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Max Ophüls:
Bitter & Sweet

by Gary Couzens
Max Ophuls
The sixth of May 2002 is the centenary of Max Ophüls' birth. Of the world's great directors, he seems quite neglected: of his more than 20 features, only seven are reasonably easy to see in the UK (on video and/or on the Film Four channel). The fact that the films are 'old' and and all but four in languages other than English would tend to marginalise him further. The only Ophüls DVD, to my knowledge, is Fox Lorber's American edition of Lola Montes. One rather indifferent DVD is better than none (that's one more than Robert Bresson, for starters), but the lack of availability on disc of his other French films of the 1950s, or of Letter From An Unknown Woman (to me his masterpiece), is an omission desperately in need of rectifying.    For a long time, Ophüls (1902-57) was often dismissed as a maker of elegant but trifling women's pictures. Over the years, however, his reputation has risen considerably to the point where he is numbered among the greats. All but one of his films are in black and white and Academy aatio; Ophüls' distinctive style makes much use of a moving camera, frames within frames and deep focus to make the old 4:3 shape come alive. This is very post-Welles, but as Ophüls was developing this style in Europe in the 1930s, it's best to say that Ophüls and Welles maybe drank from the same wellspring. The films Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich would seem to be a strong influence on Ophüls, both in style and in subject matter. Ophüls in his turn was an avowed influence on Stanley Kubrick and French directors Jacques Becker (who directed Montparnasse 19, the film Ophüls was planning when he died) and especially Jacques Demy, whose Lola is a direct homage. Feminists should pay attention to the Ophüls oeuvre, as it pays much sympathetic attention to women's place in society - in that light his two American films with contemporary settings, Caught and The Reckless Moment, are especially fascinating to watch nowadays.
   Women are the central characters of most of his films, and love is their motivation. But Ophüls is far from sentimental: he's well aware that love is made sweeter by a knowledge of his transitoriness (which his constantly moving camera only serves to emphasise). Ophüls' films are as frank as his time allowed: his characters are willing to sleep with the men they love and even bear children out of wedlock. Lola Montes was a famous courtesan and the heroines of the central section of Le Plaisir are prostitutes, but Ophüls does not condemn them as contemporary morality would have done. As Peter Ustinov's Ringmaster says to Lola, "You give your body but you keep your soul." The pain Ophüls' heroines suffer comes with the territory, of following their heart's dictates in a society that often decrees otherwise.
   Ophüls' films are only trivial if love is a trivial subject: pain and disappointment are the price his characters pay for their moments of rapture. To re-use an analogy, he serves up a café crème where the sweetness of the surface doesn't hide the bitterness underneath.

Max Oppenheimer was born in Saarbrucken, Germany, into a wealthy German-Jewish family. Unwilling to go into the family garment business, he was briefly a journalist before becoming an actor at the age of seventeen. He changed his surname to Ophüls to avoid embarrassing his family. Four years later, he began directing stage plays, and by 1926 he was invited to direct at Vienna's prestigious Burgetheater. There he met the actress Hilde Wall, who became his wife. Their only child, born in 1927, was Marcel Ophüls, also a director, best known for epic-length documentaries investigating wartime guilt (The Sorrow And The Pity). Ophüls senior entered films in 1930, initially as a dialogue director.

Liebelei (1932) - Arthouse Video, now deleted
A young officer (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) and the daughter of a violinist (Magda Schneider) have a brief love affair, which ends in tragedy. Liebelei was Ophüls' fourth feature (based, as was La ronde, on a play by Arthur Schnitzler) and his first major success; it's fascinating to see his style already developing: long lyrical camera movements, for example in the sleigh-ride scene, but not avoiding quick cutting where necessary. A duel where we hear, rather than see, the decisive moment, foreshadows a scene in Madame de...
   Ophüls left Germany to avoid the rise of Nazism. He and his family settled in France and he continued to make films there, and in Holland and Italy. Probably the best known of this period is La signora di tutti (1934), a contemporary story where a film star (Isa Miranda) tells of the events leading up to a suicide attempt.
   Ophüls moved to Hollywood in 1941, but it was five years later that he was able to direct again. Howard Hughes hired him to make Vendetta, a vehicle for his latest discovery Faith Domergue, but sacked him after a few days. Several other directors worked on the film, which was finally released in 1950 and flopped. However, by then Ophüls (or Opuls, as he was billed in the USA) had been able to make four more films. The Exile (1947), a costume drama starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr, is by all accounts the least of them, and rarely shown nowadays. However, the next film was...
Liebelei Letter From An Unknown Woman Caught
Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) - Second Sight Video
Set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, Letter From An Unknown Woman is one of the screen's great studies of unrequited love. Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan) receives a letter. He does not recognise - as it turns out, he doesn't remember - the sender. This is Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine). She tells him of how she was first attracted to him from afar, as a young woman. Later, they met again and had a brief affair. When he left, he didn't know that she was carrying his child...
   For all its romantic trappings, beyond-elegant tracking shots and a setting that's all brilliant studio artifice, Letter deals the viewer a powerful blow: only the most cynical will remain unmoved at the end. The film is a devastating study in unrequited love and the price it exerts, and about as frank as the story (and 1940s Hollywood) could bear. The story is constructed with great precision. Fontaine's Lisa is all fragile yearning, and steely determination. Jourdan's handsomeness has never been used to better, and colder, effect. There may be no such thing as a perfect film, but Letter is pretty close. Simply a masterpiece, and recommended for aching romantics everywhere.

