6 May, 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany
d. 26 March, 1957, Hamburg, Germany

Like the elaborate camera manoeuvres that enrich his multinational filmography, the career of Max Ophuls has been one of dynamic fluctuation. Since his first feature in 1932, through his last in 1955, Ophuls has had moments of tremendous productivity, only to have that followed by years of disheartening adversity; he languished under periods of stagnant disappointment, only to rise again and flourish with a string of successes. Born Maximillian Oppenheimer, Ophuls began his show business career as a stage actor at the age of 17, changing his surname so as not to potentially blight his conservative family (lest someone find out young Maximillian had entered such an unseemly profession). He soon shifted his attention to theater production, and later, after more than 200 plays and operettas, to the motion picture trade, joining Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft (Ufa) as a dialogue director in 1929 and directing his first movie in 1930, a comic short called Dann schon lieber Lebertran (I’d Rather Have Cod-Liver Oil).

In 1933, with his son, Marcel, and wife, Hilde Wall, an actress he met during his tenure at the Burgtheater in Vienna, Ophuls fled Hitler’s Germany and arrived in France; he became a French citizen in 1938 and, to further distance himself from his German heritage, he dropped the tell-tale umlaut from his name. After the fall of France in 1940, Ophuls travelled throughout Europe, outpacing the encroaching Nazi threat and directing films in the Netherlands and Italy. He arrived in the United States in 1941, where he struggled to find gainful employment despite having more than ten features to his credit, and despite the best efforts of supportive expatriates, like Robert Siodmak, and filmmaker admirers, like Preston Sturges, who arranged for Ophuls to direct Vendetta in 1946, from which he was promptly removed with hardly any of his footage left intact (that film finally premiered in 1950). Though Louis B. Mayer offered Ophuls a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1936, it was writer-producer-star Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (on the recommendation of Siodmak) who secured the director his first completed Hollywood movie, 1947’s The Exile. Three other American films followed, all met with middling to poor receipts, but even as Ophuls returned to Paris in 1949, he never gave up his Hollywood aspirations. However, after an aborted project with producer Walter Wanger (an adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s “The Duchess of Langeais,” which was to hopefully feature a retired Greta Garbo), Ophuls hit his stride and directed three successive European hits. He concluded his career with Lola Montès, a radical, controversial film that received scathing reviews and was subsequently reedited and disregarded. Two years later, Ophuls suffered a fatal heart attack and passed away at the age of 54. He was working on a new picture, The Lovers of Montparnasse, which was ultimately completed by Jacques Becker and released in 1958.

With a career marred by critical and commercial failures, by projects half-started and abandoned, but also by renowned achievements garnished with universal praise, Ophuls surely knew the precarious nature of the entertainment business. And this natural predilection for the performing arts led to a firm understanding of the creative tribulations that went with the profession, as well as its attractions and triumphs. For Ophuls, and for so many of his quixotic characters, performance — literally on stage or as a veneer adopted to suit society — was life itself, and life revolved around performance. But that could be a problematic correlation, as in his first feature-length film, The Company’s in Love (Die verliebte Firma, 1932), a movie about moviemaking, where illusion reigns, from overstated scenarios (an Alps snowbank rendezvous in topcoat and evening gown), to the madcap drama behind-the-scenes (flings and squabbles, diva outbursts and happy accidents). Ophuls engaged the fraudulence of entertainment, an approach later seen in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), his second American film and the first movie produced by Rampart Productions, a company formed by star Joan Fontaine and her then husband, William Dozier. At one point during the delicate courtship of Fontaine’s smitten enthusiast, Lisa, and Louis Jourdan’s concert pianist, Stefan, the two willfully give in to the artificial impermanence of fantasy recreation, “riding” in a stationary train apparatus where rolling scenic sheets suggest far-off locations out their window.

