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Meeting Max Ophüls again, twenty-five years seem obliterated in a whiff and the exciting atmosphere of the ’20s, with their errors and enthusiasms, is recaptured. Despite the greying temples, he is, in his 47th year, as youthful and as lively as he might have been on that day when, at the age of 18, he defiantly refused to accept a crown-princely position in his father’s department store in Saarbrücken and ran away from home to become an actor.
Listening to the tale of his eventful career is like sitting in that fake train-compartment in his Letter From An Unknown Woman and watching the romantic scenery rolling past the window. The only difference is that the painted back-cloth suddenly becomes alive with the colour and life-blood of genuine adventure.
Max Ophüls possesses the rare quality of understanding people not only intellectually but emotionally, of listening to them and absorbing their ideas in a way that makes them immediately feel ‘at home’. And this includes all kinds of people: from the practically minded studio carpenter to the sophisticated scriptwriter or the self-important production magnate. This is a clue to his success in half a dozen different countries. In each of them he arrived as a stranger, lonely and forlorn, but when circumstances forced him to continue his pilgrimage, he left behind everywhere genuine friends and admirers. The element of human warmth and absolute sincerity is striking, both in his work and in his talk.
“Why I wanted to become an actor? It’s simple,” he says. “Apart from the fascination of all the classical plays which I regularly watched from ‘the gods’ of our Saarbrücken Stadt-Theater, my imagination was fired by the crowds of young girls waiting at the stage door every night. I might have achieved this ambition in my young days in Aachen and Dortmund, but I am afraid that I have never been a really good actor. That is why I became a director.
“I never played very important parts. Just what the others left for me. The Dauphin in Shaw’s St. Joan was my favourite part in my acting days, but only later, when I produced the play in Berlin, I discovered how much better it could be played.
“But I really became a producer by accident. One night I flopped so terribly in a dramatic part that the next day the Manager of the Dortmund Theatre summoned me to his office. As I was paid for playing both comic and dramatic roles, he told me, I would have to take a 50 per cent salary cut. To soothe my indignation he hesitantly suggested an alternative. I could stop playing altogether and become a Regisseur, a director, keeping my original salary. My actor’s pride was deeply insulted – but a few days later I accepted”.
To justify the acceptance to himself, he argued at the time that in his new position he would make actors play their parts exactly the way he himself would have played them. “So through the actor I’ll prove that really and truly I should have played the part myself and that I am a much better actor than anybody had thought…” But he had not the slightest inkling then that within the next ten years he would produce something like 180 stage plays. Quick as he is to announce his failures with a humorous twinkle, he passes over his successes with a few hasty remarks. The fact, however, is that they were outstanding and numerous.
The most explicit proof of the quality of his productions was supplied by a sensational offer from the Vienna Burg-Theater to engage him on a long-term contract at a high salary. To appreciate this, one has to remember the old dignified tradition of the Burg-Theater, where everything was time-honoured and the most youthful actors in their fifties. In the long history of this world-famous theatre there had never been a director aged 23 – except Max Ophüls.
His comment on the appointment was: “All through the time in Vienna I felt like a passenger in a fast elevator: dizzy! Fate had plonked me down in a magnificent gilt rococo carriage drawn by four matched horses, while what I really wanted was to ride on a motorcycle”.
The longing for a break with convention drove him back to Germany. In Frankfurt, Breslau and finally Berlin he found a wide field for his talent. His deeply rooted sense of social obligation led him to a purposeful hobby: in his leisure time he visited prisons and played or recited to the inmates. The rapidly spreading net of broadcasting gave him a new outlet, and soon not only his name but also his voice became familiar over the air.
But up to the beginning of the ’30s Max Ophüls, who had always been in love with the theatre, used to look upon the cinema (excepting only Charlie Chaplin) as a cheap fairground attraction, and despised it all the more for being a dangerous rival to the live stage.
