Academic journal article CineAction

Werther

Academic journal article CineAction

Werther

Article excerpt

(Max Ophuls, 1938)

From Richardson, both Goethe and Rousseau learned the basic lesson that the subject of the novel is the "human heart", which is to say, the psyche in all its complexities and dark self-conceits, but especially at the moment of love. In them, the novel remains both psychological and erotic, dedicated not to the unwinding of an action replete with sharp reversals and recognitions, but with the exploration of a moral choice.

--Leslie A Fiedler: Love and Death in the American Novel (1)

Twenty years ago, writing on the generic tradition to which I felt that Ophuls's Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949) belonged, I quoted the above passage (2). I did not make the connection: the Goethe novel Fiedler was referring to was Werther and, whilst working in France ten years earlier than these Hollywood movies, Ophuls had adapted that very novel into a film. This article is an attempt to remedy the oversight, and to look at Ophuls's Werther--his one adaptation of a "classic" novel--in terms of both the tradition Fiedler identified and the director's own concerns.

Like most of Ophuls's French films of the '30s, Werther does not have much of a reputation. Part of the problem, of course, is that it is an adaptation of a novel by a "great" writer; this was sufficient for Richard Roud, in his monograph on Ophuls, to write of the director as having "vulgarised his subject" (3). In particular, Roud objects to a crucial change between novel and film. In the novel, Lotte--whom Werther knows to be engaged to Albert when he meets her--is the recipient of Werther's unsolicited passion, and she attempts to restrict him to the role of "friend". In the film, Charlotte/Annie Vernay keeps her engagement to Albert/Jean Galland a secret until Werther/Pierre Richard-Willm proposes, but in the meantime she has come to reciprocate the latter's love. Nevertheless, she still goes through with her marriage to Albert, resulting in a situation which, in contrast to Roud, I find far more "tragic" than that depicted by Goethe. Unrequited love may of course be painful, but it is hardly as desolat ing as someone whom you love and who loves you marrying another.

Even among French admirers of Ophuls, I have been unable to find anything substantial on Werther. The most detailed piece on the film may well be in Susan White's book on Ophuls, but it is still relatively short, and mostly given over to a somewhat unreliable recounting of the plot, with a few observations about the use of sound in the film (4). It is time that Ophuls's Werther was brought out from under the shadow of Goethe.

Goethe's Werther (5), like Stefan Zweig's short story Letter From an Unknown Woman, is for the most part in the epistolary form, and in each case the letter(s) are written by only one person. An inevitable consequence of this is that we are restricted to the sensibility of one character, a restriction which apparently troubled Goethe towards the end of Werther, since he suddenly switches to extended third person passages. He thus belatedly tells us something of Lotte's own feelings about Werther, but the substance of the novel is nevertheless overwhelmingly devoted to Werther's emotional life. Setting aside the manner in which this is depicted--Werther rhapsodises; weeps; suffers; agonises--what concerns me here is the problems the structure of the source material poses for a film adaptation. In the case of Letter From an Unknown Woman, the epistolary structure is retained in the film, and the judicious use of Lisa/Joan Fontaine's voice-over conveys the sense that her letter to Stefan/Louis Jourdan is being read by him even as we see it dramatised. In part because the letter is primarily concerned with the relationship between the two of them--so that Stefan is reading about himself, too--preserving the original structure works extremely well.

Goethe's use of the epistolary form is quite different from Zweig's. …

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