T. it.: L’uomo che ho ucciso. Tit. alt. Broken Lullaby. Sog.: from the homonym theatrical work of Maurice Rostand. Scen.: Samson Raphaelson, Ernest Vajda. F.: Victor Milner. Scgf.: Hans Dreier. M.: W. Franke Harling. Int.: Lionel Barrymore (Dr. Holderlin), Nancy Carroll (Elsa), Phillips Holmes (Paul Renard), Tom Douglas (Walter Holderlin), Louise Carter (Frau Holderlin), Zasu Pitts (Anna), Lucien Littlefield (Walter Schultz). Prod.: Ernst Lubitch per Paramount.
35mm. D.: 75′. Bn.
The Man I Killed is one of Ernst Lubitsch’s most unjustly underappreciated films. Its somber tone and subject are miles from the sophisticated comedies that the émigré director would style in his own way in Hollywood. But contemporary reviewers accepted Lubitsch’s move from The Love Parade, Monte Carlo and The Smiling Lieutenant to their “virtual antithesis,” a drama that would be compared to All Quiet on the Western Front, but more “intimate and personal”. The film is haunted by shellshock and trauma that cannot be wished away. Alone in the trenches, the young French soldier Paul Renard kills a young German with a bayonet as he looks at him without resisting. His letters show that Walter, like Paul, was a musician who lived in Paris before the war, who doesn’t want to kill. Throughout the film, Paul is told to forget the past, but Lubitsch’s gift for ellipsis warns of an even worse future; the hollow eyes of his protagonist show the cost of war for the victors who can find no inner peace.
After dark church bells announce the first anniversary of Armistice Day, cannons fire on the battlefield, church bells toll, a crowd cheers, a military parade is seen through a space left empty because of a soldier’s missing leg, soldiers and cavalry in armed regalia move up the Champs Elysées. Inside a hospital, we see bed after bed, then cannons firing on the battlefield again. A patient bolts upright, screaming, holding his head. A priest tells the military men to forget the past and look ahead, but we see swords, a holster bulging with a pistol, riding boots with spurs. Paul wants to confess his murder and escape from its hold on him, but the priest’s absolution, in the name of military duty, means nothing to him. Paul will go to Walter’s family in Germany and appeal to them for forgiveness.
Phillips Holmes, who plays Paul, “moves as if dazed”, wrote Mordaunt Hall appreciatively in the “New York Times”, distracted by inner visions or sounds that no one can see, not unlike his previous role as the murderer in Sternberg’s An American Tragedy. After Paul enters the anti-French German village, his hesitant speech and movements make possible a mistaken identity plot of huge proportions. Walter’s parents and fiancée, deadened by his death, seize the hope that Paul knew him in Paris before the war. They take him into their family, as if he were the man he had killed. The beauty of Lubitsch’s ironies never masks what is at stake for that war survivor, the only one who has no choice but to remember.