Omaž        MAX OPHULS

Max Ophuls: A tribute
Elija SulejmanElija Sulejman

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor dear Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.

James Mason

At the beginning of Max Ophuls's 1950 movie La Ronde, the Master of Ceremonies walks through a film studio on to a fin de siècle set, changes into an opera cloak, begins to sing an Oscar Straus waltz and spins a merry-go-round. It is a carousel of deceit, on which lovers meet. Then one of them turns to another, then that other turns to another, and so on until the circle is completed. At one point, the MC snips a length of film with a pair of scissors.

He is the alter ego of Max Ophuls, whose films are merry-go-rounds, moving to the sound of a waltz or a rondo capriccio as the camera tracks and circles. Like the couples in La Ronde, the earrings of Madame De... (1953) are passed from hand to hand until they, too, come full circle. In Lola Montès (1955) the ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), another of the director's surrogates, cracks his whip as the notorious courtesan, now reduced to a circus attraction, reminisces and the camera revolves 360 degrees to reveal her past.

The past returns in Leibelei (1932) as the camera tracks around the room where the doomed couple were happy, she having jumped to her death after he is killed in a duel. Similarly, the past is relived as the concert pianist reads the Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948), who is dead, just before he is likely to be killed in a duel. Love is Ophuls's theme and, as it is transitory - it exists in the past - the tracking, circling camera suggests time passing. "I adore the past. It is more restful than the present and more sure than the future," says the MC in La Ronde.

Ophuls does not wallow in nostalgia but summons up 19th-century Vienna or the Second Empire as part of the whirl of destiny in a danse macabre. For years, critics saw only the radiant surface and dismissed Ophuls as a minor director whose decorous style was but shallow artifice, his plots quaintly old-fashioned. However, like Viennese coffee, whipped cream covers bitterness. As Charles Boyer says in Madame De...: "It seems superficial superficially." His films are exquisite treatises on the mortality of love, nearly all of them seen from a female perspective.

Ophuls's life was as restless as his camera: he moved from Germany to Italy to Holland to France to Hollywood, then back to Paris after the second world war. He was born Max Oppenheimer in 1902 in Sarrebrück, the son of a German-Jewish department store owner. To protect his family's reputation he changed his name when he entered the "disreputable" entertainment business. (In Hollywood, it was changed again briefly to Max Opuls so that, according to some mogul, nobody would confuse it with "offal" or "awful".)

In Germany, Ophuls was a celebrated stage director who turned his hand to films when talkies came in. The second of them was a wonderfully sung (in German) performance of Smetana's delightful Czech opera The Bartered Bride (1932). Not content merely to record the opera, the director managed, by complex cam era angles, to present his own comment on the filming of opera.

His last film in Germany, before the Reichstag fire indicated it was time for him and his family to leave, was Leibelei, an adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's play of doomed love. Far less ironic and more romantic than the play (witness the invigorating sleigh ride), the film's emphasis is on music, sound and camera movement rather than dialogue. Schnitzler was also the source for La Ronde, and for Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut - an attempt to emulate Ophuls.

Kubrick once said: "Highest of all I would rate Max Ophuls, who for me possessed every possible quality. He has an exceptional flair for sniffing out good subjects, and he got the most out of them. He was also a marvellous director of actors."

Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and, like his Viennese contemporary Sigmund Freud, he had an abiding interest in the way sex shapes people's lives. This theme runs through the films Ophuls made as an exile in France in the 30s.

Divine is about an innocent country girl who comes to Paris where she becomes a chorus girl, gets involved with a dope-peddling snake charmer, a milkman and a lesbian, who fancies her. Though the film was dismissed at the time, François Truffaut later called it "a real little masterpiece, with, naturally, that Ophulsian frenzy which drives the camera up staircases, into the flies, in and out of the wings". Ophuls then turned Goethe's 18th-century tale Werther into a wild 19th-century romance, shifting the tragedy from the hero to the heroine. (He later considered he had betrayed his beloved Goethe, a copy of whose Faust was beside his bed when he died in hospital in Hamburg in 1957 aged 55.)

Mayerling to Sarajevo, his last completed film before his departure for the US, found Ophuls relishing the sort of thing he did best - casting an ironic eye on the extravagances and absurdities of the aristocracy and portraying a bitter-sweet romance against a background of balls, operas and rides through the woods.

Ophuls arrived in Hollywood in 1941, and had to wait six years before he was given a film to direct. Like other European auteurs at the time, such as Jean Renoir and Fritz Lang, he was treated shabbily by the American film industry. He didn't have much liberty on his first American film, a rarely seen costume drama The Exile (1947), shot in sepia tones, starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr as the exiled Charles II of England. (Two endings were shot: the never-before-seen one will be shown at Edinburgh in a new print.) He also made two brooding films noirs, Caught and The Reckless Moment (both 1949), starring James Mason as romantic doctor and slimy blackmailer respectively - rare instances of Ophuls dealing with a contemporary setting. The only film he made in the US that suggests the European period, and one of the best of that underestimated genre "the women's picture", was Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), a heart-rending tale in which turn-of-the-century Vienna is lovingly recreated.

In 1949, Ophuls returned to Paris, where he made his last four masterpieces: La Ronde; Le Plaisir (1952), based on three Guy de Maupassant stories; Madame De...; and Lola Montès - his only work in colour.

In the first story in Le Plaisir, a masked dancer sweeps into a dance hall, the camera moving with him as he whirls and whirls, the music getting livelier until he falls. Madame De... has a dizzying sequence in which a couple (Danielle Darrieux and Vittorio De Sica) dance from ball to ball as their relationship deepens. Lola Montès tells the story of Lola's love affairs with, among others, Franz Liszt, King Ludwig I of Bavaria and a student. The extraordinary treatment of space on the CinemaScope screen (using masking and other devices), the crane shots and elaborate camera movements have the virtuosity of a Liszt sonata. It was an expensive film that lost a great deal of money, and was shown in a heavily cut version for years. Ophuls, who had been suffering from a cardiac problem, spent his last two years fighting to prevent the movie from being shown in the mutilated form. He died not long after its disastrous release. However, the restored film is now considered a classic.

Ronald Bergan

 

Previous-Page-Icon  13     Next-Page-Icon