Raiding The Tomb of Lubitsch
by David Yearsley, April 26, 2017
At the 1947 Los Angeles funeral of that genius of urbane film comedy, Ernst Lubitsch, fellow émigré Billy Wilder said mournfully, “No more Lubitsch.” The director William Wyler, yet another German-born expatriate, responded, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.”
Ernst Lubitsch (circa 1922)
The rejoinder appears even more bittersweet when the movie business’s ineluctable corollary is added to the exchange: there will always be remakes. Accordingly, Lubitsch’s The Little Shop Around the Corner of 1940 with central Pennsylvanian Jimmy Stewart as a central European leather goods salesman conducting a personal-ad romance in Budapest is transplanted in You’ve Got Mail of 1998 onto the island Manhattan and into the latter-day all-American form of Tom Hanks, with AOL email and on-line chat-rooms replacing Old World modes of loving and lurking.
The latest reels to be exhumed from Lubitsch’s cavernous crypt are those of his early sound film, Broken Lullaby of 1932. The movie marked a rare—indeed, never-repeated—departure for the director from his native habitat of briskly joyful and often provocative irony into the cloying climes of melodrama. While the film forsakes the quickness and quirk that were Lubitsch’s trademarks, the great director does not renounce his vaunted stylistic virtuosity, as in a shot taken from street level in which French troops marching down the Champs-Élysées in celebration of their victory in World War I are seen through the gap in the bystanders provided by the missing leg of a maimed veteran. Yet the succession of titles for the movie—from The Man I Killed to The Fifth Commandment to the over-sentimental and basically irrelevant Broken Lullaby insisted on by Paramount—speaks to the extent of the story’s debilitating sentimentality. Still, its anti-war message was ardently projected and prescient: the picture’s release came almost exactly one year before Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor in January of 1933.
The latest Lubitsch tomb raider is François Ozon, the prolific filmmaker whose creations span an impressive range. Woody Allen-like, he cranks out a new movie almost every year. The quality, however, remains robust, though Ozon is more than thirty years younger than Allen, and if he keeps on at this pace it’s hard to imagine that he won’t succumb to routine and the seductions of place—from swank Upper West Side apartments to vintage Barcelona amusement parks.
Elegantly shot mostly in somber, antiqued black-and-white (the cinematographer Pascal Marti deservedly won a French Oscar this year for his work), the remake itself to the stylized anguish of Lubitsch’s “lullaby.” Disastrously miscast in the original in the person of Phillips Holmes, the role of the French soldier (in search of forgiveness for his own war deeds from the parents and fiancée (rendered with a compelling mixture of poise and fragility by Paula Beer) of a young German killed just two months before the armistice, is taken up by Pierre Niney. As Adrien, Niney has an archetypal Gallic visage fitted with a Proustian moustache and dark bangs that dangle and mourn on the pale skin of his high forehead. In the spirit of homage, Ozon accords Niney his fair share of sighings and faintings.
But unlike late-model Woody Allen, Ozon remains the master of architectural spaces and landscape, from the cobbled alleyways of the ancient cathedral city of Quedlinburg in central Germany, to the wood-paneled Ratskeller and German Imperial interiors of home and office of the doctor and his wife who’ve lost their son in the war, to the fields of the Marne as seen from the train, to the soaring and riotously convoluted vaults of the foyer of the Paris Opera, to the endless grey-blue vistas stretching before the grieving fiancée and the mysterious French visitor as they look out from the foothills of the Harz mountains over the Westphalian countryside, the view transformed fleetingly into muted color photography to suggest the reawakening of life and perhaps love in the damaged characters.
Why has Ozon chosen this unlikely Lubitsch movie to be— as we learn in the credits— “loosely inspired by”? Certainly the task of commenting on, and adding to, a Lubitsch film is a worthy challenge for a cineaste, especially one of Ozon’s talent and ambition. The topic of cross-border reconciliation is always timely, but again now in the age of endless war and the increasing frailty of the European Union, a project that was launched in order to put an end to the continent’s continual wars.
The film is about the survivor standing in for the vanished. The overabundance of guilt must be reapportioned. When compared with Christian Petzold’s Phoenix of 2015, a film set in the immediate aftermath not of the First World War, but of the Second, and similarly—but far more devastatingly—concerned with both the necessity of forgetting and not-forgetting, Ozon’s remake of Broken Lullaby is a stilted affair, even while it captivates as an exercise in style.
Ozon jettisons the awful title of his model in favor of Frantz, the name of the fallen soldier at whose grave the bereaved fiancée first spies the mysterious French visitor, Adrien also leaving flowers there. Coupled with the investigation of transferred love and identity, the movie’s title and themes made me think of that silly joke about the German officer who arrives in the sodden trenches to announce to his beleaguered and filthy regiment that “The finally will be a change of underwear today. Fritz you change with Fran(t)z, Fran(t)z you change with Fritz.”
In spite of the avowed looseness of his inspiration by Lubitsch’s film, Ozon retains much from the original, including the French visitor’s musicality. Before the war in Paris, he was a member of the opera orchestra but has given up playing because he “can no longer hear the notes.” It is not deafness, but psychological trauma that causes this condition. Nonetheless, he is convinced by his German hosts to take up the violin of the dead son and thus bring the departed fleetingly back to life. ETA Hoffmann was an expert in this particular line of uncanniness two centuries earlier, as in his story Councillor Krespel in which a violin conjures the voice of a vanished child, and a Strad is dismembered and ultimately consigned to the grave with the deceased. Persuaded by the family to overcome his reluctance, the Frenchman launches into Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.
For a moment the parents escape reality and seem to grope towards happiness—a fine metaphor for the promise of cinema. This impromptu performance offers the opportunity for excessive emotional display and nerve-fraying vibrato, while making knowing allusion to the narrator of A Thousand and One Nights and the necessity of fictions—often very elaborate ones—for survival. Needless to say, Adrien’s playing is too much for him, and an ardent Romantic phrase sends him crumpling to the Biedermeier carpet.
In one of several dreamy interludes, Adrien gives the dead German (Anton von Lucke) tips on his violin playing, lovingly touching his hands to correct flaws of technique. Here it is jarringly obvious to musicians and non-musicians alike that neither Lucke nor Niney are violinists. Unfazed, Ozon screens the equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins giving a voice lesson. The result in Frantz is not the intended one evoking the candlelit glow of memory, but rather a surreal, awkward representation of the subtlety and intimacy of musical movement.
Having non-musicians flounder around at musical instruments has been a cinematic convention since Lubitsch’s day, but such awkward moments require more than merely the suspension of disbelief on the part of viewers. They demand that we reject the truth of our perceptions, that we ignore what we see. In the ham hands of these actors the sentimentality of the scene threatens to suffocate the whole story, proving yet again that rather than saving a movie, music often illuminates its greatest failings.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J.S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)