Max Ophuls Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ophuls, Max 1902-1957

(Born Max Oppenheimer) German film director.

Ophuls's films are noted for their fluid camera movement, use of music and minimal dialogue to convey character motivation, and examination of themes of romantic and physical love in historical, mostly European, settings. In his films, Ophuls employed innovative camera movements using cranes, camera pans, and tracking shots. Many of his films feature his protagonists attending musical performances, scenes which he uses to establish parallels with the film's characters. In Liebelei (1933), for example, Ophuls eschewed extensive use of dialogue, relying instead on music to convey the moods and feelings of the film's lovers. The film features excerpts from a performance of the opera The Abduction from the Seraglio], an elaborately choreographed and filmed waltz sequence, as well as lengthy passages from Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Much of Ophuls's cinematic work details the temporal and arbitrary nature of love between women and men.

Biographical Information

Ophuls was born in Sarrebruck, Germany, to a wealthy Jewish family that owned a successful department store. Ophuls became a theater critic and, later, an actor. When he was unsuccessful as an actor, he began directing theatrical productions in 1923. His first foray into film came in 1930 when he was hired as dialogue director on Anatole Litvak's Nie Wieder Liebe, a film shot simultaneously in French and German language versions. He directed his first film, Dann schon lieber Lebertran (1930; Rather Cod Liver Oil), a forty-minute fantasy adapted from a story by Erich Kastner. He continued to direct films in Germany until 1933, when Adolf Hitler rose to power. He enjoyed success directing French and Italian movies until 1940, when World War II spurred his exile to America. He made several American films that were commercially unsuccessful, but have since received critical acclaim, most notably Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). He returned to France in 1950 to direct his most critically admired work, La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), Madame de . . . (1953; The Earrings of Madame de . . .), and Lola Montes (1955).

Major Works

Liebelei, a loose adaptation of a play by Arthur Schnitzler, was Ophuls's first unqualified cinematic success. The film is noted for its stunning and romantic visual imagery, including a sleigh ride involving the film's male and female protagonists. Ophuls remade the film as Une histoire d'amour (1933) for French audiences when he relocated to France. Upon the invitation of novice film producer Angelo Rizzoli, Ophuls went to Italy to direct La Signora di tutti (1934; Everybody's Lady). The film concerns Gaby Doriot, an actress recalling her life while anaesthetized following a suicide attempt. Ophuls returned to France to direct Divine (1935), a film based on a scenario by French short story writer Colette about a country girl who moves to Paris to dance in a music hall, and is led astray by a disreputable snake charmer before she returns to her simpler country life.

Ophuls made Komedie om geld (1936; The Trouble with Money) in Holland, before returning to France to direct La tendre ennemie (1936; The Tender Enemy); Yoshiwara (1937); Werther (1938); Sans lendemain (1940); and De Mayerling a Sarajevo (1940). World War II forced Ophuls to move his family to the United States, where director and screenwriter Preston Sturges arranged for him to direct Vendetta for producer Howard Hughes, who fired Ophuls from the project. Ophuls's first American feature was The Exile (1947), a costume adventure about Charles II featuring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Ophuls then directed his most critically praised American film, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), adapted by screenwriter Howard Koch from a novella by Stephen Zweig, and produced by John Houseman. The story recounts in epistolary fashion a woman's romantic infatuation with a concert pianist after a brief encounter with him in her youth. The pianist receives and reads a letter from the woman after her death, and accepts a challenge to duel the woman's husband, knowing he will be killed. He returned to France to direct La Ronde, a cinematic adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's play Reigen, and Le Plaisir. Set in Vienna in 1900 and featuring an all-star cast and original waltz music by Oscar Straus, La Ronde depicts ten romantically linked characters who abandon one another in turn. Le Plaisir recounts three stories by Guy de Maupassant. Madame de . . . tells the story of an unfaithful wife, whose adulterous relationship with a diplomat is revealed to her husband by the gift of a pair of earrings. The husband and the diplomat duel as the woman dies of heartbreak. Ophuls's last film, Lola Montes, is also his only color film. An international project, Lola Montes was filmed in Bavaria, Paris, and on the Cote d'Azur. The film details the life and loves of a circus performer who had affairs with her mother's lover, as well as Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria.