Ophuls takes it to the Max

Max Ophuls was charming and sophisticated. And his films - from the the teary Letter From An Unknown Woman to the Viennese bed-hopping farce, La Ronde - are now seen as classics. But, as son Marcel tells Geoffrey Macnab, his rise to the top was far from smooth
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Max Ophuls' career in Hollywood didn't exactly get off to a glittering start. He arrived there in 1941, a refugee from the Nazis. By then, he had already made over a dozen films in Europe, but none of the studios would give him a job. He was forced to scrape a living as best he could. "He'd get a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred dollars there," remembers his son, Marcel Ophuls. He collaborated on scripts and was employed briefly by the Office of War Information in New York, which was in charge of anti-Nazi propaganda. Often, though, he and his family relied on hand-outs from the United Jewish War Relief. "People like William Wyler, Billy Wilder and the established Jews in Hollywood paid part of their salary into a fund. We got cheques [from them] in order to buy the groceries."

Max Ophuls' career in Hollywood didn't exactly get off to a glittering start. He arrived there in 1941, a refugee from the Nazis. By then, he had already made over a dozen films in Europe, but none of the studios would give him a job. He was forced to scrape a living as best he could. "He'd get a few hundred dollars here, a few hundred dollars there," remembers his son, Marcel Ophuls. He collaborated on scripts and was employed briefly by the Office of War Information in New York, which was in charge of anti-Nazi propaganda. Often, though, he and his family relied on hand-outs from the United Jewish War Relief. "People like William Wyler, Billy Wilder and the established Jews in Hollywood paid part of their salary into a fund. We got cheques [from them] in order to buy the groceries."

It was thanks to Preston Sturges that Ophuls (whose career is to be celebrated in two retrospectives this year, one at the Edinburgh Film Festival, the other London's NFT) was plucked out of obscurity. Sturges stumbled by chance on his 1932 film, Liebelei, decided it was a masterpiece, and persuaded Howard Hughes to hire the German-born filmmaker to make Vendetta. Sturges himself wrote the screenplay. The problem, according to Marcel, was that Sturges wanted to direct the movie too.

Sturges would sit in the director's chair with a parasol over him and a whisky bottle by his side. Ophuls would stand behind, ready to shout "action!" or "cut!" parrot-like, whenever Sturges demanded. "I can't really fire you, but you're not really fit to direct a Hollywood motion picture," Sturges had told Ophuls, who so badly needed "his $500 a week" that he put up with the humiliation. In the end, the clash between Sturges and Ophuls was academic. Hughes got rid of them both.

It was thanks to Robert Siodmak (another German-Jew in Hollywood), that Ophuls was finally given the chance to direct an American movie for real - The Exile - at Universal in 1947. Ophuls, did though, get his revenge on Hughes with his 1949 feature, Caught, whose megalomaniac lead character Smith Ohlrig (Robert Ryan) is directly based on the eccentric tycoon. Bizarrely, Hughes saw rushes from the movie and read the script, but even though he realized he was being caricatured, made no complaint. As for Sturges, Ophuls forgave him. By the mid-50s, when the American writer-director was on the skids and Ophuls had re-established himself as one of Europe's greatest auteurs, it wasn't so difficult to be magnanimous.

Howard Hughes had his own pet name for Ophuls. He called him "the oaf". It's hard to think quite why. Ophuls may have been a squat, balding man, but he always dressed with exemplary elegance. (Hughes, who had the same measurements but seemed to prefer his clothes second-hand, sometimes unwittingly wore the director's old suits, which were given to him by Sturges.)

Ophuls was also a consummate stylist behind the camera. Peter Ustinov, star of his last film Lola Montez, describes him as "a watchmaker intent on making the smallest watch in the world, and then, with a sudden flash of perversity, putting it up on a cathedral. His technique was fabulous, his visual imagination opulent, but his basic ideas volatile, ephemeral, secret, microscopic."

The Brits, however, have never been quite sure what to make of him. At first, many thought he was a pornographer. His 1950 bed-hopping Viennese farce, La Ronde (adapted from Schnitzler's play Reigen) was regarded with the same kind of alarm that censors a generation later would show when confronted with films like Last Tango In Paris and David Cronenberg's Crash. "Lust dressed up in ermine and sable is still lust: infidelity, even if carried through with consummate skill, remains infidelity," pronounced psychologist Dr Shields (of the London Marriage Guidance Council) after seeing it. "It would be dep-lorable to submit young people to such an experience," opined journalist Cyril Kersh.

