Max OphÜls - Director

Nationality: Born Max Oppenheimer in Saarbrucken, Germany, 6 May 1902, became French citizen, 1938. Family: Married actress Hilde Wall in 1926, one son, director Marcel Ophüls. Career: Acting debut, 1919; began as stage director, 1924; began working at

Max Ophüls with Daniele Darrieux
Max Ophüls with Daniele Darrieux
Burgtheater, Vienna, 1926; dialogue director to Anatole Litvak at UFA, 1929; directed first film, 1930; with family, left Germany, 1932; directed in France, Italy, and Holland, 1933–40; worked in Switzerland, 1940, then moved to Hollywood, 1941; "rediscovered" by Preston Sturges, 1944; returned to France, 1949; directed for German radio, mid-1950s. Died: In Hamburg, 26 March 1957.

Films as Director:


Dann schon lieber Lebertran (+ co-adaptation)


Die verliebte Firma ; Die verkaufte Braut ( The BarteredBride )


Die lachende Erben (produced 1931); Liebelei ; Une Histoire d'amour (French version of Liebelei )


On a volé un homme ; La Signora di tutti (+ co-sc)


Divine (+ co-sc)


Komedie om Geld (+ co-sc); Ave Maria (short); La Valse brillante (short); La Tendre Ennemie ( The Tender Enemy )(+ co-sc)


Yoshiwara (+ co-sc)


Werther ( Le Roman de Werther ) (+ co-adaptation)


Sans lendemain ; De Mayerling à Sarajevo ( Mayerling to Sarajevo ); L'Ecole des femmes (unfinished)


Vendetta (co-d, uncredited)


The Exile


Letter from an Unknown Woman


Caught ; The Reckless Moment


La Ronde (+ co-sc)


Le Plaisir ( House of Pleasure ) (+ co-sc)


Madame de . . . ( The Earrings of Madame De ) (+ co-sc)


Lola Montès ( The Sins of Lola Montes ) (+ co-sc)


By OPHÜLS: books—

Novelle , by Goethe, radio adaptation, Frankfurt am Main, 1956.

Max Ophüls par Max Ophüls , Paris, 1963.

By OPHÜLS: articles—

"Hollywood, petite île . . . ," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), December 1955.

"Le Dernier Jour de tournage," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), May 1956.

Interview with Jacques Rivette and François Truffaut, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), June 1957.

"Les Infortunes d'un scenario," and "Mon experience," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1958.

" La Ronde : Scenario et adaptation," with Jacques Natanson, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), April 1963.

"Memory and Max Ophüls," in Interviews with Film Directors edited by Andrew Sarris, New York, 1967.

" Lola Montès : Scenario et adaptation," with Jacques Natanson, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), January 1969.

Interview with Robert Aldrich, in The Celluloid Muse , edited by Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg, Chicago, 1971.

"Interview with Ophüls (1950)," with Francis Koval, in Masterworks of the French Cinema , edited by John Weightman, New York, 1974.

" Madame de . . . Issue" of Avant Scène du Cinéma (Paris), no. 351, 1986.

"De lust van het kijken," in Skrien (Amsterdam), October-November 1990.

On OPHÜLS: books—

Roud, Richard, Max Ophüls: An Index , London, 1958.

Annenkov, Georges, Max Ophüls , Paris, 1962.

Beylie, Claude, Max Ophüls , Paris, 1963; revised edition, 1984.

Willemen, Paul, editor, Ophüls , London, 1978.

Williams, Alan, Max Ophüls and the Cinema of Desire , New York, 1980.

Guérin, William, Max Ophüls , Paris, 1988.

Asper, Helmut G., and others, Max Ophüls , Munich, 1989.

White, Susan M., The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman , New York, 1995.

Bacher, Lutz, Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios , New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996.

On OPHÜLS: articles—

Truffaut, François, "Une Certaine Tendence du cinéma français," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1954.

Archer, Eugene, "Ophüls and the Romantic Tradition," in Yale French Studies (New Haven), no. 17, 1956.

Tributes to Ophüls, in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1957.

"Ophüls Issue" of Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1958.

Beylie, Claude, "Max Ophüls," in Anthologie du Cinéma (Paris), June 1965.

"Max Ophüls," in Retrospektive [1] edited by Peter Schumann, Berlin, 1966.

Williams, Forrest, "The Mastery of Movement," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1969.

Koch, Howard, "Script to Screen with Max Ophüls," in Film Comment (New York), Winter 1970/71.

