Max Ophuls Essay - Critical Essays

Ophuls, Max


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.

Principal Works

Dann schon lieber Lebertran [Rather Cod Liver Oil] (film) 1930

Die Verliebte Firma [The Company in Love] (film) 1932

Die Verkaufte Braut [The Bartered Bride] (film) 1932

Die Lachende Erben (film) 1933

Liebelei (film) 1933

Une histoire d'amour (film) 1933

On a vole un homme [A Man Has Been Stolen] (film) 1934

La Signora di tutti [Everybody's Lady] (film) 1934

Divine (film) 1935

Komedie om Geld [The Trouble with Money] (film) 1936

Ave Maria de Schubert (film) 1936

La Valse Brillante (film) 1936

La tendre ennemie [The Tender Enemy] (film) 1936

Yoshiwara (film) 1937

Werther (film) 1938

Sans lendemain (film) 1940

De Mayerling a Sarajevo (film) 1940

The Exile (film) 1947

Letter from an Unknown Woman (film) 1948

Caught (film) 1949

The Reckless Moment (film) 1949

La Ronde (film) 1950

Le Plaisir (film) 1952

Madame de . . . [The Earrings of Madame de . . .] (film) 1953

Lola Montes (film) 1955


Eugene Archer (essay date 1956)

SOURCE: "Ophuls and the Romantic Tradition," in Yale French Studies, No. 17, Summer, 1956, pp. 3-5.

[In the following essay, Archer identifies Ophuls as the most controversial figure in French cinema.]

La Ronde opens with the introduction of an autonomous entrepreneur, an addition to the text of Schnitzler's Reigen, who functions in the stylized manner of a Shakespearian Chorus. Wandering through a deserted sound stage, this enigmatic figure, suavely played by Anton Walbrook, regards his audience with polite disdain as he establishes the point of departure for the film. The theme, he announces, is love, in all its variations; the setting Vienna, gauzy and ornate; the mood nostalgia (violins commence an Oscar Strauss waltz); the time "le passé" ("J'adore le passé," he thoughtfully explains). By the time this curious combination of headwaiter and puppeteer has started the carousel which symbolizes La Ronde, it is clear that he is a calculated device carefully designed to lure audiences into acceptance of a point of view long considered outmoded: the stylized sentimentality of Lehar, Zweig, and das süsse Mädel.

In the works of Max Ophuls, who created and obviously inhabits the guise of the blasé Compère, the modern French cinema has divorced itself entirely from the issues of contemporary civilization and retrogressed into an aura of unadulterated romanticism. This unexpected throwback to an almost forgotten tradition has been greeted by a mixture of damns and praises from discerning critics, and has established Ophuls as the most controversial figure of the modern French cinema. Ignoring the tastes of his critics (perhaps as disdainful of them as his identification with the Compère would indicate), Ophuls has continued along his predetermined pattern to create a formidable body of work. His lavish films, garnished with performances from the ablest and most expensive actors on the European screen, have attracted an amount of international attention which requires an appraisal and revaluation of Ophuls' individual esthetic genre.

An acceptance of Ophuls' extreme romanticism is essential to an understanding of his work. Born in Germany in 1902, Ophuls followed a devious cinematic route before arriving at the present fruition of his career. His first important film, in 1932, was German (Liebelei); this was followed by insignificant work in Italy, England, France (De Mayerling à Sarajevo, 1939, is the most notable film of his early period), and an unsuccessful apprenticeship in Hollywood (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught, The Reckless Moment). Throughout this formative period, Ophuls, continually uprooted by World War II, retained as a personal characteristic only his nostalgic absorption with the romantic past. He returned to Paris in 1950 to direct Greta Garbo and James Mason in an adaptation of Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais. When insufficient financing dissolved the project, Ophuls remained in Europe to create La Ronde.

Admirers of Schnitzler's Reigen, vexed at the director's disregard for the bitter cynicism which set the tone of the...

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Andrew Sarris (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Max Ophuls," in Interviews with Film Directors, edited by Andrew Sarris, Avon Books, 1967, pp. 350-65.

[In the following essay, Sarris announces the importance of Ophuls to world cinema as an introduction to an autobiographical essay by Ophuls.]

"Je n'ai pas la prétention d'être un réalisateur d'avantgarde. C'est un mot dont j'ai horreur. Il laisse supposer un mépris de la masse des spectateurs. Je suis seulement persuadê que, même dans un film commercial, on peut essayer de faire quelque chose de neuf . .. "

Max Ophuls, 1935

"I think I know the reason why

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Forrest Williams (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Mastery of Movement: An Appreciation of Max Ophuls," in Film Comment, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1969, pp. 71-4.

[In the following essay, Williams places Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman in a cinematic tradition that includes Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons and William Wyler's The Little Foxes.]

When Letter from an Unknown Woman came out of Hollywood in 1948, it was publicised—accurately, and with that hint of big-studio condescension that obviously drew in far more patrons than it alienated—as "the simple, poignant kind of love-story that women like."1 With Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in the leading roles,...