As part of this pervasive focus, Ophuls expressed a marked sympathy for budding performers, those who struggle to find their footing in a cutthroat industry. More often than not, this journey was rife with difficulty, disappointment, and life lessons learned. In Ophuls’ 1934 Italian feature, La signora di tutti (Everybody’s Woman), the flashback trajectory of Isa Miranda’s rising star, Gabriella Murge (AKA Gaby Doriot), negotiates humble school choir beginnings and a byzantine show business entry. While the viewer is privileged to the truth of the process, Gaby’s fans know only of their idol’s fame as a manipulated phenomenon. A radio program about her rise promotes exaggerations and downright lies, cementing the façade of stardom, the charade, and the importance of a good show over accuracy. As Susan M. White has pointed out, concerning the much-lauded camera work of the film and its piecemeal celebrity formation, “This praise for the film’s technical aspect is highly ironic in that the subject of the film is the alienation of woman through technology — including the camera, the printing press, and the auditory devices of telephone, phonograph, and radio. …Signora’s protagonist is fragmented, frighteningly disunified.” 1

Show business certainly has its appeal, though, such as the recurring motif of togetherness and collaborative unity (see the insular circus troupe of 1932’s The Bartered Bride/Die verkaufte Braut, for example, a social circle existing in its own defined sphere), but that concerted attraction can also yield singular distortion. Established by the montage arrival of high-speed, high-class city-girl Dore (Gina Manès), in contrast to modest Ludivine Jarisse, who toils in the fields of her farm, Ophuls’ Divine (1935) deals explicitly with artist expectations and theatrical affectations. Played by Simone Berriau, who would also star in Ophuls’ next film, La tendre ennemie (1936), a nascent starlet like Ludivine — soon christened “Divine,” in another instance of identity spin — must learn to walk like a dancer and adopt an appropriately ostentatious guise. Moreover, while entertainment professions can occasionally afford working women positions of assertion (via their popularity and corresponding demand), in Ophuls’ oeuvre, where these women are routinely subjected to sexual injustice, such professions are frequently the only available avenues to achieve such confidence, and even that cuts both ways. In There’s No Tomorrow (Sans lendemain, 1939), all is going as well as it can for cabaret dancer and single mother Evelyn (Babs) Morin (Edwige Feuillère), but when a man from her less sordid past reenters the picture, she is overcome with the shame of what she has become. The resulting twofold portrait is one of a strong-willed woman doing what she has to do to make a living, but also one for whom show business has become a last resort rather than an ideal ambition. And as life is performance and performance is life, such occupational-personal anxiety is inextricably subject to contemporary pretense and social stigma, where perceptions of the work affect perceptions of the woman.

With its fitful backstage presentation, its camera cascading from the stage to the rafters and everywhere in between, a film like Divine (the only original screenplay by celebrated French writer Colette) can fancy the field of show people as a bewildering and overwhelming domain. It can also be threatening, especially in the case of this cautionary work, a theatrical exposé of decadence and immorality amongst the artistic ranks. All the same, this world is utterly absorbing, enchanting, and is clearly a setting in which Ophuls felt at home. That comfort and attachment is perhaps why so many of his films feature authorial stand-ins, assuming the position of what White refers to as a “director-figure” 2. Ophuls’ 1936 film, The Trouble with Money (Komedie om geld), his only picture directed in the Netherlands, has a sideshow barker introducing its story and reappearing throughout, while La Ronde (1950), Ophuls’ glorious French comeback following his frustrating American sojourn, has an even more integral directorial model. In this film, a dazzling showcase for Ophuls’ renewed formal vigor, he calls attention to the artifice of entertainment by advancing a master of ceremonies played by Anton Walbrook (a character not included in Arthur Schnitzler’s source play). As one of Ophuls’ recurring “middle men” 3, he coordinates the ten interwoven storylines, sauntering on stage to directly address the viewer and to set the film playfully in motion. Making his way through an obviously fabricated set, which he and Ophuls call blatant attention to, Walbrook’s meneur de jeu acts as an omnipotent guide, giving direction to a prostitute played by Simone Signoret — “And it will start with you,” he declares — stepping in to provide sporadic commentary, and later influencing the filmmaking process itself (scissors in hand, he edits out some suggestive content).

