, by the end.

The booklet is, as you’d expect from Indicator, brilliantly compiled. It offers an illuminating essay on the film by Christina Newland, as well as some archival interviews, marketing pieces and period reviews. Indicator’s booklets easily justify the extra cost of buying the limited edition releases over the disc-only standard editions.

So, whilst Broken Lullaby might not be Lubitsch’s finest film, it’s still well worth a watch and Indicator’s release adds a lot of value. Recommended.


Broken Lullaby - Indicator
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.