Max Ophüls remains revered for his densely layered postwar sandcastles of love and irony, and as a result his international résumé through the Thirties is often overlooked — if seen at all.
This 1940 rarity, released in France nine days before the Germans began their assault and occupation, is quite apparently an Ophüls-for-hire quickie, and apparently the only movie ever made about the devout but royal-protocol-vexed romance between the Hapsburg dynasty’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand (American politician-to-be John Lodge) and his underclass Czech-countess love Sophie Chotek (Edwige Feuillère) in the century’s first decades.
The modern era looms, as the Empire’s unrest builds, a spontaneous yet inevitable world war approaches, and Lodge’s earnest Franz becomes a black sheep for both his love life and progressive ideas. We know, long before Franz’s Oswald shows up, that it doesn’t end well, of course (neither does the movie, with a blurting of anti-Nazi propaganda), but Ophüls finds crazy lavishness and poetry in the Empire trappings, and excels in detailing the dreary, humiliating absurdity of court life.
Assembled like there was no time to lose, the movie is nevertheless distinctively Ophülsian, taking great grace with spaces and character, and allowing Feuillère to charm our pants right off. For M.O. junkies, it’s a necessity.