Max Ophuls

La Ronde

As with Jean Servais in Le Plaisir (1952), where he at first provides narration only to eventually appear as a central character, or as with Lola Montès, where the subject of the film is the exhibition of a life in the form of extravagant histrionics coordinated by circus master Peter Ustinov, Ophuls’ “director-figures” call self-conscious attention to the process of narrative development. And inseparable from his depiction of show business assembly is a correlative style, forging a body of work embellished with unparalleled, and unmistakable, cinematic fluidity: tilts, tracks, crane shots, dollies, and pans. It’s a practice he found essential to what differentiated the motion picture medium from a theatrical production: “The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life” 4. Using the camera as an instrument to be harmoniously played and orchestrated, yielding a pictorial rhythm to compliment his command of supplementary images, sounds, and character movement, Ophuls’ mastery was evident from the start. Though rudimentary technology may have hindered some of what was possible early on, there is a clear succession of stylistic skill, from The Company’s in Love, to The Bartered Bride, to Liebelei, in 1933, another Schnitzler adaptation where moments of visual bravura are not only more consistent, but are more cohesively integrated into the narrative, becoming seamlessly indispensable to Ophuls’ grand cinema.

While comparatively basic facilities had hardly hampered his creativity in Europe, when Ophuls arrived in Hollywood, he reveled in the resources of studio filmmaking, backed by a congregation of expert personnel. His agile camera canvassed the spacious action-packed stages of The Exile and roamed the bustling sets of Letter from an Unknown Woman, surging up staircases and moving through courtyard commotion. Even with Caught (1949), a relatively enclosed Ophuls picture, his renowned mobility remains on full display, the camera oscillating in continually impressive and original patterns (it was while working on this film that star James Mason penned an amusing poem regarding, “A shot that does not call for tracks” being “agony for poor old Max”). Yet even with the mechanics afforded him in Hollywood, it was with his four concluding French features that Ophuls’ camera found its greatest liberty, where sprightly photographic passages matched a newfound whimsical tone. The three-part Le Plaisir, for instance, shows Ophuls operating with astonishing variation. In the third segment, “Le Modèle,” he switches point of view mid-shot, at first following Simone Simon’s Joséphine, then assuming her suicidal vantage point, and, in the film’s extended second section, his camera lingers outside a popular house of ill repute, rising and falling, peeping into the windows like a prowling voyeur; Ophuls’ camera is always privy to what would normally be concealed, granting the viewer access to images and actions otherwise obstructed.

Max Ophuls

Le Plaisir

Arranging so many of his films in lively venues like ballrooms and dance halls, rich social surroundings conducive to his long takes, Ophuls presents an energetic conjoining of characters, where sometimes the untamed energy can even get the better of those involved, namely Jean Galland’s exhausted old man Ambroise, in Le Plaisir’s opener, “Le Masque.” (A film like Liebelei, which begins in an opera house, also uses the populated setting to acquaint the primary players.) From there, Ophuls fosters involved patterns of rotating movement, whirlwind waltzes where a two-person concentration supports the twirling imagery and condenses a scene to its principals, placing them in fixed relation to one another and their environs. Usually at his best when working with stalwart cameramen Eugen Schüfftan, Franz Planer, Christian Matras, or Paul Portier, all of whom shot two or more films with the director, Ophuls’ preference for long, uninterrupted sequence-shots left little in the way of variable material, discouraging the prospect of a studio’s editorial interference. (This fondness has been partially attributed to his own incessant movement, as well as his trouble grasping the rules of cutting for proper screen direction.) It’s not movement for movement’s sake, though; these bold ventures through space are solidified by intricate rehearsals and the careful composition of background extras, functioning with their own precise progress to shape a scene in its full kinetic entirety. Alternately, as seen in the opening of The Earrings of Madame de… (released in 1953 and originally titled Madame de…, making its ambiguous title character the central object of exchange, not her divvied jewelry), Ophuls could just as often deploy a supple camera in situations of isolated intimacy, hovering over the shoulder of Danielle Darrieux’s heroine as she browses her clothing and charms.

