The Films of Max Ophüls
February 1 -- March 5
"One of the greatest of film directors." --Critic David Thomson
"His camera could pass through walls." --Stanley Kubrick
Max Ophüls (né Oppenheimer, 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany) made films in four European countries in four different languages during the 1930s before coming to Hollywood in the 1940s. Although his stay in California was not a happy one, and his four American films failed to connect with audiences at the time, over the years each has developed an enthusiastic cult following--especially the auteurist-championed
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, but also the film noir-inflected domestic
melodramas THE RECKLESS MOMENT and CAUGHT, both made in 1949. A year after these films were released, he was back working in France, where, briefly, his work seemed to find its footing: LA RONDE, LE PLAISIR, THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE... and LOLA MONTÈS, all made in the first half of the 1950s, have become identified as the quintessential Ophüls works, from his "mature" period. But this fertile period, too, ended abruptly with Ophüls's death in 1957--his poor health perhaps compounded by the disastrous reception of what would be his final film, LOLA MONTÈS, in 1955.
Ophüls's reputation as one of world cinema's greats has only grown with time. His films display a worldliness, whether he's depicting café society Europe or coolly assessing the way "real life" in postwar America fails to live up to the Dream. While many of his films can be classified as romances, and others even as tragedies, their pathos never devolves to the pitiable--ironically, they often play as instructive parables on affairs of the heart and the strictures of society. And famously, there are tracking shots--lots and lots of tracking shots. Ophüls is rivaled only by Kenji Mizoguchi when it comes to complexly designed camera movements, never done to show off, but always in service to his story and characters.
AFI Member passes will be accepted at all films in the Max Ophüls series.
Aptly titled, this was the first film Ophüls made in Hollywood after languishing there virtually unrecognized for several years. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. wrote, produced and starred in the swashbuckler mode of his father, and gave Ophüls leave to shape the swashes according to his liking. The result is a film whose athletic feats are in the
camera's realm, a Hollywood film with a European pace and Ophülsian grace that critic James Agee characterized as "cavalier detachment." The apocryphal antics deal with King Charles II during his exile in Holland, when, to evade Cromwell's puritanical Roundheads, he disguises himself as a laborer and falls in love with a local lass played by Paule Croset (later known as Rita Corday). She had the male critics waxing poetic, but Ophüls was interested in "the poetry of the screen," as the Manchester Guardian critic noted. Windmills and Roundheads alike accede to his compositions in motion. (Note courtesy Pacific Film Archive.)
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR/PROD Douglas Fairbanks Jr. based on the novel by Cosmo Hamilton. US, 1947, b&w, 95 min. In English and French with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Sunday, February 1, 5:00; Wednesday, February 4, 9:25
LIEBELEI was to be Ophüls's last German production before his exile to parts west. In the film, a young lieutenant falls deeply in love with a musician's daughter, only to have his hopes dashed by a past indiscretion. Released without credit to Ophüls, the tragedy played to great success in Nazi Germany, in spite of its critical take on military hypocrisy. (Note courtesy Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin.)
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR Felix Salten; PROD German Millakowsky. AUSTRIA, 1933, b&w, 87 min. In German with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Sunday, February 8, 6:15; Tuesday, February 10, 8:45
THE RECKLESS MOMENT
Joan Bennett valiantly tries to help daughter Geraldine Brooks get out of a blackmailing scheme perpetrated by her slimy boyfriend Sheppard Strudwick before things go from very bad to absolute worst. A dark angel arrives in the person of James Mason, in one of the moodiest and most perfectly controlled performances of this magnificent actor's career. One of the many excellent films produced by Bennett's husband Walter Wanger, THE RECKLESS MOMENT began life as a Jean Renoir project, and its story has some of the feel of his late-'30s work. In what might be his most underrated film, Ophüls concentrated on the sad, oddly romantic interaction between Mason and Bennett, and offered just as controlled and moving a vision of suppressed emotion as distinguished his European work, with a pitch-perfect rendering of southern California in the bargain. (Note courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center.) Special thanks to CBS Television Distribution for their generosity in making this screening happen.
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR Mel Dinelle, Henry Garson, Robert E. Kent and Robert Soderburg; PROD Walter Wanger. US, 1949, b&w, 81 min. In English. NOT RATED
Monday, February 9, 9:45; Tuesday, February 10, 7:00; Wednesday, February 11, 8:30; Thursday, February 12, 7:00
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN
Named to the National Film Registry in 1992 as a national cinematic treasure. A turn-of-the-century Vienna set, with its spiral staircases, mirrors, and elaborate grillwork, becomes a haunting chiaroscuro canvas for cinematographer Franz Planer and a thematic showcase for Ophüls in this classic Hollywood "woman's picture." Joan Fontaine portrays a young woman, Lisa, who builds an adolescent infatuation into a lifelong passion for concert pianist Louis Jourdan, who is barely aware of her existence. Lisa's life is like the carnival ride that takes the couple, on their only night together, through the countries of Europe, a fantasy of movement that is really a circular stasis, propelled by a bemused pedaler/director. Lisa's story, told via a posthumous letter, is more troubling than it is romantic, a story for which death is the only neat closure. (Note courtesy Pacific Film Archive.)
