“The highest reaches of the actor’s art begin, I believe, at the point where words cease to play a part.” – Max Ophüls
Distinctive pioneer of 20th-century filmmaking, German-born Max Ophüls’ brief filmography is one dotted with rich innovation, championing complex smooth camera movements, crane and dolly shots, years before they would be mastered. The great European director’s successes came in his synthesis of elegant cinematography together with stories of great romance, creating delicate melodramas that fluttered and danced with effortless elegance.
Travelling from his birthplace in 1902 in Saarbrücken, Ophüls ventured across a pre-war Germany in his youth to become a theatre director in Dortmund, before going further afield to Vienna where he would also meet his future wife Hilde Wall. Predicting the establishment of the Nazi party, Ophüls, a Jew, already had 200 plays, a comedy short film, and his debut feature film Liebelei under his belt, when he fled for France and eventually a new life in the U.S.A until 1950.
Faced with unprecedented difficulty across his early career, Ophüls would particularly excel in a post-war landscape of film, where his baroque style, intense focus on female characters, and interest in the struggle between ageing generations would mature and become fully formed.
Let’s take a look back at his finest hours of filmmaking…
Max Ophüls’ six definitive films:
Working throughout Germany shortly before he fled for France, Ophüls directed his first short film, Dann schon lieber Lebertran (In This Case, Rather Cod-Liver Oil) a comedy in which a child asks God why he must obey his parents. This would precede his very first forays into feature-length filmmaking, Liebelei was one of his very first, a stylish romance that would exhibit many of the director’s hallmarks, from his elaborate sets to his affection toward feminist characters.
Set in 20th-century Vienna, the film follows a love affair between a young lieutenant and the daughter of an opera violinist. Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play of the same name from 1895, this complex film shows off Ophüls’ extravagance, exploring the concept of love as an innate human desire, as the story of the two entwined lovers becomes increasingly more tragic. It’s a dramatic introduction to Ophüls’ career.
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
Fleeing an increasingly radicalised Nazi-Germany, Ophüls travelled through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Portugal throughout the 1930s and early ’40s, before flying to the U.S in 1941. He became inactive in Hollywood for quite some time, until Preston Sturges, a playwright and long-time admirer of Ophüls, gave him a leg up into the industry.
Ophüls’ second Hollywood feature film, Letter from an Unknown Woman, was one of his most celebrated American films illustrating the director’s delirious obsession with the fantasy and cynicism of love. The bittersweet story follows a pianist who receives a mysterious letter from a woman he cannot remember, a letter detailing a woman’s life that could well be his own downfall.
A melodrama peppered with alluring characters, doomed love, and occasional humour, Ophüls second American outing would be one of his very finest.
Only a year after his work on Letter from an Unknown Woman did Ophüls go on to produce his third feature film, Caught, in 1949. As much a dramatic film noir as it is a classic melodrama, Caught bubbled with thematic tension, toying with questions of wealth, true authenticity, and materialism.
The film itself tracks the charming Leonora Eames (Barbara Bel Geddes), a model working in an L.A. department store whose rampant ambition sees her marrying a millionaire, and her life spiral out of control. Despite her initial happiness, Leonora soon realises the pitfalls of a wealthy lifestyle, taking the film by the scruff of its neck as she leads the film’s narrative forward. This is of course intentional from Ophüls, a director who would become renowned for his powerful female leads, as well as his deft cinematic eye, also on show here as the camera sweeps through cramped apartments and dull office buildings to convey changing emotion.
La Ronde (1950)
After four feature film projects in Hollywood, including The Exile, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Caught, and The Reckless Moment, Ophüls would return to France to continue his career, directing La Ronde in 1950 to mark his return to Europe.
Adapted from the play, Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler, La Ronde was a charming romantic drama set in 1900’s Vienna following several encounters across a social spectrum, creating a vignette of stories in which each scene would involve a character from the previous tale. Translating roughly into “doing the rounds”, La Ronde is arguably Ophüls’ most joyous film toying with the fourth wall and the inextricable link between theatrical performance and cinema. So impressive was Ophüls’ film, he would win the 1951 BAFTA Award for Best Film.
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953)
Remaining in France, Ophüls would direct the comedy Le Plaisir tracking three stories all revolving around pleasure, before going on to make The Earrings of Madame de…, which many believe to be his masterpiece.
Playing cat-and-mouse with his own possessions, the film follows a general who buys a pair of earrings for his wife known only as “Madame de…”, before she in-turn sells them, only for them to find their way back to the general months later. This creates a highly-enjoyable, romantic drama with some nicely realised comedic moments threaded throughout, all whilst Ophüls effortlessly pioneers the feeling of a transient camera. This distinct style makes the story feel like a fleeting romance caught in suspended animation, if only it lasted longer than 105 minutes…
Lola Montès (1955)
It only takes a minute to marvel at the beauty of Lola Montès, Max Ophüls’ first film in colour, though unfortunately his last before his untimely death in 1957, a film in which every frame bursts in technicolour glory.
Depicting the life of Irish dancer Lola Montez, played by Martine Carol, the film tells her biographical story as she looks back on her past life and past loves. Rigidly structured, Ophüls melodrama utilises heavy uses of flashbacks to tell a highly stylised romantic story, slowly deconstructing the psychology of the titular character. It all fits so tightly together as if the film was not made but born, synthesising elaborate sets, costumes, and a resonating score to create a fitting ode to the legacy of Max Ophüls.