Predictably, La Ronde turned out a bigger hit in the UK than anywhere else. A succes de scandale, it matched up perfectly to British preconceptions about sultry, sophisticated continental sex comedies. By then, Ophuls had directed close to 20 other features in five different countries, but none of that mattered to the audiences who flocked to the Curzon, Mayfair, to enjoy his tale about the amorous adventures of the Viennese. ("I sometimes wonder if I ever made another picture," he grumbled to the British press.)

As if labelling him a one-movie wonder wasn't crass enough, critics of the 1950s patronized him, calling his films "novelettish" and melodramatic (in other words, "women's pictures") and labelling him "a minor master," too timorous to tackle the burning social questions of the day. They were exasperated by his fetish for detail - his fascination with "cages, mirrors, staircases, gauzes, hangings and chandeliers" - and didn't always admire the extravagant way he used the camera either. James Mason, star of two of his Hollywood features ( The Reckless Moment and Caught) wrote a famous comic poem about Ophuls' love of tracking shots. ("I think I know the reason why/Producers tend to make him cry/Inevitably they demand/Some stationary set-ups, and/ A shot that does not call for tracks/Is agony for poor dear Max/Who, separated from his dolly/is wrapped in deepest melancholy./Once, when they took away his crane/I thought he'd never smile again.")

Ophuls' work is indeed full of formal flourishes. In Madame De, his 1953 film, in one virtuoso sequence, the camera whirls round and round Madame De (Danielle Darrieux) and her lover The Baron (Vittorio De Sica) as they waltz at a succession of different balls; in Le Plaisir, his 1951 portmanetau pic adapted from three of de Maupassant's short stories, the camera soars and glides across dance halls, swoops up and down the interior of a country church, and curls its way round the outside of a small-town brothel; in Letter From An Unknown Woman, his 1948 Hollywood-made (but Vienna-set) adaptation of a Stefan Zweig novelette, it circles the heroine (Joan Fontaine) as she dances with the lover (Louis Jourdan) who, we already know, is going to betray and forget her.

These dizzying shots aren't just Ophuls showing off: they're an integral part of his storytelling style. "The moving camera records inexorably the passage of time, moment by moment," wrote American critic Andrew Sarris. "As we follow the Ophulsian characters, step by step, up and down stairs, up and down streets...we realize their imprisonment in time. We know that they can never escape but we know also that they will never lose their poise and grace for the sake of futile desperation."

Just as his camera seemed incapable of staying still, Ophuls himself was the most peripatetic of directors. "He was," remembered Mason, "the resilient nomad whose humour twinkled in the most unpromising circumstances."

Born Max Oppenheimer in 1902, Ophuls ran away from home to become an actor rather than accept the tedium of working in his father's department store in Sarrebruck. He quickly quit acting to become one of Vienna's most successful young theatre directors in 1924, and made the switch to movies at the famous UFA Studios at the beginning of the talkie era. He left Germany when the Nazis came to power and spent from 1933 until 1940 roaming across Europe, making movies in France, Italy and even Holland.

Then - after a short stint as a private in the French army - came six years of kicking his heels in Hollywood. There were many aborted projects. He realized that if he was to resume his directing career in Europe, he would have to make at least one American film first because (as Robert Siodmak told him), "nobody will have any confidence in you otherwise."

Wherever and whenever he worked, Ophuls' preoccupations remained largely the same. As François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette, who interviewed him shortly before his death in 1957, observed, his favourite themes were "desire without love, pleasure without love, love without reciprocation." His protagonists were invariably women caught up in unhappy marriages or love affairs. They may seem vain, sentimental and capricious, but as one character puts it in Madame De, "they are only superficial superficially." Just because they exist in a gilded, stylized world of Ophuls' making, that doesn't make their suffering any the less real.

It's a measure of the esteem in which Ophuls is held now that he is admired both by feminist critics and by the most macho of his fellow directors. He was one of the few filmmakers whom both Stanley Kubrick and Jean-Luc Godard held in awe. Kubrick's biographer Vincent LoBrutto writes that when the American director arrived on set for the first day's shooting on Paths Of Glory, he told one of his leading actors "Max Ophuls died today - this is in honour to him."

Ophuls made extraordinary demands on his technicians, but he was no megaphone-wielding tyrant. "With his German accent, he consciously played the Hercule Poirot-type outsider," says his son. He adds proudly: "There are only two ways of directing. You're either a bastard on the set, like Preminger...or you're like Lubitsch and Max Ophuls, you do it with charm."

The Edinburgh Film Festival runs 13-27 Aug; the NFT season begins 1st Sept

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