Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Films Of Monsieur Max

In the opening scene to 1950’s La Ronde, the master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook) walks across the stage and the camera follows him. It goes from one side to the other as he walks off the stage and goes behind the floodlights and camera on set while explaining the story is a series of episodes about love. He will pop in and out of the episodes, sometimes interfering with visual gags (the actual cutting of film), leading viewers to complete the titular circle of love. This was the first film I saw directed by Max Ophuls, who clearly had a unique eye to change how a camera moved and not simply horizontal or vertical on a track. Instead, he drew circles around his cast like a professional ballroom dancer to a Viennese waltz.   

Life Of A Ringmaster

Max Ophuls was born in Saarbrücken, Germany, in 1902. His family, successful in textile manufacturing, disapproved of Max’s interest in the theatre, so he changed his last name. His surname was not Ophuls, but Oppenheimer (no relation to the atomic bomb’s maker), and as a Jewish man, he was aware of the obvious anti-Semitism in his country after World War I. Ophuls first sought to be an actor and was for a short period until he was given the opportunity to direct a play. In 1923, Ophuls began directing a string of plays in Dortmund and in Vienna, Austria at the Burgtheater. There, he would meet an actress, Hilde Wall, who he would later marry and have a son with, Marcel, who directed The Sorrow And The Pity about the French resistance. The city would be central to his filmmaking career.

In 1930, Ophuls would get his start in directing movies when he was hired by UFA in Berlin, joining other major directors including Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg, and Ernst Lubitsch; all before they moved to Hollywood. His first film was a forty-minute comedy called I’d Rather Have Cod-Liver Oil. But after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Ophuls and his family fled to France and later became citizens. When World War II began in 1939, Ophuls was hired to write and perform on radio a series of anti-Nazi broadcasts, but as France was on the verge of falling, Ophuls and his family again fled, first to Portugal, and then reaching the United states in 1941. 

However, he would not get work immediately until writer/director Preston Sturges, a fan of Ophuls’s film Leibelei back in 1933, persuaded studios to hire Ophuls as they had done with emerging European directors including Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, and Billy Wilder. His first film, the Howard Hughes-produced Vendetta, was a fiasco as he and Sturges were both fired due their slow pace of work. Four films were completed in Hollywood, most notably The Exile (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan. After this frustrating period, Ophuls decided to return to France.

The last four films he would make — La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953), and Lola Montès (1955)— are considered his masterpieces. La Ronde would actually win the BAFTA for Best Film, as well as garner an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. After the difficulty of finishing Lola Montes, he would go on to start making Montparnasse 19. Sadly, he would not get to finish it. While in production, Ophuls died from heart disease on March 26, 1957, aged 54. His close friend, director Jacques Becker, would complete the picture and release it the following year. 

The Man With A Dancing Camera

The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life; otherwise, I’d have no need of it; doing photography doesn’t interest me. That I leave to the photographer. – Max Ophuls

Ophuls was widely known for his unique camera movements and long takes, never keeping anyone static, but always making a meaning for his camera. They are smooth, with dollies, and the use of crane shots. He uses countless tracking shots and long takes, minimizing the editing, and is open to having his camera moving up and down and gliding in different angles. “Life is movement,” Ophuls once said. James Mason, who worked on two films directed by Ophuls, wrote a poem in tribute to him mentioning his directing style. “A shot that does not call for tracks is agony for poor old Max,” he wrote. “Who, separated from his dolly, is wrapped in deepest melancholy. Once, when they took away his crane, I thought he’d never smile again.” 

Ophuls focused on themes of adultery, love, honor, idolatry, and the hypocrisy of the elite for their superficialness. The Earrings of Madame de… is such an example in which the opening sequence involves the leading character with her lavish lifestyle forced her to sell a pair because of debts. He is interested in the private lives of these people because the public has a fascination with them, especially the scandalous parts. The atmosphere is circus-like, as seen in Lola Montes, and there is always a Baroque element in his sets and costumes, which he leaves to the designers to take care of. Vienna is a usual setting because of time there and how much it influenced him in his career. The score is more waltzy than traditional in which the actors also dance with it. 

Actors loved working with him, even when he could turn tyrannical at times, but he was so widely admired that actors returned to work with Ophuls for other films. It was rare to have a closeup of them, insisting that their body language be the main expression. Besides James Mason, other notable names who worked with Ophuls include Anton Walbrook, Simone Signoret, Peter Ustinov, Simone Simon, Charles Boyer, and Martine Carol. Most of his films are female-centered, although not always sympathetic to its characters, and there are virtually no happy endings. Famously, for Lola Montes, Martine Carol was not his preference for the titular role but was forced upon him, as was the use of color, and that it had to be shot in English, French, and German. 

No Cushions For Hypocrites

Max Ophuls loved to poke at these historical figures who do not uphold such high esteemed values, making his latter films strong social satire. His interest in the perverse was buttered up with an air of cruelty that sometimes denied a happy ending, yet did not have it end on a strong down note. For someone who didn’t have a really scandalous private life, Ophuls was someone who loved to find novels and plays that dug up dirt on these people and spun it to humiliate them with glee in a comical manner. His spinning top was the camera moving at a pace to make the characters, not us, dizzy in their pursuit of pleasure. The ending of The Earrings of Madame de . . ., while ambiguous, is a lose-lose result for the main character. The last words of Lola Montes is a resigned, “Life goes on.” 

Ophuls’ work is playful and sensual without overdoing it, choosing subtlety over overtness. It is the total opposite to Yorgos Lanthimos’ hypersexualized surrealism in the era of Queen Anne and the Victorian period. There is an emotional pull that connects every scene and every episode within his work. Dying young robbed us of more films from Ophuls that entertained the moments of love that lead to probable heartbreak, that the desire for gratification is a very fragile and fickle thing. Then again, life is short…and life goes on.

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