The first “talkie” he saw, with bad and hardly intelligible dialogue, made the first breach in his armour of indifference. He saw great possibilities in the proper use of the soundtrack and conceived a vague idea that one day he might try to make a picture.
Significantly enough, he began his work in this new field by becoming a dialogue director for Anatol Litvak, whose poor German was as little understood by the UFA actors as his native Russian. The film was called No More Love. Max Ophüls’ way of dealing with actors must have impressed the UFA executives. They suggested to him the production of a 40-minute featurette and offered him the freedom of their script-library. The result was a delightful little comedy called Dannschon Lieber Lebertran (Codliver-Oil Preferred).
The author of the original story was the German poet Erich Kästner (author of Emil and the Detectives), while the shooting-script was written by the same Emeric Pressburger who to-day heads the ‘Archers’ with Michael Powell. The picture was given a cautious trial run in a suburban cinema: the public’s reaction was such that after two days it was transferred to the biggest UFA theatre in the west end of Berlin. This long forgotten miniature triumph marks the birth of Max Ophüls, the filmmaker.
In The Bartered Bride which followed, the newly established director had not only the great advantage of employing the opera star, Jarmilla Nowotna (today at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and also the mother in The Search) but also of the greatest possible freedom of action. He caused quite a stir by building a whole Czech village among the hills of Geiselgasteig and by engaging real fairground people and local inhabitants to act in the film. As the finished work turned out a success and not just another ‘filmed opera’ his prestige increased accordingly.
While still shooting the last scenes of The Bartered Bride half his thoughts and all his heart were already on another subject: Schnitzler’s Liebelei, which was to make him widely famous. Here he proved his brilliance, his singleness of purpose and his independence. Instead of accepting the producer’s over-sentimental approach and a cast-list full of box-office names, he refused to co-operate and decided to produce the picture himself.
“I saw the opportunity of making a picture with young people as yet unspoiled by stardom,” he says. “Not an easy task, certainly, but fascinating. I believe that most young actors have to be steered through great dangers. Wealth, publicity, a higher standard of living – it all happens far too quickly. The shyness and reserve that constitute the appeal of youth, are easily lost…”
To eliminate these dangers he sent Wolfgang Liebeneiner, then an almost unknown actor (and now a film director in Germany) for three months to a lonely place in the mountains and made him promise to keep his assignment a secret. Despite the grumbles of the business manager, who disliked “paying for an actor’s holiday”, the experiment proved more than successful.
An experiment with the feminine parts was still less orthodox and more daring. Magda Schneider, a gay and popular musical-comedy star, seemed to envy slightly Luise Ulrich for her semi-tragic role, while the latter proved to be naturally lighthearted by temperament. Following a sudden inspiration Max Ophüls made them exchange parts, and the result was startlingly successful.
Another minor sensation was the fact that a number of secondary parts were played by top stars, including Gustav Grundgens and Olga Tshekowa. “They did it for Schnitzler’s sake,” is the director’s modest comment. It is only a fair guess that his own personality must have had something to do with it. So well prepared was the picture that shooting was completed in less than four weeks. Once it was screened there were many who said it would become a “classic”.
All this happened in 1932. A year later, the advent of the Third Reich forced Max Ophüls to abandon his work and Germany. He had never denied his Jewish faith, and his friends knew very well that he had changed his name from Oppenheimer for one reason only: in order not to “disgrace” his Saarbrücken family through his acting career.
Max Ophüls went to Paris, but the fame of Liebelei had preceded him. Soon an independent company was formed with the one and only aim of making a French version of it. Most of the principal actors came to Paris for the purpose, disregarding possible Nazi reprisals and not even first asking how much they would be paid.
This was a good start to a series of films made in France, which their maker himself assesses as follows:
On a Volé un Homme: “A pot-boiler. Not my cup of tea!”
Divine (Script by Colette): “My biggest flop.”
La Tendre Ennemie: “It was awarded the Prix Lumiere and one French paper called it ‘Rene Clair without snobbery’. But many people dislike me for it.”