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Howard Koch (essay date 1970-71)

SOURCE: "Script to Screen with Max Ophuls," in Film Comment, Vol. 6, No. 4, Winter, 1970-71, pp. 41-3.

[In the following essay, Koch, the screenwriter for Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman, reminisces about meeting and working with the director to assert that Ophuls was not an auteur, but worked closely with his screenwriters and cinematographers.]

Howard Koch came to Hollywood from radio, where he had written the script of Invasion from Mars for Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. His screenplays include The Sea Hawk, The Letter, Sergeant York, Mission to Moscow, Three Strangers, The Thirteenth Letter, Loss of Innocence and...

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Andrew Sarris (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: An introduction to Max Ophuls, in Film Comment, Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer, 1971, pp. 57-9.

[In the following essay, Sarris defends Ophuls's stature as a major filmmaker of the twentieth century.]

One problem with culturally ambitious film criticism is its straining for analogies between cinema and the other arts when, in fact, cinema is not only analogous to the other arts, but swallows them whole in the process. What is mise-en-scène in cinema? The apostles of mise-enscène may argue that mise-en-scène is to cinema as music is to opera. But what happens to this neat analogy between cinematic mise-en-scène and operatic music...

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Molly Haskell (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Madame de: A Musical Passage," in Favorite Movies: Critic's Choice, edited by Philip Nobile, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1973, pp. 133-45.

[In the following essay, Haskell places Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman in a league of her favorite films, including Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, Preston Sturges 's Hail the Conquering Hero, Ingmar Bergman's Persona, and Francois Truffaut's Jules et Jim.]

Everyone Agrees, and a good deal of criticism is based on the fact, that our response to film is intensely personal and mysteriously chemical. Despite their growing academic respectability, movies still have the power to start...

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Peter Harcourt (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "My Favorite Movie—Madame de" in Favorite Movies: Critic's Choice, edited by Philip Nobile, Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1973, pp. 146-59.

[In the following essay, Harcourt examines his favorite film, Ophuls's Madame de . . . .]

What is my favorite movie? Difficult though it may be to answer such a question, I find it easier than choosing the top ten films of all time. For I have long felt it should be possible to separate the objects of one's affection from those that one recognizes as having great value. Of course, Battleship Potemkin is a very great film, but is it anyone's favorite, at least nowadays? A favorite movie, to my mind, implies...

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Tony Pipolo (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "The Aptness of Terminology: Point of View, Consciousness and Letter from an Unknown Woman," in Film Reader, No. 4, 1979, pp. 166-79.

[In the following essay, Pipolo examines Ophuls's use of point of view in his Letter from an Unknown Woman.]

One of the more intricate problems of narrative cinema is the handling of "point of view," especially that of the first person, the "I" of literary narratives. The history of this fictional device in literature is long and complicated, culminating for the traditional novel at least, in Henry James' well-known and exhausting struggles with it, as evidenced in his Prefaces. For film, there is the additional problem,...

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Catherine Johnson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Narrative, Spectacle, and the Sexes in Ophuls' Le Plaisir," in Film Criticism, Vol. IV, No. 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 17-24.

[In the following essay, Johnson examines Ophuls's Le Plaisir from a feminist perspective.]

The notion of voyeurism, long fruitful for film scholars, has in recent years been taken up by feminist film critics as well. The feminist contribution to the issue has been the insight that a given film's relation to voyeurism is linked not only to its genre (the musical vs. the adventure story) or to its plot (Psycho's voyeur as killer) but importantly to its use of the sexes as well. However, most of the work that has appeared...

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Dolores M. Burdick (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Lisa, Lola, and L: The Woman Unknown as the Woman Immortal in Ophuls and Robbe-Grillet," in Michigan Academician, Vol. XII, No. 3, Winter, 1980, pp. 251-9.

[In the following essay, Burdick identifies similar themes in Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman and Lola Montes, and Alain Robbe-Grillet's L'Immortelle.]

One intuition of the medieval romancers still animates modern art: Tristan and Iseult, the archetypal lovers, cannot possess each other forever without a potion or a death. Quite simply, human love does not last as long as it should. Alain Robbe-Grillet's glacial geometries and Max Ophuls' swirling spirals create two cinematic...

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Manon Meilgaard and Dolores Burdick (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Maupassant and Ophuls: The 'Real' and the 'Ideal' in 'La Maison Tellier' (Le Plaisir)," in Michigan Academician, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Summer, 1981, pp. 63-9.

[In the following essay, Meilgaard and Burdick examine Ophuls's cinematic adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's "Le Maison Teller" for his Le Plaisir.]

In his monograph on Guy de Maupassant, Henry James observes that "his vision of the world is for the most part a vision of ugliness . . . a certain absence of love, a sort of bird's-eye view of contempt."1 This widely accepted view of Maupassant's work conceivably presented a challenge for the filmmaker Max Ophuls, whose main concerns were always...

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George Wilson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Max Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman," in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 98, No. 5, December, 1983, pp. 1121-42.