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR Howard Koch; PROD John Houseman. US, 1948, b&w, 86 min. In English. RATED PG
Friday, February 13, 3:30; Saturday, February 14, 3:00; Sunday, February 15, 1:00; Wednesday, February 18, 9:00
It looks like working-class charm-school student Barbara Bel Geddes's ship has come in when she's invited to a millionaire's yachting party. She misses the boat but catches the millionaire, and soon our heroine is successfully ensconced in a grim Long Island Gothic mansion, staving off loneliness with pills, waiting for her husband--bitter, driven Robert Ryan--to come home. It's no surprise that when Bel Geddes tries to trade in the hollow luxury of her married life for the human chaos of James Mason's Lower East Side doctor's office, she meets with formidable resistance from her husband, who says "women are a dime a dozen," but who monomaniacally insists on protecting his investments. Thanks in part to Lee Garmes's deep-focus cinematography, the dream house has rarely looked so sinister. (Note courtesy Pacific Film Archive.)
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR Arthur Laurents based on the novel by Libbie Block; PROD Wolfgang Reinhardt. US, 1949, b&w, 88 min. In English. NOT RATED
Sunday, February 15, 4:40; Monday, February 16, 5:20
THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE...
In turn-of-the-century Paris, Madame de... (we never learn her name) sells her ear rings--a wedding present from her husband the General--to erase a gambling debt. The jeweler betrays her and sells them back to the General, who gives them to his mistress, but she gambles them away, too. When Madame de's true love, the Baron (the great Vittorio de Sica), presents the earrings to her, the jewels take on deeper meaning as the web of deception unravels in this Oscar-nominated classic.
DIR/SCR Max Ophüls; SCR Marcel Achard, based on the novel by Louise de Vilmorin. France/Italy, 1953, b&w, 105 min. In French with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Friday, February 20, 7:00; Saturday, February 21, 5:00; Sunday, February 22, 7:30; Thursday, February 26, 9:00
BAFTA winner for Best Film, and nominated for two Oscars. A witty adaption of the classic Arthur Schnitzler play, LA RONDE is one of Ophüls's most celebrated and imitated films, initially banned in the United States for "immorality." Set in lavish 19th century Vienna, the film chronicles a round-about of fleeting romances--a prostitute loves a soldier, who loves a chambermaid, who loves a poet, who loves...all the way back to the prostitute. (Note courtesy Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin.)
DIR/SCR Max Ophüls; Louis Ducreux, Kurt Feltz and Jacques Natanson based on the play by Arthur Schnitzler; PROD Ralph Baum and Sacha Gordine. France, 1950, b&w, 95 min. In French with English subtitles. RATED PG
Saturday, February 21, 1:00; Sunday, February 22, 5:30
FROM MAYERLING TO SARAJEVO
[De Mayerling à Sarajevo]
"One of the finest and most misunderstood of all Ophüls films," according to Robin
Wood, SARAJEVO was the last film the director completed in France before fleeing the Nazis to America (and Hollywood). A sumptuous historical drama shot with the extravagant style of his later work, the film is set in the corrupt Austro-Hungarian court, and chronicles the love affair of Countess Sophie and Archduke Ferdinand as they are swept up in the events that led to the First World War. Ophüls luxuriates in the suffocating elegance of court life and characteristically is more interested in the plight of the countess than in the impending doom of the heir apparent. "Finds him relishing the sort of thing he did best--casting an ironic eye on the aristocracy and portraying a bitter-sweet romance against a background of operas, balls and rides through the woods" -Bloomsbury Foreign Film Guide. (Note courtesy Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
DIR Max Ophüls; SCR Marcelle Maurette and Curt Alexander; PROD Eugène Tucherer. France, 1940, b&w, 89 min. In French with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Monday, February 23, 7:00; Wednesday, February 25, 9:00
In what Jean-Luc Godard once called the greatest film made in France since the liberation, Ophüls weaves together three Guy de Maupassant stories about pleasure. In the first, an old man regains youth by wearing a mask; in the second, a group of prostitutes goes on a country holiday; and in the third, a painter is forced to marry one of his models after she attempts suicide. Oscar-nominated for Best Art Direction/Set
Decoration. (Note courtesy Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin.)
DIR/SCR/PROD Max Ophüls; SCR Jacques Natanson; PROD Édouard Harispuru and M. Kieffer. France, 1952, b&w, 97 min. In French with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Saturday, February 28, 1:00; Tuesday, March 3, 7:00
Ophüls's celebrated final film is arguably his masterpiece. Lavishly shot in color and CinemaScope--The New York Times called it, "an eye-expanding summation of [his] lush, romantic style"--and structured around a series of flashbacks, LOLA MONTÈS recounts the life story of a cabaret dancer who ends her career as a circus attraction. (Note courtesy Cinematheque at the University of Wisconsin.)
DIR/SCR Max Ophüls; SCR Annette Wademant based on the novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent; PROD Albert Caraco. France/Germany, 1955, b&w, 110 min. In French, English and German with English subtitles. NOT RATED
Saturday, February 28, 5:00; Sunday, March 1, 6:30; Thursday, March 5, 7:00