Max Ophuls has been called a humanist director, but if we define humanism as referring to the centrality of human activity to the universe, then he is the least humanist of directors. Characters in his films may think they control people, things, forces and even destiny itself, but they are always confounded – by other people, things, forces and destiny.
Take Komedie om geld (The Trouble with Money, Max Ophuls, 1936). The “trouble” referred to in the film’s English title is that, although money is a human invention that once formed part of a human-created system of exchange, it has long since passed out of human control into the realm of unpredictable, even magical forces, forces emblematised by the commodity fetish, with its associations of dark, occult powers. In Madame de… (1953), probably Ophuls’ most celebrated film, a trio of apparently fearless and charismatic aristocrats are undone by a pair of earrings whose mystical circulation mocks their pretensions to possession and control.
The Trouble with Money, produced and shot in the Netherlands, is a more didactic early treatment of a similar theme, wherein the volatility of currency ruins, then raises, then ruins again several individuals, manipulates the fates of whole communities and props up insubstantial yet paradoxically real political, socio-economic systems. If money is fortune, then it is driven by the inexorable Wheel of Fortune – the circular movement that drives the film, from the spinning plates that serve as a halo for the film’s MC, a fairground barker (Edwin Gubbins Doorenbos), through the repetitive, circular nature of the plot, to the virtuosic yet increasingly hysterical circles traced by Ophuls’ camera.
The Trouble with Money is didactic because – in the manner of one of Bertolt Brecht’s Lehrstücke (‘learning’ or ‘teaching’ plays) – it shows in clear stages the workings of a seemingly inexplicable system. A petty thief, Ferdinand (Matthieu van Eysden), is protected from the police because his brother-in-law is a respected bank official. Karel Brand (the unforgettable schlemiel played by Herman Bouber) is respected because his record of probity makes him a visible and marketable emblem of probity. When that appearance is tarnished – when he loses the bank’s 350,000 guilders – he loses both the moral values embodied in and the respect attached to it, and loses his job. Without social ‘credit’, he loses financial credit – he becomes unemployable, and his creditors suddenly refuse credit or call in their debts. His peppy young daughter, Willy (Rini Otte), suffers the same fate because the paterfamilias epitomises the family just as the family is the core unit of the film’s capitalist system.
As Brand’s stock falls, that of the mislaid money rises, and with heavy irony becomes the apparent means of his social if not moral redemption. A dodgy, insolvent concern, the International Finance Institute (IFI), is stuck after the suicide of their founder. This information is revealed in a marvellous piece of blackly comic sleight of hand when an IFI board meeting is intercut with Brand’s blundering attempt at suicide. The dynamic montage comes as a welcome relief after the film’s grimmest, most powerful sequence. Brand has stumbled home after realising that his daughter has been lying to protect him from the fact that she cannot get a job because of his ‘crime’. This realisation literally ‘bowls him over’: a bumptious bourgeois in a bowling alley, where Brand now works for a pittance, boasts about not employing Willy, then hurls a bowling ball down Brand’s field of vision. The ball speeds towards the camera before – in a sound/image match-cut worthy of Ophuls’ contemporary Alfred Hitchcock – presumably hitting Brand so hard that he falls with a bang in his own home. In one unbroken, barely visible take of nearly two minutes, he distractedly listens to his daughter’s concerns while he plans to gas himself.
But, as if by magic – the magic that disposes what man proposes – Brand is rescued from his moment of greatest despair by Moorman (Cor Ruys), the cynical chairman of IFI, whose staccato speechifying during the intercutting had seemed to be willing Brand to kill himself. IFI will appoint the discredited Brand as director, and customers, believing him to have the missing money, will believe the institute to be solvent. Critics have noted the change in the film’s tone and aesthetic at this point: from sunny realism to claustrophobic stylisation as we move from picturesque canalways and cramped apartments to an almost totalitarian Art Deco modernism of high-ceilinged offices and endless corridors, all barely furnished and dense with dangerous shadows, photographed by Expressionist legend Eugen Schüfftan.
In truth, Ophuls’ apparently binary style in The Trouble with Money serves to emphasise the continuities between Brand’s experiences as lowly official and strutting director. In the film’s first half, Brand is the archetypal Mitteleuropean ‘little man’, his social insignificance registered by the progressive diminution of his body – dwarfed by unsympathetic superiors, his movements hampered by constricted and treacherously compartmented spaces, his figure diminished in frames-within-the-film’s-frames as he is exposed to the hostile gaze of mistrustful others. He has no more freedom as a business executive – we first see his new persona as he rides in a tiny elevator, struggling with his new, ill-fitting clothes; he bobs through the typing pool, raising his hat in vague condescension like the puppet he is; his pompous moral posturing to corrupt lackeys is undermined when they complain to the ‘real’ boss, Moorman, in the very next scene.
What prevents the film from becoming a conventional Christian allegory of suffering and redemption, moral blindness and awakening, is not just the jokey tone of the plot’s denouement, the centrality of a marvellous dog and the anti-illusionistic devices that led contemporary reviewers to compare The Trouble with Money to G.W. Pabst’s 1931 adaptation of Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The fact is that Ophuls’ film, produced and made by exiled Jews, is in fact not really about money at all. The sequence of Brand being led away at night while malevolent neighbours gossip; his rejection of his daughter’s suitor, a German refugee who has clearly escaped Nazism; and the film’s generally bleak atmosphere, in which existence is unstable, and a respectable member of the community with a seemingly fixed identity can be stripped of his status and thrown out of his home or into prison, suddenly and at random: this is a film about a European Jewry circulating in a series of systems and environments over which it had no control. Max Ophuls was certainly no humanist, but he was deeply humane.
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Komedie om geld (The Trouble with Money, 1936 Netherlands 89 mins)
Prod Co: Will Tuschinski-Cinetone Prod: Will Tuschinski Dir: Max Ophuls Scr: Max Ophuls, Walter Schlee, Alex de Haas, Christine van Meeteren Phot: Eugen Schüfftan Ed: Gerald Bensdorp Art Dir: Heinz Fenschel, Theo Van der Lugt, Jan Wiegers Mus: Heinz Lachmann, Max Tak
Cast: Herman Bouber, Matthieu van Eysden, Rini Otte, Cor Ruys, Edwin Gubbins Doorenbos