Max Ophuls

The Earrings of Madame de…

Ophuls’ cinema teems with breathtaking, boundless artistry, evinced in the backstage bustle of Divine, which also features early experimentations with frame size and scene transitions, and in the effusive spectacle of Lola Montès, where he pushed the boundaries of Cinemascope and basked in the baroque Eastmancolor photography. (Curiously, like the casting of Martine Carol as Lola, the colour and the widescreen format were integrated against Ophuls’ wishes.) Commonly encased in a symmetrical alignment and balanced by calculated illumination — almost noirish in a film like Caught — Ophuls’ exhaustive mise-en-scene develops from partitions and mirrors, frames within frames that play off themes of deception and duplicity and offer vast possibilities for staging in depth. And all of this lent itself to a cinematic choreography notable for more than just the mobile camera, showing Ophuls capable of a subtle, functional technique, where his aesthetic was geared toward the service of his characters, their conversations, exits and entrances, and the larger emotive content of any given scene. Indeed, Ophuls was as attuned to facial revelations and potent postures as he was the prospect of where a camera could be placed. “He was not the virtuoso or the aesthete or the decorative filmmaker he has been called,” wrote François Truffaut in an obituary for Ophuls. “He didn’t make ten or eleven shots with a single sweep of the camera merely to ‘look good’ … Like his friend Jean Renoir, Ophuls always sacrificed technique to the actor. Ophuls thought actors were at their best and least theatrical when forced to some physical effort — climbing stairs, running through the countryside, or dancing throughout a long single take” 5. Tempered by Ophuls’ theatrical background, this partiality hinged on the utmost realisation of an actor’s performance, meticulously staging scenes so as not to break up the organic interactions. According to Caught cinematographer Lee Garmes, the director made the camera “disappear”: “It just happened to be there catching the action — like a silent witness. … Ophuls had the actors be more natural than the majority of directors. They do not play to the camera” 6

Though this execution could verge toward the excessively operatic, as in the heavy-handed De Mayerling à Sarajevo (1940), these managerial efforts largely paid off, with a variety of fine performances across the generic and national spectrum: a spirited Lien Deyers in the tongue-in-cheek The Company’s in Love; Magda Schneider, who also starred in Ophuls’ Love Story (Une histoire d’amour, 1933), as the tragically morose Christine in Liebelei, her final despair registered in an extraordinary extended close-up; and acting luminaries James Mason, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Robert Ryan, searing in Caught’s three-way confrontations. Aligning with Truffaut’s testament, in America, Ophuls also had his cast execute some of the most vigorous work of their respective careers, including Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment (1949), lugging a corpse along the beach with palpable physical exertion, and Fairbanks in The Exile, a vibrant, swashbuckling turn that approximates Ophuls’ visual dynamism. (Incidentally, it was also Fairbanks who convinced Ophuls to temporarily change his name to “Opuls,” observing that people were cruelly mispronouncing his last name as “awfuls.”).

Max Ophuls

The Exile

Initiating his European return with La Ronde’s roster of familiar female faces (among them, Signoret, Simon, and Miranda), the final phase of Ophuls’ career highlights Darrieux above all others, especially in The Earrings of Madame de…, a part written specially for the acclaimed actress. Arguably the most exemplary of his regular thespian partners, her elegance, grace, and charm fashioned the quintessential Ophulsian heroine, embodying the same traits that generally defined his work. This was a considerable achievement, given Ophuls’ intrinsic ability to routinely generate arresting female characters, resilient individuals who were, almost without fail, imperiled by capricious romantic whims. As Richard Roud observed, “What are Ophuls’ subjects? The simplest answer is: women. More specifically: women in love. Most often, women who are unhappily in love, or to whom love brings misfortune of one kind or another” 7. As participants in assorted romantic entanglements, most of these women start from the point of an escapist ideal (the film within the film of The Company’s in Love is I’d Love to be in Love), but like the allure of the theater, the impulsive magnetism of embryonic romance proves unsound and fickle. The ensuing Ophuls engagement rarely comes easy, arising from chance encounters and regularly against the odds, defying social dictates and running counter to preexisting standards. And for all this, it is usually the female lead who suffers, the anguish taking many forms, affecting idealistic young paramours who must function in a world where people callously marry for money, prestige, or propriety, and where love follows the path of passion, but the best laid plans are seldom realised.

For Joan Fontaine’s Lisa, the far-away ardor is primarily a one-sided infatuation, where preliminary age restrictions and parental dependency put her romantic reveries out of reach. But there is no chance meeting here; when the time is right, the relationship between she and Louis has been a synchronised affair (to little avail). Regretful memories may tarnish a relationship in retrospect — recalled from beyond the grave, La tendre ennemie is all about love in retrospect — but for Ophuls’ youngest of romantics, the earliest thrill is in the gestating period of anticipation. Yet not unlike the preparatory stages of stardom, this is an analogous moment of individual (re)construction. Lisa’s young girl fancy is driven by predominant male expectations, leading her to a refined transformation, altering her manner, dress, and areas of expertise, all to accommodate what will one day become a resounding devotion to forsake all else. Likewise, in Caught, Ophuls’ astute depiction of patriarchal sexual politics, Leonora (Bel Geddes) hones her charm school principles with glamorous dreams based around the superficial requisites of potential male hopefuls.

