Academic journal article CineAction

Circles of Delight and Despair: The Cinema of Max Ophuls

Academic journal article CineAction

Circles of Delight and Despair: The Cinema of Max Ophuls

Article excerpt

"For me, life is movement."

--Lola Montes

Max Ophuls (ne Oppenheimer) was born in Saarbrucken in 1902 and died in Hamburg in 1957. Throughout his life, he made over twenty films in five different languages but principally in German, English and French. He also worked in theatre. More Rhenish than Viennese, he was as much at home in French as in German, adopting French citizenship in 1938. Coming from a well-to-do German Jewish home, he changed his name to Ophuls when he began to work in theatre so as not to embarrass the respectability of his family.

Living in a Europe dedicated to the persecution of Jews, his life was a constant pilgrimage away from this persecution in search of production companies that would allow him to create his extraordinary art. While in their day, his films enjoyed a decent critical acclaim, especially in Europe, they seldom made much money. And his way of working was expensive. His emphasis on period pieces, his fondness for extravagant decor, plus the swirls and sweeps of his camera all required substantial budgets in order to achieve the desired effects.

While demonstrably one of the world's finest directors, his work is not well known. Prints of his early films, even on video, are hard to come by; and for the most part, even the films that are known are still not well understood. In England and in North America, he had the reputation of a decorator addicted to elegance and melodrama--a creator of "weepies." There was little mention of his tragic sense of life, of his view of the moment as ephemeral and ever-changing. Nor was there much discussion concerning the purpose his elegant art was intended to serve.

While not his most subtle film, Lola Montex (1955) is unquestionably his apotheosis. Possessing all the characteristics of a swan song, it is as if Ophuls knew that it would be his last film. It is Ophuls' The Tempest--his farewell to his art. Being his only film in colour and CinemaScope, it recapitulates all the elements of his previous work, both thematic and stylistic. It is simultaneously beautiful and bizarre, exhilarating and terrifying --as Ophuls must have experienced the world to be.

The basis of our profession is the circus. Consequently, the true aristocrats of this profession, the ones who mould their bodies, their hearts, their souls to display them to the public are the acrobats and clowns. (2)

Like Fellini, Ophuls has always felt an affinity for the circus-- for the "pure" art of the acrobat or clown. Circus performers give themselves to their craft as devoutly as any other artist but for far fewer rewards. For Ophuls, however, the circus involved more than this selfless dedication. It was the ultimate form of theatre--a theatre in which everything is movement and everyone takes risks, in which everyone has a role to play which is crucially dependent on the roles of everyone else. In this way, for Ophuls, the circus serves as microcosm of the world.

In Lola Montes, the life of this extraordinary woman--part princess, part courtesan--is presented as a sequence of diversions, her life recapitulated through a series of stages that finally enshrines her at the centre of a merry-go-round of circus acts. With his whip and top hat, Peter Ustinov is both dompteur and Master of Ceremonies. Like Anton Walbrook in La Ronde (1950), he narrates the film, inviting our participation, but in a far more sinister way.

After the long tilt down from the gas-lit chandelier at the top of the tent, past the band conductor further down to the curtains through which Ustinov makes his entrance, he walks directly towards us. We are about to witness, he explains, "the greatest act of the century ... thrilling, brilliant, and exceptional." If in terms of the plot, Ustinov is thus introducing Lola to his circus audience, in a more immediate way he is introducing the film to us.

He continues to walk towards us through a corridor of young women who start juggling as he passes them, throwing all sorts of things up into the air. …

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