"Ophüls Issue" of Film Comment (New York), Summer 1971.

Camper, Fred, "Distance and Style: The Visual Rhetoric of Max Ophüls," in Monogram (London), no. 5, 1974.

"Ophüls Issues" of Filmkritik (Munich), November and December 1977.

Castoro Cinema (Milan), special issue, no. 55–56, 1978.

Special Ophüls section, in Positif (Paris), July/August 1980.

"Ophüls Issue," of Movie (London), Summer 1982.

Koch, G., "Die Schnitzler-Verfilmungen von Max Ophüls," in Frauen und Film (Berlin), October 1982.

Houseman, John, "Houseman, Ray, and Ophüls," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1986.

Amiel, V., "Ophüls les yeuxs fermés," in Positif (Paris), December 1986.

Morrison, James, "Ophüls and Authorship: A Reading of The Reckless Moment ," in Film Criticism (Edinboro, Pennsylvania), vol. 11, no. 3, 1987.

Müller, M., "Von Souffeurkasten über das Mikro auf die Leinwand: Max Ophüls," in Frauen und Film (Frankfurt/Main), August 1987.

Doane, Mary Ann, "The Abstraction of a Lady: La Signora di tutti ," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), vol. 28, no. 1, 1988.

Rakovsky, A., "La prison circulaire," in Revue du Cinema , May 1992.

Ophüls, Marcel, "Correspondance imédite de Max Ophüls commentée par Marcel Ophüls," in Positif (Paris), November 1992.

Walker, M., "1266 Max Ophüls," in Film Dope (Frankfurt/Main), June 1993.

Beylot, P., "Premières images," in Focales , no. 2, 1993.

Douin, J.-L., "La passion des femmes," in Télérama (Paris), 6 April 1994.

Scorsese, Martin, "Ma cinéphile," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 500, March 1996.

Belloï, Livio, Cinémathèque , no. 6, Autumn 1994.

Vecchiali, Paul, "Max Ophüls: le meneur de jeu," Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), no. 489, March 1995.

* * *

Max Ophüls' work falls neatly into three periods, marked by geographical locations and diverse production conditions, yet linked by common thematic concerns and stylistic/formal procedures: the pre-Second World War European period (during which he made films in four countries and four languages); the four Hollywood films of the late 1940s (to which one might add the remarkable Howard Hughes-produced Vendetta , on which he worked extensively in its early preproduction phases and which bears many identifiable Ophülsian traces, both thematic and stylistic); and the four films made in France in the 1950s. It is these 1950s films on which Ophüls' current reputation chiefly rests, and in which certain stylistic traits (notably the long take with elaborately mobile camera) are carried to their logical culmination.

Critical estimation of Ophüls soared during the late twentieth century; prior to that, the prevailing attitude was disparaging (or at best condescending), and the reasons for this now seem highly significant, reflecting far more on the limitations of the critics than of the films. The general consensus was that Ophüls' work had distinctive qualities (indeed, this would be difficult to deny), but was overly preoccupied with "style" (regarded as a kind of spurious, slightly decadent ornamentation) and given over to trivial or frivolous subjects quite alien to the "social" concerns considered to characterize "serious" cinema. In those days, the oppression of women within the patriarchal order was not identified as a "social concern"—especially within the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of film criticism. Two developments have contributed to the revaluation of Ophüls: the growth of auteur criticism in the 1960s and of feminist awareness, and I shall consider his work in relation to these phenomena.

1. Ophüls and auteurism. One of the first aims of auteur criticism was to dethrone the "subject" as the prime guarantee of a film's quality, in favor of style, mise-en-scène , the discernible presence of a defined directorial "voice": in Andrew Sarris's terms, the "how" was given supremacy over the "what." "Subject," in fact, was effectively redefined as what the auteur's mise-en-scène created. Ophüls was a perfect rallying-point for such a reformulation of critical theory. For a start, he offered one of the most highly developed and unmistakable styles in world cinema, consistent through all changes of time and place (though inevitably modified in the last two Hollywood melodramas, Caught and The Reckless Moment ). Ophüls' works were marked by elaborate tracking-and-craning camera movements, ornate décor, the glitter of glass and mirrors, objects intervening in the foreground of the image between characters and camera. His style can be read in itself as implying a meaning, a metaphysic of entrapment in movement, time, and destiny. Further, this style could be seen as developing, steadily gaining in assurance and definition, through the various changes in cultural background and circumstances of production—from, say, Liebelei through Letter from an Unknown Woman to Madame de . . . Ophüls could be claimed (with partial justice) as a major creative artist whose personal vision transcended the most extreme changes of time and place.