But women are not simply at the mercy of love’s supremacy — the Ophulsian woman is more than just a besotted dreamer. These characters appear in a variety of situations, as empowered personages held on high, or as grounded individuals exposed to a steady dose of bitter reality. In conjunction with feminine expectancy, Ophuls introduces what White terms a “relational contract” 8, whereby these female figures enter some pact or another as a commodified object indistinguishable from their true self (see again the aforementioned title discrepancy of Madame de…). After a series of tragedies, La signor de tutti’s Gaby has her innocence corrupted and apprehensively enters into a musical agreement, which essentially assigns her the status of public property. The recurrent theme of prostitution is an obvious extension of this tendency, and more than one Ophuls film has explored the tenuous relationship between a woman and the wholesale peddling of her body, soul, and/or persona. One sees this even in its more subversive, commonplace constructs, like Leonora’s initial fixation on whatever it takes to attain a life of wealth and leisure, or the bawdy dancers of There’s No Tomorrow. Typically treated with unwavering empathy (the party of whores in Le Plaisir are far more presentable than in the Guy de Maupassant short story source), Ophuls’ sex trade is a multifaceted enterprise that is both escape and entrapment, that is both innocent and degrading, and it draws larger parallels between female liberation and capitalistic opportunity. In doing so, Ophuls eschews judgement and expresses ardent consideration toward women who find themselves in lives beyond their control, like those in 1937’s Yoshiwara, a film that has a mock opera and fantasy sleighride, almost as if its characters were enacting a make-believe Max Ophuls movie.

Max Ophuls


A detached commodification also takes the form of Divine’s falsified starlet role and Lola’s saleable personality, and it appears in the keynote of a predestined or preordained arrangement, seen in The Novel of Werther (1938), where Annie Vernay’s Charlotte is unable to choose the man she truly loves, and in The Bartered Bride, an adaptation of Bedřich Smetana’s opera, where the decreed marriage between Marie (Jarmila Novotna) and a settled suitor is advantageous to all but her. But women can be autonomous as well. In the absence of her husband, Bennett’s California housewife of The Reckless Moment decisively preserves the structure of her suburban middle-class existence, even when external criminality (and a kindly remorseful blackmailer) threatens to upend her domestic stability. She refuses to play the victim, she carries on with a remarkable semblance of normality (still remembering to pay the bills), and she exudes an intense degree of maternal devotion, going to the greatest of lengths to protect her children. A similar strength is seen with Feuillère’s Evelyn, in There’s No Tomorrow, and with Lola Montès, as one of Ophuls’ most complex female personalities, the ultimate in objectification and manipulation. Her namesake feature delves into the decadent details of a restless woman seeking discharge from the shallow and the ordinary, balking at everything she is supposed to accept, finding her own voice, her own fortune and fame (and infamy), and enacting, according to the ringmaster, what other women dream of doing but lack the courage to pursue.

If so many of these prevailing circumstances ring of arcane sexism, in the context of Ophuls’ favored era, the moral connotations are consistent with a time and place dear to the director (his prior proclivity for fin-de-siecle Vienna is partly what secured his work on the screen adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella, “Letter from an Unknown Woman”). “I adore the past,” proclaims La Ronde’s charismatic raconteur, “It’s so much more peaceful than the present, and so much more certain than the future.” Not always peaceful or certain, Ophuls’ preferred epoch — at least as Ophuls saw it — was certainly more romantic. It’s a world of extravagance and opulence, of gowns and jewels, of upper class pomp and pageantry. It’s an aristocratic province, resolute in its manner and its adhered gentility (all of which, of course, makes the certain scandal that much more scandalous). Ophuls was ambivalent toward militaristic structure, however, which was so crucial to this antique milieu; there is at once an enthrallment with royal dignity and bellicose codes of conduct (systematic duels in particular), but he tends to side more with those insubordinate to the stuffy decorum, the outmoded sense of honour, and the rules and regulations just begging to be broken.

