Essays · Movies

A Beginner’s Guide to Max Ophüls

Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson have all sung the praises of the German auteur. Isn’t it time we listened?
Id Primary W
By  · Published on April 30th, 2018

Max Ophüls, born Maximillian Oppenheimer, was a German director whose work spanned three decades and two continents. He created several absolute masterpieces that were unlike anything else being made at the time and his films have influenced countless other directors. He made films that focused primarily on complex and fascinating women with the goal of understanding them, their plights, their failings, and their sorrow. I am of the opinion that had he made these movies about men, we would know Max Ophüls’ name the way we know Alfred Hitchcock or Orson Welles. But he didn’t, so we don’t.

Here at Film School Rejects, Madison Brek and Will DiGravio recently published beginner’s guides to James Stewart and Grace Kelly, respectively. Reading these articles was a joy for me, and they inspired me to dive into the films of Ophüls, a director whose work I’ve fallen in love with over the last year, and create a handy guide of my own.

If my opinion on the matter isn’t enough to convince you, plenty of esteemed directors are just as complimentary of Ophüls as I am. François Truffaut was an admirer and friend of Ophüls and even volunteered to be an assistant on one of his films in 1955, Lola Montès. At the time, Ophüls’ work wasn’t highly revered in France and Truffaut fought to try to convince the public to appreciate the films. According to Truffaut biographers Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, in an appeal to have the Paris run of the film extended in 1956, Truffaut attested that “to support Lola Montès is to support cinema in general.”

While some of the French public may not have admired Ophüls the way Truffaut did, Jacques Demy‘s views aligned with his fellow director. Demy’s first feature film, Lola, was made as a tribute to Ophüls. On the opposite side of the Atlantic, other directors were also laudatory of Ophüls’ work. In a 1957 interview, Stanley Kubrick said the following:

“Highest of all I would rate Max Ophüls, who for me possessed every possible quality. He has an exceptional flair for sniffing out good subjects, and he got the most out of them. He was also a marvelous director of actors.”

As the years have gone on, Ophüls continues to be highly regarded among directors. Noah Baumbach considers Ophüls work to be a notable source of inspiration. Additionally, Paul Thomas Anderson has nothing but kind words for the director and his films. He has referred to Ophüls as his hero and cited him as a major influence, saying he’s  “always tried to rock” the look of an Ophüls film.

In a 2012 interview, Martin Scorsese noted that it had taken him time to “get” some of Ophüls’ films (including the highly regarded 1953 film The Earrings of Madame de…) but one that he was on board with right away was the 1949 film, Caught. Clearly, there’s an Ophüls film for everyone. If you’re not sure how to find your perfect Ophüls film, continue reading this beginner’s guide to his work.

The Early Years

Ophüls began making films in Germany in the 1930s. Since Ophüls was Jewish, he was forced to flee his homeland in 1933. He traveled around Europe before eventually making his way to the United States in 1941. Of his early German films, the most acclaimed is Liebeleia 1935 romantic drama about a woman’s tragic love affair with a young lieutenant. I would also recommend checking out the only film Ophüls ever made in Italy, Everybody’s Woman (1934). The film chronicles the extravagant but tragic life of a famous actress. The story bears some similarities to Lola Montès, which he wouldn’t make for another 20 years. The two would pair well for a double feature to reveal how Ophüls’ ideas developed over the course of his career.

Once in the United States, Ophüls made a number of films in Hollywood. The first was the Douglas Fairbanks Jr. vehicle Exile in 1947. But the two I’d most like to highlight here were both made in 1949: Caught and The Reckless Moment. Both are examples of film noir, but notably, they are told from the perspectives of their lead female characters. The women of these stories are not secondary characters who exist solely to pull men into the mystery of the narrative. Instead, Ophüls has a vested interest in how women act for themselves and for each other even when men aren’t around to witness it. Both films embrace melodrama and there is a spectacle to them created by Ophüls’ sweeping camera movements. The actor James Mason, who starred in the two films, once wrote a poem about the director:

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he’d never smile again.

Caught and The Reckless Moment both showcase Ophüls’ penchant for melodrama and intrigue and his flair with a camera. They’re both absolutely worth watching. But they were not the peak of the director’s work in Hollywood, that had already happened the previous year.

Best of Max Ophüls’ Hollywood Films

The first sign of Ophüls really coming into his own as a filmmaker was in 1948 with the release of Letter From An Unknown Woman. The film stars Joan Fontaine as Lisa, a woman who is enamored by Louis Jourdan‘s Stefan, a composer she first met as a teenager. Lisa spends years of her life admiring Stefan and desperately hoping that he will fall for her as she has for him.