Caught (1949) - Second Sight Video
Leonora (Barbara Bel Geddes) goes to charm school in the hope of landing a millionaire - which she does, in the shape of Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan). However, Ohlrig is only interested in her as a trophy for his arm; providing her with a luxurious lifestyle of mink and jewels is the price he pays for this. Leonora finds the love she yearns for in the arms of doctor Larry Quinada (James Mason), but Ohlrig is having nothing of this... Caught is a gripping film, close to film noir in style, but with heavy similarities to Citizen Kane - especially the huge, luxurious but cold and unforgiving interiors of the Ohlrig mansion. Like Douglas Sirk's films, Caught uses the form of melodrama to make a sharp critique of American society. Here, the American dream of wealth is examined and found wanting.
   The Reckless Moment was made in the same year as Caught and also starred James Mason. Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) finds the dead body of her daughter Lucia's lover, and hides the corpse to protect Lucia. Martin Donnelly (Mason) sets out to blackmail Lucia, and falls in love with her instead, which causes a conflict with his boss. This is based on Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel The Blank Wall, recently refilmed as The Deep End.
   In 1950, Ophüls moved back to France, where he made four more films, all of which are among his best.

La ronde (1950) - Connoisseur Video
Based on Arthur Schnitzler's play, La ronde takes the form of a series of erotic encounters: a prostitute meets a soldier, who meets a housemaid, and so on up the social scale until we meet an army officer who meets the prostitute we began with. Ophüls' major addition to the play was an on-screen compere (Anton Wallbrook at his most urbane), who comments on the action. The opening shot, some six minutes long, is Ophüls at his most virtuoso, and the superb cast and knowing, ironic wit make this film a sophisticated delight. The BBFC passed the film uncut, though some local councils banned it, and it was threatened with an obscenity suit in the US - more for the film's non-judgemental view of sex than for any explicitness. (At one point Walbrook 'censors' the film for us.) The stuff of scandal half a century ago now bears a PG certificate.

Le Plaisir (aka: House Of Pleasure, 1952) - Second Sight Video
Le Plaisir is three tales in one, linked by the theme of the search for pleasure, all based on short stories by Guy de Maupassant. In The Mask an old man goes in search of his youth by wearing a mask as disguise. In La Maison Tellier, the hour-long central story, a group of prostitutes go for a day in the country, to attend the Madam's nephew's first communion, and one of them has a romantic encounter. In The Model (like The Mask a quarter of an hour long), a painter in the habit of taking his models as mistresses is forced to marry one (Simone Simon), who tries to kill herself. In Ophüls' world, men can be victims as well. Le Plaisir is a favourite film of Jean-Luc Godard.
La ronde Le Plaisir Madame de... Lola Montes
Madame de... (aka: The Earrings Of Madame de..., 1953) - Second Sight Video
Madame de... (Danielle Darrieux) is short of money, and secretly pawns the earrings that her husband bought her as a wedding gift. To cover her tracks, she claims to have lost them. Her husband discovers them at the pawnbroker's and gives them to his mistress (Lea di Lea). She loses them gambling, and they fall into the hands of an Italian diplomat (Vittorio de Sica), who gives them to his own mistress - who is Madame de... The film has the same episodic, circular construction as others of Ophüls' late period, but uses a prop (the earrings) instead of a narrator. The tale ends tragically, with love wearing the title character out: the earrings on the other hand, symbolise the price men pay for sex, rather than love.

Lola Montes (1955) - Nouveaux Video, also available on DVD Region 0 from Fox Lorber
Lola Montes was a production on a grand scale, with Ophüls using colour, CinemaScope and stereophonic sound for the first and only time. Released at 140 minutes, it was an enormous flop, and the disappointment may have contributed to Ophüls' early death. The most complete available versions run 110 minutes with a mono soundtrack, and the colour (Ophüls and his DP used the inferior Eastmancolor process instead of Technicolor) has faded somewhat. Over the years, Ophüls' final film has picked up a substantial cult following, and there are those who claim it as the director's masterpiece. I disagree: his other three last films are superior, as is Letter From An Unknown Woman. However, Lola Montes is a fascinating, if flawed work. Ophüls' use of tracks, pans and crane shots is frequently breathtaking and must be seen at the full aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (imagine what he could have done with a Steadicam). Interestingly, Ophüls wasn't always comfortable with the wide screen, and in some shots masked it off at the sides to give a narrower picture. The film is set towards the end of Lola's (Martine Carol) life, where she is a circus attraction as 'The World's Most Scandalous Woman'. A Ringmaster (Peter Ustinov, playing the last of Ophüls' narrator figures) tells her story in a series of flashbacks. Unfortunately, Carol is a bland, limited actress, especially compared to those who played Ophüls' earlier heroines, and we get little sense of Lola's inner life or heartache. But there are still plenty of reasons to see this film.

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