Though Ophuls could romanticise history, taking his fair share of liberty with congruent technicalities, he nevertheless seized on the artistic possibilities inherent in certain storylines, circulating his brand of romance with adjacent political intrigue and, in some cases, suffering the real-life consequences. Liebelei’s depiction of frivolity in uniform raised the ire of watchful German eyes who did not appreciate its soldiers gone wild, while Yoshiwara’s portrayal of Tokyo’s seedy side was enough for the Japanese government to condemn stars Sessue Hayakawa and Michiko Tanaka as traitors and prohibit the film altogether. Similarly, with its chronicle of Countess Sophie Chotek (Feuillère) and L’archiduc François Ferdinand (John Lodge), both subject to ostracism for their political beliefs and their dynasty defiance, De Mayerling à Sarajevo had its production halted by the onset of World War II, resumed again in 1940, and was soon thereafter banned by the German authorities (Ophuls was himself called up for military service, during which time he made several anti-Nazi radio broadcasts).

Max Ophuls

Laughing Heirs

Exceptions to this predominant backdrop range from the foreboding modern mansion of Caught — a lavish, hollow residence, claustrophobic and domineering — to the temporary rustic tranquility of Le Plaisir’s “La Maison Tellier,” with its peaceful, provincial retreat in the Normandy countryside, an idyllic setting comparable to the commencement of Divine, or the reflective banks along the Rhine in Laughing Heirs (Lachende Erben, 1933). And just as the Ophuls scenery can deviate from the norm, so too can there be shifts in tone. Not every Ophuls film is overflowing with despairing ladies and forlorn lovers. The Trouble with Money, with its financial scheming and its hapless bank courier, puts economics and commerce front and centre, but does so with a zany, trifling tenor. Young people in an Ophuls film are likely to enliven a stolid atmosphere, agitating elders and provoking the powers that be, which is exactly what one sees in Laughing Heirs, a situational comedy involving champagne, an unorthodox will, rival families, and the comic charm of Peter Frank, giving what may be (with Charles Boyer and Vittorio De Sica in The Earrings of Madame de…), the finest male performance in an Ophuls movie. La tendre ennemie, too, with its ghosts of loves past, has a pleasant time developing its fantastical flashback form and its supernatural conceit. By contrast, Ophuls could also be deeply disturbing, as in the frenzied, horrifying death of Tatyana Pavlova’s wheelchair-bound Alma in La signora di tutti. And even with all the romantic fatalism, Ophuls rarely expressed bitterness or sweeping cynicism. In the face of existential dread and jilted resignation, he remained very much a believer in love, and his characters convey just as much lingering decency as they do heartrending dishonesty. His pictures are peppered with humourous innuendo; they’re occasionally tawdry yet undeniably sophisticated. They have moments of great tenderness, sweetness, and sensuality, yet Ophuls could just as fluently stunt the realisation of love, collapsing what had been assembled, but saving it just within arm’s reach, just enough to keep hope alive.

Everything seemed to lead to Lola Montès, a carnivalesque tale of passion, social inequality, female emancipation-turned-exploitation, and the still-dubious nature of celebrity, and all of it presented as a circus routine presided over by a classic Ophulsian director/moderator. In this creatively-staged recounting of its courtesan subject, her numerous affairs in the realms of art and politics, Lola Montès abridges Ophuls’ persistent theme of identity adaptation, when mingling from person to person or from lover to lover. “Life for me is . . . a movement,” Lola declares, “My life is whirling in my head.” It’s an apt Ophuls pronouncement if ever there was one, and yet this magnificent film, an international coproduction shot in two different countries and in three different languages, was met with rampant hostility. Its disjointed timeline led to trims and narrative reshuffling, resulting in a 91-minute version running in chronological order, a version that vanished quickly in the wake of negative press.

