Max Who? - why an Ophüls retrospective is overdue

"He was very European and very ahead of his time - especially in terms of female sexuality - which is what makes him one of my favourite directors" EIFF director Lizzie Francke explains the enduring appeal of Max Ophüls

by Nicola Osbourne

"He was a master of celluloid" enthuses Lizzie Francke, Artistic Director of EIFF 2000, when asked why the relatively obscure German director Max Ophüls was chosen as the subject of this year's prestigious film festival retrospective.

Ophüls, though a well-respected figure in cinematic circles, has received little public recognition since his death despite his lasting impact on a wide range of European and American filmmakers. Screenings of his work are rare, one of the reasons Francke was so keen to profile the director.

As an opulent and visually lavish artist, his work seemed to fall out of favour with the onsurge of the 1960's and a more gritty level of realism. Many of Ophüls' films, in addition to their (often unfashionably) flashy cinematography and grand tales of the moneyed classes, also contain enough insights into universal truths about humanity to make them well worth a fresh look. And as we enter further into the digital filmmaking age, with its potential for making film-making easier and cheaper, as well as offering limitless opportunities for manipulation), Francke feels "it is useful to look back at his use of celluloid".

Born in 1902 in Saarbrücken, a German Jew, Max Oppenheimer began his career in the theatre as actor, critic and eventually director. After making a name for himself he turned to film shortly after the development of talkies. His first work was made in Germany though he soon relocated to France and began changing his surname (he also used "Ophuls" and "Opuls" in the course of his career depending on the political mood of the time and places he found himself) in response to anti-Semitism in his home nation.

In addition to Germany and France, he worked in Italy and Holland before leaving France, by then his home, in 1940. After a brief spell in Switzerland (and an unfinished film project there), he was finally forced to move away from Europe entirely and thus found himself in the powerful but difficult studio system of Hollywood.

Once he arrived in America he embarked on the first of what would become his most critically acclaimed and developed work. Among these was the tragedy Letter From An Unknown Woman which tells the tale of a woman's life-long yearning for a pianist in fin de siecle Vienna. "A masterpiece of female sexuality and desire," is how Francke describes it.

Among his other work at this time were two film noirs (Caught, The Reckless Moment), a thoroughly American genre that Ophüls succeeded in making his own by giving it an entirely new and uniquely European spin.

However, like many directors of his generation he found the studio system repressive, with projects left abandoned and little patience reserved for artistic integrity. Ophüls remained in the US for just 10 years before returning to France in 1950.

Back in Europe he began work on a quartet of films considered by many to be cinematic masterpieces, concluding with his final feature, Lola Montes (pictured left), a genuinely cutting-edge Technicolor cinemascope epic shot in three different language versions which shocked audiences with it's highly stylized and unorthodox appearance. The film caused public rioting and inspired a wide range of negative reviews. This was partly a response to the extraordinary visual styling of the film, but perhaps also partially it's content for, as Lizzie Francke explains: "He was very European and very ahead of his time - especially in terms of female sexuality - which is what makes him one of my favourite directors".

Ophüls' final works included La Ronde, which, like his earlier film Leiebelei, was based on an Arthur Schnitzler play and adapted by Ophüls himself. Even for a director whose work was always frank about sexuality La Ronde stands out even today for it's lack of moralizing, and it has been said inspired, amongst others, Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, who believed that "His [Ophüls] camera could pass through walls", also cited Ophüls as influential in his decision to direct another Schnitzler adaptation, Eyes Wide Shut.

Ophüls' work continues to influence on filmmakers working today such as Bernardo Bertolucci, with his fondness for melodrama, and Paul Thomas Anderson whose two films Boogie Nights and Magnolia both share the epic dramatic tone - as well as the energetic camera - so favoured by Ophüls. Shades of La Ronde are particularly visible in Magnolia with its multitude of linked storylines connecting what are apparently disparate characters, through a series of random encounters.

Earrings of Madame De...Shortly after completing Lola Montes Ophüls died of a heart attack at the age of 55 in his native Germany. It was suggested that the pressure of working in often hostile environments, and the harsh criticism received for his final film (since hailed as a masterpiece) were at least partly responsible for his early demise. You could say it was fitting that such a fan of high drama should die so suddenly, and at the height of his career, after his most controversial and experimental work.

Max Ophüls left a lasting legacy of over 20 films, many showing at this year's festival, and all marked by his unique signature of dazzling opulence and elaborate, constantly moving camera work. Francke believes it is just this technical brilliance which makes his work so overdue for revival. The key is his instinctive understanding of the medium, and as we approach the unknown with the first films of the digital age such as this year's opener, Dancer in the Dark, "it is worth reminding ourselves of the classical grammar of film-making", as Francke describes it.

letter from an unlnown woman So, of the many Ophüls films on offer, which should you take a look at for a taste of this largely overlooked master visual sylist? Film Festival director Lizzie Francke suggests La Signorra de Tutti, Letter From An Unknown Woman (a personal favourite of hers - pictured left) and La Ronde, though Ophüls' film noirs Caught and Reckless Moment are also amongst the best.

Additionally long time fans of the director will be interested to hear that a new print of The Exile will be shown, and alongside the original ending, a second alternate ending will be premiered at the festival. In a world besieged with low- and no-budget movies on the internet and their opposites, the ever more expensive and elaborately digitally manipulated Hollywood offerings, with a whole new school of digital film-making just beginning, as Lizzie Francke states, it is an ideal time to "remind us of the classicism of which Ophüls was so much about".

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