One of the key texts in the woman’s film as a genreLetter From An Unknown Woman is a breathtaking and heartbreaking chronicle of a woman who has been jilted by her circumstances and overlooked by the man she loves. Though narratively different in a number of ways, Letter would make an ideal companion piece to Phantom Thread. Both examine the highs and lows of a relationship between a successful but self-obsessed man and the woman who has devoted herself to him.

Ophüls had a knack for making the most of set pieces, best exemplified here by one of Lisa’s encounters with Stefan where they take an imagined train ride through various countries. As Stefan notes at this moment when they take the train ride for the second time, the two of them will “revisit the scenes of our youth.” Though he means nothing by it, we understand the weight of this remark to Lisa as she has spent years since her youth longing for a moment like the one she is in. But like the fake train ride, none of this is as real as she wishes it was, and it’ll be over sooner than it should be.

Collaborations With Danielle Darrieux

Beginning in the 1950s, Ophüls returned to Europe and began making films in France. Three of these starred legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux, who Ophüls’ son apparently said was always his father’s favorite actress. The first of these films was 1950’s La Ronde. Set in early 20th century Vienna, the film is structured episodically and follows one character’s affair with a second, and then that second character’s affair with a third, and so on and so forth. Featuring Anton Walbrook as a fourth-wall-breaking narrator, this character and his clever quips and observations about the events taking place are a narrative counter to Ophüls’ camera tricks and technical splendor.

La Ronde won a BAFTA award for Best Film and was nominated for two Oscars. Following this success, Ophüls made another episodic film in 1952, Le Plaisir. There are three stories that make up the film, and while the first and third are very good, the highlight of the film is the second part. It follows the madam of a brothel and the women who work for her as they visit the madam’s family for her niece’s first communion.

One of my favorite of all of Ophüls’ camera tricks is in Le Plaisir. He films the goings-on inside the brothel entirely from the outside, making use of windows and open doors to glimpse into the working world of these women, but never entering their private sphere. The film rebuffs the male gaze that would often be expected in a film such as this and instead invests time in understanding these women as complex individuals who are more than just their occupation.

No discussion of Ophüls would be complete without mention of his 1953 masterpiece: The Earrings of Madame de…. Once dubbed by legendary film critic Andrew Sarris to be “the most perfect film ever made,” Madame de… is a testament to the director’s mastery over his craft. His camera work and tracking shots continually ground us in the subjectivity of the eponymous Madame de…, also known as Louise (Darrieux), whose last name is always obscured somehow whenever it could possibly be revealed. (Side note: Jacques Demy fans will probably pick up on another tribute to Ophüls in his work as Demy’s 1967 film The Young Girls of Rochefort also contains some drama — albeit comedic drama — around the surname of Darrieux’s character).

Madame de… follows Louise as she pawns a pair of earrings in order to pay off her debts, and unknowingly begins a cycle of events that will entangle herself, her husband André (Charles Boyer), and her lover Baron Fabrizio Donati (Vittorio De Sica), with tragic consequences for all involved. The film is dazzling and devastating with Ophüls once again presenting melodrama at its finest. There’s so much that can be said for how Ophüls’ skill draws us into the world of Madame de… but I think Paul Thomas Anderson says it best:

Ophüls’ Final Film

In 1955, Ophüls completed his last film and his only one shot in color, Lola Montès. The film follows the life of the eponymous character: a dancer and courtesan who attempts to use her relationships with men and their desire for her in order to achieve wealth and success. Portrayed by Martine Carol, Lola is exploited by the men around her but aims to use this to her ultimate advantage by gaining success through her own exploitation. For a time, she does indeed become famous and beloved. But this is an Ophüls film, and tragedy is always lurking around the corner. Using flashbacks to tell the story of most of Lola’s life, Ophüls compassionately examines her experiences, her highs and lows, and the failings that come from her belief that submitting herself to the objectification of others will allow her to come out on top.

Max Ophüls would pass away in 1957, while still in the peak of his career, at the age of 54. But he left the world with outstanding and inventive films that are still groundbreaking for their technical skill and inspirational to directors working today. His legacy is that of the glorious and complicated women that he strived to always present as fully realized individuals. Above all else, he was a director who understood the ultimate capabilities of film as a medium. Film critic Dave Kehr once phrased his appreciation of Ophüls perfectly and I’d like to leave you with his remarks:

“Should the day ever come when movies are granted the same respect as the other arts, ‘The Earrings of Madame de…’ will instantly be recognized as one of the most beautiful things ever created by human hands.”

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.