Max Ophuls

Lola Montès

It would be the story of Ophuls’ career: adoration only after the fact. Eventually, the meager reception of Lola Montès was offset by a new generation of critics, like those at Cahiers du cinema, who lauded the film and much of Ophuls’ previous work, and by auteur-aficionado Andrew Sarris, who in 1963 declared Lola Montès the greatest film ever made. Still, though there has been an invigorating posthumous reevaluation of Ophuls’ output, spearheaded by his son, Marcel, among others, much of Ophuls work remains unseen by a wide, appreciative audience (and one film, Man Stolen/On a Vole un Homme, from 1933, remains lost). As Claude Beylie laments, “What filmmaker has been more ignored, more underestimated than Max Ophuls? What paltry and stubborn ostracism has, until recently, been practiced with respect to his work?” 9 Considering Ophuls’ penchant for the spectacular and the prominence of his hand-revealing director-figures, perhaps White found the most appropriate allocation, writing that such features bring to light “another aspect of Ophuls’ relation to specular praxis of the past: a return to the ‘exhibitionist’ structure of early cinema” 10 By then referencing Tom Gunning’s influential work on the “cinema of attractions,” she makes a good point; regarding Lola Montès specifically: “One can feel ‘Ophuls’ being torn between the laying bare of cinema’s ability to show, to exhibit, and the more occulted, fetishising powers of the camera unmediated by a ‘director-figure’” 11. Although Ophuls’ cinema also prospers with engaging storylines, strong performances, and a deft handling of multiple themes and historical concentrations, there remains a profound visual fascination, one hinging on the sheer joy of unbridled movement, the texture of an exotic location, the draw of beautiful people, and the visceral satisfaction of a medium’s potential. There is something magical about seeing an exceptional work of art, something special in its emotional-sensory stimulus. It’s what distinguished cinema’s genesis, and it’s part of the same romantic spell still cast by the films of Max Ophuls.


I’d Rather Have Cod Liver Oil (1931) also writer
The Company’s in Love (1932)
Die verkaufte Braut (1932)
Liebelei (1933) also writer
Laughing Heirs (1933) also writer
Love Story (1933)
Everybody’s Woman (1934) also writer
Divine (1935) also writer
Valse brillante de Chopin (1936)
La tendre ennemie (1936) also writer and producer
Komedie om geld (1936) also writer
Ave Maria (1936)
Yoshiwara (1937) also writer
The Novel of Werther (1938) also writer
There’s No Tomorrow (1939) also writer
Sarajevo (1940)
L’école des femmes (1940)
The Exile (1947)
Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) also writer
Caught (1949)
The Reckless Moment (1949)
La Ronde (1950) also writer
Le Plaisir (1952) also writer and producer
The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) also writer
Lola Montès (1955) also writer

Select Bibliography

White, Susan M. The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.)

Bacher, Lutz. Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996.)

Articles in Senses of Cinema

Liebelei, by Jesús Cortés http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/liebelei/

Ophuls Conducting: Music and Musicality in Letter from an Unknown Woman, by Alexander Dhoest http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/cinema-and-music/music_letter_from_unknown_woman/

La ronde, by John Fidler http://sensesofcinema.com/2010/cteq/la-ronde/

Max Ophuls: A New Art – But Who Notices?, by Tag Gallagher http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/ophuls/

Lola Montès, by Rodney F. Hill http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/lola_montes/

The Exile, by Robert Keser http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/exile/

Letter from an Unknown Woman, by Carla Marcantonio http://sensesofcinema.com/2006/cteq/letter_unknown_woman/



  1. White, Susan M. The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.), p. 199.
  2. White, p. 24.
  3. White, p. 23.
  4. Tag Gallagher, “Max Ophuls: A New Art – But Who Notices?,” Senses of Cinema, October 2002, http://sensesofcinema.com/2002/feature-articles/ophuls/
  5. Terrence Rafferty, “La ronde: Vicious Circle,” Criterion Collection, September, 2008, https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/549-la-ronde-vicious-circle
  6. Bacher, Lutz. Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1996.), p. 223.
  7. White, p. 4.
  8. White, p. 78.
  9. White, p. 3.
  10. White, p. 299.
  11. White, p. 300.

About The Author

Jeremy Carr is a faculty associate at Arizona State University and a visiting research fellow with the ASU Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He has written for Cineaste, Film International, CineAction, Cinema Retro, MUBI’s Notebook, Vague Visages, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film, Bright Lights Film Journal, and The Moving Image.

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