Ophüls, Max

views updated May 11 2018


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 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 duCinéma (Paris), June 1957.

"Les Infortunes d'un scenario," and "Mon experience," in Cahiersdu 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 ofthe 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 andthe 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 YaleFrench 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 FilmComment (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 duCinéma (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

Max Ophüls

views updated May 29 2018

Max Ophüls

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.


"Max Ophüls," http://www.imbd.com/Name?oph%FCls, +Max (January 28, 2003).

"Max Ophüls," All Movie Guide, http://www.allmovie.com/cg/avg.dll?p−avg&−B105103∼C (January 28, 2003). □

Ophüls, Max

views updated May 14 2018

Ophüls, Max (1902–57) German film director. His mise-en-scène style was superbly realized in two masterpieces, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Reckless Moment (1949). His son, Marcel (1927– ), is a documentary film-maker. He often presents controversial issues, such as the Nuremberg trials in The Memory of Justice (1975) and reactions to the Bosnian war in Veillées d'Armes (1994).