The stylistic consistency was underlined by an equally striking thematic consistency. For example, the same three films mentioned above, though adapted from works by fairly reputable literary figures (respectively, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, and Louise de Vilmorin), all reveal strong affinities in narrative/thematic structure: all are centered on romantic love, which is at once celebrated and regarded with a certain irony. Similarly, all three works move towards a climactic duel in which the male lover is destroyed by an avenging patriarch, an offended husband. All three films also feature patriarchal authority embodied in military figures. Finally, style and theme were perceived as bound together by a complicated set of visual motifs recurring from period to period. The eponymous protagonist of Ophüls' last film, Lola Montès , declares "For me, life is movement"; throughout his work, key scenes take place in vehicles of travel and places of transition (carriages, trains, staircases, and railway stations figure prominently in many of the films). Even a superficially atypical work like The Reckless Moment (set in modern California rather than the preferred "Vienna, 1900" or its equivalent) contains crucial scenes on the staircase, in moving cars, on a ferry, at a bus station. Above all, the dance was recognized as a central Ophülsian motif, acquiring complex significance from film to film. The romantic/ironic waltz scene in Letter from an Unknown Woman , the fluid yet circumscribed dances of Madame de . . . , the hectic and claustrophobic palais de danse of Le Plaisir , the constricted modern dance floor of Caught , and the moment in De Mayerling à Sarajevo where the lovers are prevented from attending the ball: all of the above scens are reminders that "life is movement" is not the simple proposition it may at first appear.

There is no doubt that the development of auteur theory enormously encouraged and extended the appreciation of Ophüls' work. In its pure form (the celebration of the individual artist), however, auteurism tends towards a dangerous imbalance in the evaluation of specific films: a tendency, for example, to prefer the "typical" but slight La Ronde (perhaps the film that most nearly corresponds to the "primitive" account of Ophüls) to a masterpiece like The Reckless Moment , in which Ophüls' engagement with the structural and thematic materials of the Hollywood melodrama results in an amazingly rich and radical investigation of ideological assumptions.

2. Ophüls and Feminism. Nearly all of Ophüls' films are centered on a female consciousness. Before the 1960s this tended merely to confirm the diagnosis of them as decorative, sentimental, and essentially frivolous: the social concerns with which "serious" cinema should be engaged were those which could be resolved within the patriarchal order, and more fundamental social concerns that threatened to undermine the order itself simply could not be recognized. The films belong, of course, to a period long before the eruption of what we now know as radical feminism; they do not (and could not be expected to) explicitly engage with a feminist politics, and they are certainly not free of a tendency to mythologize women. In retrospect, however, from the standpoint of the feminist theory and consciousness that evolved in the 1970s, they assume a quite extraordinary significance: an incomparably comprehensive, sensitive, and perceptive analysis of the position of women (subject to oppression) within patriarchal society. The films repeatedly present and examine the options traditionally available to women within our culture—marriage, prostitution (in both the literal and the looser sense), romantic love—and the relationship between those options. Letter from an Unknown Woman , for example, dramatizes marriage (Lisa's to von Stauffer, her mother's to the "military tailor") and prostitution ("modelling") as opposite cultural poles, then goes on to show that they really amount to the same thing: in both cases, the women are selling themselves (this opposition/parallel is brilliantly developed through the three episodes of Le Plaisir ). Essentially, Letter from an Unknown Woman is an enquiry into the validity of romantic love as the only possible means of transcending this illusory dichotomy. Clearly, Ophüls is emotionally committed to Lisa and her vision; the extraordinry complexity and intelligence of the film lies in its simultaneous acknowledgement that romantic love can only exist as narcissistic fantasy and is ultimately both destructive and self-destructive.

Far from being incompatible, the auteurist and feminist approaches to Ophüls demand to be synthesized. The identification with a female consciousness and the female predicament is the supreme characteristic of the Ophülsian thematic; at the same time, the Ophüls style—the commitment to grace, beauty, sensitivity—amounts to a celebration of what our culture defines as "femininity," combined with the force of authority, the drive, the organizational (directorial) abilities construed as masculine. In short, the supreme achievement of Ophüls' work is its concrete and convincing embodiment of the collapsibility of our culture's barriers of sexual difference.

—Robin Wood

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