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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Max Ophuls (1902-1957)

Last night I had my first class in a 6-week film appreciation series devoted to the films of Max Ophuls, who directed Joan Fontaine in Letter from an Unknown Woman and is regarded as one of the great auteur directors of cinema history.

The films in the summer series are:

June 16: Liebelei (1932)
June 23: Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948)
June 30: Caught (1949)
July 7: Le Plaisir (1952)
July 14: The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)
July 21: Lola Montès (1955)

Our instructor is of the opinion that Ophuls fits the definition of "auteur" much more than the films of Jean-Luc Godard or François Truffaut, also regarded as auteurs.

His films are known for two distinctive styles: 1. Mobile framing / mobile cameras and dolly shots, and 2. Long takes, shots that endure for a long time.

He was born Maximillian Oppenheimer in 1902 in Germany on the border of France, and he grew up speaking both languages fluently. He pursued a career in acting at a relatively young age, and took the stage name of Max Ophuls once he started work in the theater. He either appeared in or directed hundreds of plays over time, and in the late 1920s even pursued films; he went to Berlin's UFA studio to work as assistant, and then made some attempts at his own films.

His first film attempt was a 40 minute comedy called "Dann schon lieber Lebertran" (1931) which translates in English as "I'd Rather Have Cod Liver Oil". Ophuls wasn't happy with the film, and never attempted such a comedy again.

He made Liebelei in 1932, which was based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler about relationships and affairs. Our instructor said that in English, the word "Liebelei" translates into "Games of Love". She said that the Viennese people are fascinated with issues of love and death, and that this would be something audiences would be able to relate to very well in this era of Freud. There's all sorts of situations the main characters find themselves in, love triangles and the like, and it's an impressive film from a new director. Even though Ophuls' background was in theater, this isn't a "theatrical looking" film. But the print we watched was very bad. It was also a poorly recorded VHS tape copy. The white subtitles were often cut off on the left side and very hard to read whenever there was something white in the foreground. I will have to watch the movie again another time, perhaps if its ever restored. Our instructor said this movie is the only German film that is avialable of his.

A Jew, Ophuls had to flee Germany not long after this was made. He moved to France, but he wasn't safe from the Nazis there either.

In the United States, he wanted to do more films, and befriended Preston Sturges, who helped him along the way. In 1946 he was slated to direct a film Vendetta, but was fired for reasons I don't know about exactly yet. He tried again and directed The Exile produced and starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. His next film was with Joan, Letter from An Unknown Woman, which is arguably his most famous work. He made 4 films in the US before moving back to France, where he directed some wonderful movies such as Le Plaisir, which I haven't seen yet but is part of the film series. Ophuls himself was the set designer on the picture, and he was nominated for an Oscar in the US. I can't wait to watch that film.

On the sets, he drank Schnopps with his lunches every day, he was that kind of guy. Peter Lorre was a good friend of his. People who worked with him loved working with him, including James Mason who even wrote a poem about him.

He died in 1957 of heart disease and was buried in Paris.

This is the official description of the film series from the website and print ads:

"The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life. Otherwise, I'd have no need of it; doing photography doesn't interest me. That, I leave to the photographer." (Max Ophüls)

Long praised as a consummate auteur, Max Ophüls commanded control over all aspects of his films, including cinematography and post-production work. His style, exhibiting a commitment to grace, beauty, and sensitivity, celebrates what the camera is able to create. Choreographing the extreme feelings involved in human relationships with an endlessly mobile camera and long takes, Ophüls explores dimensions of time, movement, and fate. The compositions in his films overflow into what film theorist Laura Mulvey calls "ecstatic and extended moments," into which he often incorporates strong visual irony. Ophüls, German-Jewish by birth, was truly an international director. At Ufa in Berlin, he made his first films, among them Liebelei (1932). In 1941, after failed attempts to stay in Europe during Hitler's regime, directing films in Holland, Italy, and France, Ophüls finally moved to the United States as one of the last exiled directors to arrive. Among his American films are Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), starring Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine, and Caught (1949), with Barbara Bel Geddes and James Mason. Upon returning to Europe and settling in Paris in 1950, Ophüls made the films that form the high point of his career, including his last, Lola Montüs (1955), his only film in color. In this class, we will experience the pleasure of being able to watch most of Ophüls' French films, which disappeared from public view, but recently have been re-released.

Therese Grisham has a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Seattle and was awarded a Fulbright lectureship to the University of Dresden, following which she won a teaching award in film studies. She now teaches film aesthetics and history at Columbia College Chicago and film analysis and media and culture at DePaul University. She has previously taught courses at the Facets Film School, including Watch the Skies! Science Fiction, The 1950's and Us, Through a Technicolor Mirror: The Films of Douglas Sirk and Julien Duvivier: Master of Versatility.


KC said...

This class sounds amazing. I just re-watched The Earrings of Madame de. . . and it was the first time I really appreciated those long shots. That is definitely my favorite Ophuls movie--though I can't think of one I've seen that I don't like. I'd be curious to hear what your instructor thinks about Letter from an Unknown Woman.

Tom said...

Thanks KC; that's the next film we'll be watching next week, and I'll be taking lots of notes.

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