Though it recently received its Turner Classic Movies premiere, Ernst Lubitsch's The Man I Killed (a.k.a. Broken Lullaby, 1932) remains the director's least known and seen work of the 1930s - a decade which along with the previous ten years rates as one of the strongest candidates for the filmmaker's finest. Among the three features that Lubitsch released in 1932 alone - along with a short episode for the portmanteau If I Had a Million - The Man I Killed belongs neither to the director's sophisticated, continental-inflected comedies (Trouble in Paradise, 1932; Angel, 1937) nor to his filmed operettas (The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931; The Merry Widow, 1934), for which Lubitsch was, in each generic instance, Hollywood's undisputed master. By comparison, The Man I Killed is post-World War I situated melodrama - making the film absolutely unique to his sound corpus - that nonetheless showcases both the director's stylistic verve and his often recognized "touch." Minor arguably only as a consequence of the film's uncharacteristic genre, The Man I Killed is by no means the least of Lubitsch's outstanding work of the period. For those well versed in Lubitsch, it may in fact even be one of the director's most unexpected treasures.
Opening on the first anniversary of Armistice Day in late 1919, Lubitsch quickly sets the narrative stage with rapid visual and audio montage combining artillery fire, the ringing of church bells, cheers of the film's parade goers, and a low vantage of the last of these that frames the marchers, between the crutches, and in the place of an amputee's missing leg. Lubitsch continues the film's early speed with a dissolve to a mobile framing of a hospital ward where he immediately flashes back to the battlefield, returning to the present where a shell-shocked soldier sits up erect in bed, back to the canons and then once again to church bells before cutting to a church facade. In moving once again between the explosion of canons and the pounding bells, Lubitsch procures an approximate match on sound to compare to later graphic matches that the director will employ.
Inside the church, the director's stylistic flare continues with a mobile framing of the center aisle, where in row after row, the officer's swords parallel each other, encroaching and resting on the marble floor. Rapidly succeeding close-ups continue to dominate, as do flashbacks of the trenches that are thereafter combined with framings of the sacred interior; canon fire is added to a push into a small shrine organized around a crucifix, thereby giving a sense of the film's analogical iconographic program. With most of the parishioners leaving, Lubitsch subsequently cranes into a pair of folded hands resting on a church pew above, over their huddle owner. Shortly we are introduced Phillips Holmes's Paul Renaud, a French soldier and the first person of the film's title, pleading for the aid of the priest who offers absolution for the titular, wartime act. Paul, however, searches for a peace of mind that this gesture fails to provide, prompting his consequent search for the family of his German victim - after being reminded of the Virgin Mother's own forgiveness for the death of her son.
Of further note here is Lubitsch's rapid push in toward the priest as he first exits the confessional; in this moment we see the picture's substantial visual fluidity and stylistic variability marking it as a distinctive representation of the Pre-code cinema, and that era's grappling experimentation vis-à-vis film form. Likewise, we get our first glimpse of youthful Robert Donat-lookalike Holmes's overwrought performance, which though it slightly militates against the film's overall quality, belonging as it does more to the director's German melodramas than to his Hollywood pictures, nevertheless does not assuredly condemn the film to the obscurity that it has come to experience.
Lubitsch next introduces us to German physician Lionel Barrymore, who is naturally the father of Paul's victim, treating a young boy who has gotten into a scrap after another child has called him a "Frenchman." Dr. Holderlin's advice is to "save it for a real Frenchman." After seeing a pompous man of standing with respect to the hand of Elsa (Nancy Carroll; Hot Saturday, 1932; pictured above with Lubitsch), his deceased son's betrothed - she shows him the door - the doctor retires to his dead son's bedroom, where he sits bedside. Lubitsch shows us this tender, understated moment following a dissolve and a slow, unmotivated crane across the room. The director's style in this work often boarders on that of fellow German Jew emigre Max Ophüls, and to the latter's exceedingly mobile mise-en-scène; appropriately enough, The Man I Killed might just be the director's most German Hollywood film.
