As one of the true cosmopolitan film directors of the twentieth century, Max Ophüls (1902-1957) experienced professional triumph in his native Germany, the United States, and France. He also worked in Italy and the Netherlands. Ophüls's career can be demarcated into four distinct parts—five if his nine-year theater career is included—and taken together they can be seen as the progression of an artist.
Born Max Oppenheimer in Saarbrücken, Germany, on May 6, 1902, Ophüls began his career as a journalist, but at age 19 gave it up for the theater. At this time he changed his name partly to avoid embarrassing his family—his father was a garment manufacturer—should he fail. From 1921 to 1930 Ophüls worked in Germany and Austria first as an actor, then from 1924 as a director. In 1926 he became a theatrical producer, taking creative control of the Burgtheater in Vienna. In addition to Vienna, Ophüls worked in Berlin, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Dortmund, Wuppertal, and Breslau. Ophüls was associated with more than 200 plays during that period. By the end of the 1920s, though, Ophüls became interested in film, and he made the career change that would bring him international renown.
First French Period
Working in Germany's UFA film studios, Ophüls served a brief apprenticeship as an assistant director in charge of dialogue for Anatole Litvak on the film Nie Wieder Liebe (No More Love). His directorial debut came in 1930 with the film Dann schon lieber Lebertran (I'd Rather Take Cod Liver Oil), a film for children. Ophüls went on to direct four more films in Germany in the early 1930s before he left the country in the face of rising anti-Semitism. These early films include Die verkaufte Braut (The Bartered Bride), a 1932 adaptation of the Smetana opera which Ophüls coscripted, and his early masterpiece Liebelei (Flirtation), a love story filmed in 1932-1933 and set in Vienna. It is based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. By the time the latter film was finished the Nazis had assumed power in Germany and their censors removed Ophüls's name from the credits. Seeing the obvious handwriting on the wall, Ophüls decamped with his family (his wife was the actress Hilde Wall while his son, Marcel, would become a noted documentary filmmaker) for France.
Ophüls's first French film, Une Histoire d'Amour (1933), was a French version of Liebelei that used most of the original footage. Other than three films, including an unfinished film he directed in 1940 in Switzerland, L'ecole des femmes, all of Ophüls's output between 1934 and 1940 were French productions. In 1934 Ophüls went to Italy and directed La Signora di Tutti (Everybody's Love) and in 1936 he filmed Komedie om Gold (Comedy about Money) in the Netherlands. The films he directed during his first French sojourn were profitable but are considered workmanlike by film critics and historians. In 1938 the year he acquired French citizenship, he directed Le Roman de Werther, based on Goethe's classic The Sorrows of Young Werther. With the onset of the Second World War Ophüls was drafted into the French army and after basic training he was transferred to the radio division of the propaganda ministry. During the five-month Blitzkrieg (in which the German army swept through Belgium and France on its way to Paris) Ophüls wrote and directed German-language anti-Nazi radio broadcasts. Following the fall of Paris and the French capitulation to the Nazis in June 1940 Ophüls, who was without doubt on a "wanted" list, again decamped with his family. They first went to southern France, then Switzerland, wherein addition to the unreleased film he directed two plays, Romeo and Juliet and Henry VIII and His Sixth Wife. The Ophüls family emigrated to the safer environs of Hollywood in 1941.
The Hollywood Years
If Ophüls expected Hollywood automatically to welcome him with open arms as a refugee artist he was mistaken. For one thing the Hollywood style of filmmaking was much different than what he was used to, with a few exceptions directors were less the auteurs of the film. Another obstacle was the influx of European directors since the beginning of the war. By the time he arrived in Hollywood Ophüls was neither a novelty nor well known. Ophüls's talents went unused for more than five years. He eventually found work through the intercession of director Preston Sturges, an Ophüls admirer known for his cynical screwball comedies who was then at the height of his fame. In 1946 Sturges secured for Ophüls a position as director of the Howard Hughes film Vendetta. Ophüls was one of several credited directors on the film, including Sturges, Mel Ferrer, Stuart Heisler, and Hughes himself. Production of the film stopped when Hughes pulled his financial backing. Vendetta was not released until 1949.
Despite that setback Ophüls used his credit as director of the project (during his Hollywood stay he would be credited as Max Opuls) as a launching pad for his Hollywood career. His next film, The Exile (1947), was a costume drama that starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and was based on the exile of British king Charles II in the Netherlands. Critics were cool toward the film though they generally praised Ophüls's direction. It also faced stiff competition from other releases. As a result The Exile was a financial loss (though barely), but Ophüls's Hollywood career was cemented.
