Combustible Celluloid

Max Ophuls: Moving Pictures (1999)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Circles of Time

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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It's time to rejoice. Throw up your arms and cry, "Vive la Max Ophuls!" Ophuls (1902-57) is a film director of such high quality that hundreds of other good directors fall away when we begin talking about him. Ophuls is in a class with Jean Renoir, F.W. Murnau, and Akira Kurosawa. But Ophuls was not just a European filmmaker. He lived and worked in Hollywood for three years and made four movies there, ranking him with Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Orson Welles.

High praise for someone you've never heard of? Yes, but the point is that Ophuls should never have gone away. He seems to have been forgotten by all but a small handful of film scholars and film buffs. His films were criticized for being beautiful only for beauty's sake. (Hitchcock was dismissed for much the same reason.) Ophuls was a man without a country, essentially. He was born in Germany near the French border, and he spoke both languges fluently. He also made films in English, Italian and Dutch. Ophuls is a true "auteur" in that all of his films have the same underlying elements. He made mostly women's stories with tragic endings. He filmed mostly in black and white (except for his last movie, Lola Montes) and moved his camera most elegantly in nearly every shot (no wasted shots on close-ups, cutaways, or establishing shots). And yet, one had a sense at every moment of absolute clarity. There is never any question where one is or what is taking place. Ophuls also prefered circular stories -- ones that left the characters in much the same place at the end as they were at the beginning. But more than that, I have felt a delighted tingle throughout every Ophuls film I have seen. These are movie-movies for people who love movies. These are movies to get excited about.

Because Ophuls is semi-forgotten, this retrospective is a major event. You could go and see any one of these twelve films without choosing wrong. But I will gladly guide you along. Ophuls' early films, Liebelei (1932) and Happy Heirs (1933), made in Germany, and La Signora di Tutti (1934) made in Italy, are early examples of Ophuls just beginning to move the camera. If you consider that this is only a handful of years after silent movies died, and movies were still experimenting with sound, Ophuls' movement was against the grain of the times. La Signora di Tutti especially stands out as an example of grand tragedy with a circular story. In this film, a movie star (Isa Miranda) undergoes an operation and flashes back on her tragic life story in which men fall for her and control her life. I found La Signora di Tutti not as refined as Ophuls' later work, but perhaps Ophuls' artistic presence was a bit more subtle in the beginning.

Ophuls' Hollywood period has always been underrated because, like Howard Hawks, he made genre pictures, and not "important" message movies. (Sadly, Ophuls' first Hollywood movie from 1947, The Exile, a work for hire starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., is not included in the festival.) But at least Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) is one of the greatest achievements in American film, if not Caught and The Reckless Moment (both 1949). Letter from an Unknown Woman uses the circular story once again. Louis Jourdan reads a letter just as he goes off to fight a losing duel. The letter reminds him of a young woman (Joan Fontaine) who had fallen in love with him. At first he did not notice her, then he used and forgot her. The most memorable scene is in the amusement park ride where painted backdrops spin by, making it seem as if you're in another place. But Ophuls' camera is alive in every scene, following Fontaine and making her tragedy tangible.

Most agree that Ophuls' greatest period is when he returned to France after leaving Hollywood. He began with La Ronde (1950), which means "circle," for his most characteristic movie (a good place to start for beginners). It's based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler, who also wrote the novel that Eyes Wide Shut is based on. In La Ronde, we follow a group of characters beginning with a prostitute who sleeps with a soldier. The soldier meets a girl at a dance. Then she falls for someone else. The he meets another woman. On and on, until we reach the prostitute again. Anton Walbrook (The Red Shoes) plays the narrator and the guiding hand of fate, who works at a carolsel which becomes the centerpiece of the movie. The similar Le Plaisir (1952) followed, which is based on three short stories by Guy de Maupassant. Nearly everyone agrees though, that The Earrings of Madame de... (1953) is Ophuls' masterwork, a film comparable to Citizen Kane and The Rules of the Game. Ophuls digs much deeper this time, telling the story of a love triangle between countess Danielle Darrieux, her husband Charles Boyer, and her lover Vittorio De Sica (the director of The Bicycle Thief). These three are connected by a pair of earrings that are sold, lost, and passed around from character to character. The earrings were first a wedding present, then unkowingly become a present from the lover, and the countess pays the price for the different values she attaches to them.

Just before his death, Ophuls created one more film, Lola Montes (1955). It cost a fortune, and it was his first film in color and in cinemascope. It's one of the most beautiful movies ever made. Ophuls didn't bother to learn the new, wider format. He simply masked off parts of the screen with props and sets and lines in order to focus his action in one portion of the frame. Sadly, his leading lady, Martine Carol, does not project much intensity, and because of this the film lacks emotional resonance. The film was also butchered by studio heads, and has yet to be completely restored to its full length. It died violently at the box office, and Ophuls lived just long enough to experience his failure (an ironic ending for the maker of so many tragedies?). Despite these failures, Lola Montes is Ophuls' most personal work, as evidenced by the scenes in the circus with Peter Ustinov as a ringmaster calling out to the audience to ask questions about Lola and her personal, sexual life. This is one Ophuls film that demands to be seen on the big screen.

Andrew Sarris' theory -- and it's a sound one -- is that Ophuls' continuous camera movement in all his films is representative of time itself. That time always keeps moving, and how there is nothing more tragic than that. There are very few movie events this year (or last year or next year for that matter) that warrant your attention more than this collection of beautiful films by a grand master of the cinema.

(October 1, 1999)

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