[In the following essay, Wilson explores cinematic techniques used by Ophuls's in Letter from an Unknown Woman.]

It has been borne upon me this evening that perfect music has the same effect on the heart as the presence of the beloved. It gives, in fact, apparently more intense pleasure than anything else on earth.

. . . . .

The habit of listening to music and the state of reverie connected with it prepare you for falling in love.


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Tania Modleski (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Time and Desire in the Woman's Film," in German Film & Literature: Adaptations and Transformations, edited by Eric Rentschler, Methuen, 1986, pp. 326-36.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1984, Modleski examines the melodramatic elements in Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman.]

Max Ophuls' 1948 film, Letter from an Unknown Woman, which is set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, begins late at night with the hero of the story, Stefan, returning by coach to his home and promising to fight a duel at dawn. That his attitude toward the situation is utterly frivolous is obvious from his remark as he steps out of the coach: 'Gentlemen, I don't...

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Alan Williams (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Reading Ophüls reading Schnitzler: Liebelei (1933)," in Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Women's Film, edited by Christine Gledhill, BFI Publishing, 1987, pp. 73-85.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1986, Williams examines Ophuls's cinematic adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei.]

The work of Arthur Schnitzler was important to Max Ophüls, both as vehicle and as cultural reference point. In interviews and writings, Ophüls referred to Schnitzler frequently, comparing and contrasting the Austrian writer's work and attitudes with his own. Ophüls adapted a Schnitzler text as his last project in pre-Nazi...

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James Morrison (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Ophuls and Authorship: A Reading of The Reckless Moment," in Film Criticism, Vol. XI, No. 3, Spring, 1987, pp. 21-7.

[In the following essay, Morrison defends Ophuls's The Reckless Moment from critic Laura Mulvey's assertion that it depicts its female characters as passive.]

Max Ophuls' last American film, The Reckless Moment (1949), deploys the smooth tracking-shots and dense mise-en-scène that are the hallmarks of his style. But far from setting comfortably into its studied pose as a conventionally opulent "woman's" picture, The Reckless Moment ultimately subverts both those conventions and its own surface opulence. The sedately...

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Mary Ann Doane (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Abstraction of a Lady: La Signora di tutti" in Cinema Journal, Vol. 28, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 65-82.

[In the following essay, Doane identifies Ophuls's distrust of modern technology, and places him beside director George Cukor as a filmmaker successful at depicting female issues in film.]

The films of Max Ophuls consistently manifest an obsession with what the cinema—as a machine—is capable of doing. The extended, elegant tracking shots, which are his trademark, test the limits of the technology, and his play with image and mise-en-scène testifies to a desire to investigate fully the material basis of the medium. Nevertheless, many of Ophuls's...

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Robert Lang (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "Lucia Harper's Crime: Family Melodrama and Film Noir in The Reckless Moment," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 4, 1989, pp. 261-67.

[In the following essay, Lang identifies elements of film noir and family melodrama used by Ophuls in his film The Reckless Moment.]

In his book, Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, Barry Salt concludes with a "Stylistic Analysis of the Films of Max Ophuls." In the half-page that he devotes to The Reckless Moment, Salt does not adequately explain why this film released in 1949 should have been Ophuls's most successful American production, but he does observe that Ophuls's films attracted...

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Gaylyn Studiar (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: "Masochistic Performance and Female Subjectivity in Letter from an Unknown Woman," in Cinema Journal, Vol. 33, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 35-57.

[In the following essay, Studiar examines the masochistic personality traits of the character of Lisa in both Ophuls's film Letter from an Unknown Woman and the original story by Stefan Zweig.]

Shame! With what joy would I not search for you and make myself your servant forever, if you could give me that which this little grave [of son Sacha] encloses of my happiness? But you, too, are powerless before fate. What you promise, you cannot give. Memories!


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Maria P. Alter (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "From Der Reigen to La Ronde: Transposition of a Stageplay to the Cinema," in Literature/Film Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1, 1996, pp. 52-6.

[In the following essay, Alter discusses the difficulties of adapting Arthur Schnitzler's play Der Reigen into Ophuls 's film La Ronde.]

Arthur Schnitzler, a Viennese contemporary of writer and physician Sigmund Freud (Nehring 179-94) wrote many plays and short stories. He is considered to be perhaps the best chronicler of fin-de-siècle Vienna and the dying Austro-Hungarian empire (Alter 11).

Schnitzler wrote Der Reigen in 1896-97. Max Ophüls made the film La Ronde,...

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Further Reading


Bacher, Lutz. Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996, 376 pp.

A detailed critical analysis of Ophüls's American body of work with generous cross-references and criticism of his European films.

Caswell, Stanley. "Postscript (1989): To Whom It May Concern." Creative Inquiry 16, No. 2 (Winter 1990): 248-89.

Caswell responds to Tania Modleski's assessment and interpretation of Ophuls's Letter from an Unknown Woman .

Doane, Mary Ann. "Caught and Rebecca: The Inscription of Femininity as Absence." Enclitic 6, No. 2 (Fall...

(The entire section is 313 words.)