His next film was the best known of his Hollywood years— Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), another costume drama starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. In this film Ophüls truly brought his aesthetic to American audiences. The plot revolves around a woman's obsession with a pianist, with whom she has had a brief affair and thereby a child. Told from his female protagonist's point of view it offered a visual sensibility seldom presented in Hollywood at that time. Ophüls female characters were usually better delineated than his male characters, their struggles usually a counterpoint to the lush decors. The critic Andrew Sarris described the prototypical Ophüls woman as someone who "triumphs over reality only through a supreme act of will." In addition Ophüls used long takes (possibly a residual effect of his theater background) that resisted editing and was fond of tracking shots that made his camera fluid. Another aspect of his theater background that Ophüls carried into his filmmaking was that he shot his films in continuity, which he believed helped the actors realize the characters as well as interact with each other.
Ophüls's last two Hollywood films, Caught, starring James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Robert Ryan, and The Reckless Moment, starring Mason and Joan Bennett, are both generally thought of as films noir though that designation is problematic for Caught, which had also been classified as a "women's film." John Berry also directed a few scenes in Ophüls's absence. The noir aspect of the film is the psychological underpinning, which not only hints at violence but is the cause of it. Is has also been postulated that through the character of psychotic millionaire Smith Ohlrig Ophüls delivered a devastating portrait of Howard Hughes. The Reckless Moment (1949) is more strictly film noir but with the unmistakable Ophüls touch of having a female protagonist who, unlike most noir women, is not a femme fatale. Filled with irony and Ophüls's usual long takes and fluid camera, in nearly every respect (except for the female protagonist) it is the reverse side of Caught.
Though he had trouble getting work in his early years in Hollywood and he clashed with and distrusted many of his studio bosses, Ophüls essentially loved the studio system, which generally employed highly skilled people on the technical and production sides. Yet by 1950, with the studio system already in decline, Ophüls decided to return to France. Although his growth as an artist during his Hollywood period was remarkable, Ophüls literally embarked on the most creative period of his career. Ophüls never completely cut his ties with Hollywood, however. In the early 1950s European directors who had been working in Hollywood, such as Fred Zinneman and Billy Wilder, returned to Europe to make "American" films. Ophüls hoped to so the same for independent producer William Wanger, but the deal fell through. Ophüls remained in contact with Wanger and other Hollywood producers for the last five years of his life.
Second French Period
Ophüls made only four more films, but they all furthered his artistic reputation (although Ophüls admirers including film historians, critics, and the public would not become legion until after his death). Furthermore, he gave free reign to the techniques that irked his Hollywood bosses, not just the long takes and the tracking shots, but subverting of close-ups and the use of a more natural sound—Ophüls regarded Hollywood sound as "velvety."
The first of this quartet was the elegantly filmed La Ronde (1950), which Ophüls and Jacques Natanson based on the Arthur Schnitzler play. Starring, among others, Simone Signoret, Simone Simon, Dannielle Darrieux, and Jean-Louis Barrault, the film depicts various combinations of couples as they take and drop lovers, finally coming full circle, which is the title's meaning. Upon completing the film Ophüls debated whether or not to return to the United States, but the overwhelmingly positive reception given La Ronde in France decided the matter for him. In 1950 La Ronde won best story and screenplay at the Venice Film Festival, and in 1952 the film the honors for Best Film-Any Source at British Academy Awards.
His next film, Le Plaisir (1951), was based on a trio of short stories by Guy de Maupassant. Each of the film's three segments reveals a different aspect of pleasure with its attendent irony and pain. The film featured Jean Gabin and Simone Simon. In 1953 Ophüls made Madame de … (The Earrings of Madame de …). In a rather convoluted plot in which a pair of diamond earrings are sold and resold many times to pay off debts and given to lovers who in turn sell them, the notion of fate is explored. While the characters seem driven less by psychological means than the usual Ophüls film, since it is the earrings that drive the plot, film historians have noted that the performances of the three featured actors—Charles Boyer, Dannielle Darrieux, and Vittorio de Sica—overcome this shortcoming.
In 1954 Ophüls returned to Germany and began directing the classics on German radio. In 1955 he was back in France directing his final film, and the one on which future film historians would pin the label of genius on Ophüls. This was Lola Montès, starring Peter Ustinov. Loosely based on the life of the 19th-century courtesan the film was shot in Cinemascope (wide screen), which Ophüls used to startling effect. Another technique that critics and historians alike have admired was his 360-degree pan shots. Unfortunately Ophüls, whom most contemporary critics thought frivolous, never lived to see his name in the pantheon of great film directors. He died of heart disease in Hamburg, Germany, on March 25, 1957; Ophüls was buried in the cemetery Père-Lachaise in Paris. His autobiography, Spiel im Dasein, was posthumously published in 1959 and in 1966 he was posthumously awarded a FIPRESCI Award at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Bacher, Lutz, Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios, Rutgers University Press, 1996.
Silver, Alain, Elizabeth Ward, et al, eds., Film Noir, The Overlook Press, 1979.
White, Susan M., The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, Columbia University Press, 1995.
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