Sad Max: star of track and feel

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Film Studies

Film Studies

The technicians on a movie will tell you they can do anything these days. You want the Colosseum in ancient Rome filled with 50,000 citizens? There! Or the greatest storm ever beheld in the middle of the greatest ocean? Got it! But don't ask them to track the camera.

What's that, Max, you want the camera to track across the floor at a diagonal, pick up the actress as she comes in the door, and then crane up with her as she climbs the spiral staircase, and end on a perfect close-up as she sees herself in the bedside mirror? You mean, track the camera, Max? We'd need 40 feet of track, we'd need grips, we'd have to light the whole room... Couldn't we just have the camera upstairs and fix on the door downstairs, and then a nice zoom? The zoom makes life easy, Max. And then we cut to the mirror close-up. I mean, that's a couple of hours max, Max. We do it your way Max, we don't have the grips and we need a rack focus on a flying rig. I don't think we can do that. Now, we might put her on a treadmill and morph in the background? That'd be fun.

I'm making this up - it's a not a scene from an actual film. But Max Ophüls needed rack focus on a flying rig all his life. Indeed, so far as he was concerned, that was life - movement, time, human panic or joy, and all of it captured in the most beautiful moving camera shots you ever saw.

Max Ophüls was a kind of constant refugee. All he wanted to do was to make moving pictures - they are called moving pictures, aren't they? - yet he was hounded for being Jewish, foreign, fussy, difficult, a perfectionist, who wanted to do films as if the people were butterflies and the camera was the net. He needed to see the wings flutter and feel the desperate heart beating like a clock. His characters were angels in risk of falling, and his films were the story of jeopardised flight. So the shots were complicated and needed grips the way a Habsburg palace had footmen. Nowadays, he'd never get a job.

Max Ophüls died of a heart attack in 1957; he was 54. And you have to see that early demise as a reaction to the harried, itinerant life and all the crews who were placidly resistant to his dreams. At the same time, his people are romantically strenuous and yearning - they want to fly, even if they know it is bad for their hearts.

Born in Saarbrücken, in the Alsace, Max Oppenheimer was pushed around by dictators as varied as Hitler and Howard Hughes, by the vagaries of political history and the chance of getting a film made. He went from Germany to France to Italy to Holland, to France again, and then to the USA, and then back to France again. Wherever he went, he took his wife, Hilde, a former actress, and their son, Marcel, who would grow up to be a great documentary film-maker.

Wherever he went, he sought the same old sad stories of men and women, and many were set in Vienna - though he lived in that city for only 10 months. But Vienna was a city of music and movement, great buildings and back entrances, high society, discreet mistresses and desperate love affairs. It was a place of Empire where the Empire was doomed to fall. It was a capital of elegance where the fine disguises fell away and left scraps of human hope and fear, as if done by Egon Schiele. And the year 2000 sees nothing more important in film history than the retrospective on Max Ophüls at the Edinburgh International Film Festival first, and then coming to the National Film Theatre.

You may not have heard of Ophüls; you may decide it doesn't really matter whether the camera moves or not. After all, directors like Ozu and Fritz Lang kept pretty still frames. You're right. But Ophüls wanted it to move because that's how he saw and felt life. Take Lola Montÿs, his last film. It is based on a circus performance in which the dying Lola takes part in a gruesome re-enactment of her own notorious life. She is a still figure, and the camera circles her. You have to see it and feel it, because the movement is both a sign of liberty and imprisonment. At the same time.

Once you've felt that, you'll fall in love with movement. Which other films should you see? Well, of the 20 films that survive, I'd have to say, gently, that Lola Montÿs, Madame de..., Le Plaisir, La Ronde, The Reckless Moment, Caught, Liebelei and La Signora di Tutti are essential, inescapable. But then consider: if a man can make at least eight extraordinary films out of 20, can you really trust that the "lesser known" ones are minor? Or are they just films from stray countries and companies that went bust? Consider again: just as national film theatres are designed to do such things as offer us all of Max, such schemes can fold or settle for less one day. You may never get the same chance of flying. Whether you decide that Ophüls made films about fatally caged birds or the ecstasies of motion, this is as good as it gets.

Max Ophüls Retrospective: Edinburgh International Film Festival (0131 228 4051), 13-27 August; The Films of Max Ophüls, NFT (020 7928 3232), 1-28 September