Yoshiwara (a Maurice Dekobra story): “The Japanese Sessue Hayakawa and his wife-to-be speaking broken French. Very international.”
Sans Lendemain: “I have never yet seen an uncut version of the picture. And what I was not allowed to show was precisely what I liked best of all. Edwige Feuillere is a great actress!”
In between those Max Ophüls made one film in Holland, The Comedy of Gold, put Isa Miranda on the screen in La Signora di Tutti, shot in Rome, and accepted an invitation to Soviet Russia on condition that he would only sign a two-year contract if he liked the country. After two months stay he returned to Paris.
He was just shooting the last scene of From Mayerling to Sarajevo, that graceful historical film with Edwige Feuillere, with a remarkable closing sequence of the assassination at Sarajevo, when most of his technicians put on uniforms and went off to the Maginot Line. Very soon he was drafted into the French Army too – as a private.
It was a long and very adventurous road that led him from the French battlefields of 1940 to the United States. One of the tragic stops on his way was the Zurich Theatre, where he produced some Shakespeare plays. He could have stayed on if he had satisfied the Swiss police by signing a declaration that he was a French deserter…
“America certainly was not as I had imagined it, and for quite a time I was very depressed,” he confesses. “Some people turned my head with easy promises, but for three years or so I was completely idle. I couldn’t quite understand the workings of Hollywood machinery, till one day a big-time executive said to me with a friendly pat on the shoulder: ‘Our studios are producing a lot of cheaply made money-spinners just now: thrillers, Westerns and so on. But one day the Board of Directors may decide to embark on Quality Production. That is when we shall need you’. His words were true, which meant that waiting for my chance I might well starve.
“But my chance came unexpectedly, when Preston Sturges one day by accident came across Liebelei and rediscovered me. I was first assigned to the scripting of Prosper Merimée’s Colomba for Howard Hughes (a picture unfinished yet, as far as I know), then worked for Douglas Fairbanks on The Exile. Then I made Letter From An Unknown Woman for Universal-International, Caught for Enterprise, and finally The Reckless Moment, produced by Walter Wagner for Columbia, which attracted some attention in America and led to the project of La Duchesse de Langeais. I actually came to Paris to shoot this famous novel with Greta Garbo and James Mason. As nothing came of it, I finally got tired of drawing my salary in idleness and I enthusiastically seized the chance of filming another famous Schnitzler subject: Der Reigen, a favourite story of mine.”
Max Ophüls took me out to the St. Maurice studio to show me the rough cut of La Ronde. Not to overstate my case, I cautiously say that it seems to be a completely worthy successor to his best achievements. I didn’t try to conceal my elation, but when we were sitting in the car again, I asked him, whether he had thought of censorship at all, American or English, when he was making the picture. Of course he had not. It would have seemed to him a profanation of Schnitzler’s work and spirit.
“Do you really think that the British censor would not pass those love scenes?” he enquired with a note of genuine anxiety in his voice. “That would be a blow to me, because, little as I know it, I have a profound feeling for England. If it weren’t for the war, my son would have been educated in England, and possibly I might have made a film there…
“I am delighted to be in Europe again,” he continues, speaking of his plans. “It is my spiritual home, after all, and at my age it is almost impossible to become 100 per cent American. I have a vague idea that I should turn to good use the proverbial American efficiency by making a few pictures over here which would reflect European spirit and European sensibility. Even in the States there is an ever-growing market for such films.
“Laurence Olivier has really broken new ground with his Hamlet. But I believe that, for instance, a film adaptation of Giraudoux’s La Folle de Chaillot, in English of course, might well attract the same crowds…” When Max Ophüls talks about something that is important to him, the inflections of his voice betray a depth of feeling rather unusual in a man who by reason of his profession and after a life full of pitfalls might have become a cynic. Fortunately he is far from it. His faith in the cinema is unbroken; and his youthful enthusiasm still fires the imagination of his friends and fellow-workers who see in him not only an outstanding film director, but also a good European.
Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy