Underrated: Max Ophüls

An émigré director whose camerawork of genius was rarely appreciated either in Europe or in Hollywood

Ophüls: Neglected genius (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Max Ophüls, born in 1902 to a middle class German-Jewish family, worked as a stage actor, director and producer before he turned to film in 1929. After the Reichstag fire in 1933, he fled to France and began a precarious career making films wherever he could — in France, Italy and the Netherlands — before trying his luck in Hollywood and ultimately returning to France. His career was marked by long periods of forced inactivity, critical acclaim and commercial failure. Although he is now hailed as one of the great masters of cinema, Ophüls’s genius is often underrated.

Ophüls is famous for his long tracking shots. He used the camera like no other director before — or since. His camerawork is effortlessly seamless: the lens glides through walls, objects and rooms, sweeping around figures and lingering almost intrusively during close-ups. His shots are full of movement and achieve a magnificent lightness. “The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere, neither in theatre nor in life,” he said. Throughout his career this “new art” gave form to the permanence of human feelings in the transience of life.

His first success was Liebelei (1933), a film that sets up two of his subsequent masterpieces, Madame De . . . (1953) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). These are “women’s pictures”, shown from the perspective of a woman and giving voice to her inner life. They reveal women’s innermost feelings, while relishing the outward glamour of their lives. Fine houses, love affairs, duels and opera houses are the stuff of Ophüls’s oeuvre, while his characters inevitably fall in love with the wrong people at the wrong time in a manner completely out of their control.

Liebelei, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler and set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, contains all these themes. What stands out is the ending, a two-minute shot of the bereft central character, Christine (Magda Schneider).

The opening of Madame De . . . (1953), Ophüls’s finest achievement, is one of the best in cinema. It begins with a long tracking shot of the aristocratic heroine, whose name we never learn, played by the incomparable Danielle Darrieux. Before we see her face, we hear her voice singing and talking to herself, her hands gliding over the items in her wardrobe and her room. We are both watching her over her shoulder and looking through her eyes. When we eventually do see her reflection, and the camera moves right in on her face, the time we have already spent with her has been so intimate and revealing that the audience is completely in her thrall. The narrative follows a pair of earrings and the woman whose life they haunt. For a filmmaker whose male characters are often so cynical, Ophüls remains an optimist in his presentation of true and all-consuming love.  The heroine’s husband’s comment about their marriage being “only superficially superficial” could apply to the film itself, which keeps its distance yet reveals a depth of truth.

In Hollywood in the 1940s, Ophüls directed four films, all commercial failures. A notoriously shy and fastidious man, Ophüls was ill-suited to the competitive nature of American studios. His European sensibilities, which translate into his films, were equally unsuited to a postwar American audience. After the swashbuckling romance of The Exile (1947) came two explorations of film noir, The Reckless Moment and Caught (both 1949). Both star James Mason, whose dark sexuality, bordering on the sinister, is a perfect match for Ophüls’s style. In between Ophüls directed Letter From an Unknown Woman, one of his greatest films.

In Letter, the cinematographer of Liebelei, Franz Planer, returns, as does the setting of Vienna at the turn of the century, the story this time based on a Stefan Zweig novella. In what is perhaps his most deliriously sentimental work, Ophüls tells a fatalistic love story about obsession, longing and unrequited love through breathtaking visual narrative. Set to Franz Liszt’s “Un Sospiro” (“a sigh”), it reads like a love poem to the old Europe. Vienna around 1900 is yet again the setting for his adaptation of Schnitzler’s La Ronde (1950), made after his return to France and his biggest commercial success. 

Ophüls’s final film, made in France, and a first, astonishing foray into colour, was Lola Montès (1955). Based on the story of the notorious 19th-century dancer and courtesan who was a lover of both Liszt and Ludwig I of Bavaria, it was the most expensive film ever made in Europe until then. Dizzying and intoxicating in the ambition and lusciousness of its staging, it was, nonetheless, a commercial failure. Perhaps its complex, non-linear narrative of flashbacks proved too challenging, but Ophüls’s unique treatment of time and the use of the retrospective as a narrative mode was one of his boldest contributions to world cinema.

In 1957, shortly after its failure, Ophüls, who — like many of his characters — had a weak heart, died aged only 54. He revealed the range of expression possible in cinema and, perhaps most importantly, his films remind us of the fragility that exists in us all.

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