Following this tender passage, Lubitsch poetically dissolves to the graveyard that houses the deceased Walter. The filmmaker presents this location under a canopy of fallen leaves that sudden gusts of wind whip up and dislocate, just as the soundtrack suddenly swells emphatically. Lubitsch lingers for an exceptionally long duration on an older woman's hands as she lays flowers on a grave, before struggling to open her handbag, out of which she retrieves a tissue. In passages such as this, The Man I Killed shows the film's highly praiseworthy debt to silent cinema, just as its varied employments of mobile framings and rapid montage signals the richness of the early sound cinema. This is Lubitsch at his most stylistically adventurous within the sound era (along, not coincidentally, with fellow 1932 release, Trouble in Paradise) and also at his most singularly poetic.
The woman as it turns out is Walter's mother (Louise Carter), whom we next see at dinner with her husband and her onetime daughter-in-law to be; here, in a moment worthy of John Ford, the family of the fallen solider manages to briefly convince themselves to be optimistic - "you would hardly believe there ever was a war" - before sinking back into silence, and the reality of their loss. However, with the subsequent arrival of Paul, and his insuation into their lives, posing without premeditation as a friend of Walter's, their spirits do renew; life again becomes worthwhile.
Paul is first spotted by Elsa in the graveyard after the latter leaves a florist, with a bouquet of flowers. Lubitsch, characteristic of the film's free-form style, introduces this scene with an overhead crane shot of the actress leaving from this place of business. As film scholar, and fellow Lubitsch devotee Lisa K. Broad puts it, The Man I Killed succeeds thusly in procuring a very robust sense of the film's village location, and ultimately in providing a relatively full portrayal of its subject, in spite of the picture's meager seventy-six minute running time. If Holmes's performance in particular lends itself to histrionics, The Man I Killed nonetheless showcases a distinctive subtlety through its presentation of a series of seemingly off-handed details.
At this point I will conclude with the film's narrative so as to avoid providing spoilers, with one exception in the paragraph to follow. However, I would like to argue, before getting to this final plot point, that The Man I Killed again retains "the Lubitsch touch," in its most fruitful and precise incarnation: namely, that the film features protagonists whose hold on happiness (which we as spectators desperately hope for) is severely threatened by some form of indiscretion. Again, I will not specify exactly how the 'Lubitsch touch' manifests itself in The Man I Killed, but I would argue that in keeping with works such as Trouble in Paradise, Angel, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch manages to show us how perilously close his characters come to losing everything (from an emotional standpoint). Moreover, as in those masterpieces listed previously, Lubitsch's mise-en-scène unequivocally registers the emotional gravity of the situation, though in a form that remains invisible, save for the downcast expressions of the leads and the precarious joys of those not in on the secret; The Man I Killed is similarly saturated with feeling, hanging on the uncertainty of its narrative resolution.
Of course, and here is the spoiler mentioned above, Lubitsch's films do have a way of working toward romantic fulfillment, which is no less the case with The Man I Killed. In this work, Paul and Elsa signal their own romantic sealing with a duet performed at the film's end - with Paul accordingly filling Walter's former role (in more ways than one, though I will not say anymore in this regard). This joint performance consequently links the pair to Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins's own romantic resolution in Trouble in Paradise, where their joint "professional" performance in the back of the car indicates their happy ending. There might be a shade more ambiguity in The Man I Killed, but the the implications of their shared song is no less clear.
Ultimately, everything is personal for Lubitsch, including the toll of the Great War, whether it is the losses of parents and lovers, or the experiences foisted upon the young men. At one key beer hall juncture in The Man I Killed, Dr. Holderlin insists that he will be with the young men rather than with the old who send their sons off to die. Hence, Lubitsch himself suggests a different moral than he would in his subsequent To Be or Not to Be (1942), where the commitment to the fight is venerated. Lubitsch chose his battles, his wars in fact, and in the process showed himself to admirably free of ideological imperatives.
See also my Pre-Code Favorites of 2009 available on affiliate cite, Ten Best Films.