“Max Ophüls died today — this is in honor to him,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said when he started shooting the elegantly fluid opening scene of his 1957 war drama, Paths of Glory. The German-born Ophüls, who worked in a few countries but most notably in France and the United States, was justifiably renowned for his graceful tracking shots and the emotional refinement of his narratives. (Andrew Sarris adored him and called 1953’s The Earrings of Madame de… “the greatest film of all time.”) That mastery of form is one of the main reasons why it’s essential to experience Ophüls’s work on a big screen, which makes Metrograph’s seven-title retrospective this week such a heartwarming arrival.
Ophüls certainly wasn’t the first filmmaker to be celebrated for his expressive camera moves — think of the shadowy claustrophobia of Orson Welles, the brooding menace of F.W. Murnau, the flamboyant innovation of Rouben Mamoulian — but unlike that of many directors of storied technique, Ophüls’s lens roamed through a world of sparkling romanticism. His characters were often women — women scorned, women in love, women forgotten — and he brought to their narratives a sense of yearning, a sense that the camera was moved by something like desire, or a quest for freedom. (Maybe that’s why the French critics at Cahiers du Cinéma so scoffed at the Ophülsian flourishes of Kubrick’s early work. Ophüls, they felt, was a sensitive humanist, whereas Kubrick was a coldhearted manipulator. They were wrong, but let’s not get into that whole thing again.)
There is a certain irony to the humanism of Ophüls’s roving camera: Of all the great stylists in cinema history, his films leave me the saddest. Not just because the stories themselves are often sad — is there a more brutal gut punch in the canon than the final scenes of Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), in which our heroine (Joan Fontaine), in voiceover, informs her former lover that their son (whom he never knew) has died of typhus, and that she herself is next? — but also because those beautifully drifting dollies so often evoke a sense of emotional entrapment.
This is perhaps most evident in the American genre films featured in this series. In the noirish Caught (1949), Barbara Bel Geddes plays an aspiring model who impulsively marries a charming, paranoid millionaire (Robert Ryan), only to find herself an emotional prisoner in the haunted rooms of his mansion; Ophüls loves to take in the immensity of this space, emphasizing the estrangement between husband and wife, shadowy figures in distant rooms. In The Reckless Moment (1949), an atmospheric tale of a mother (Joan Bennett) who falls for an Irish gangster (James Mason) after covering up a crime committed by her daughter, the camera is mostly restrained. That is, until the very final shot, in which, having heard that the man she loves has died, our heroine goes to answer a phone call from her distant husband, who’s been abroad the whole movie. The camera glides down the stairs and lands on her taking the call, the stairway bannisters framing her like a pair of prison bars, her momentary taste of freedom now a thing of the past.
Similarly, in the finale of the otherwise boisterous and swashbuckling The Exile (1947), deposed English monarch Charles Stuart (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), who’s spent the whole movie on the run in Europe from Roundhead assassins and spies, returns to his kingdom and assumes the crown; the lengthy, final tracking shot is a somber one, showing our once vibrant hero, now cloaked in monarchical robes, consumed by his solemn, ceremonial duties. Meanwhile, the simple Dutch farm girl (Rita Corday) whom he loved and who sheltered him has been forced to say a tearful, final goodbye.
In Ophüls’s final effort, the once notoriously divisive but now universally beloved Lola Montès (1955), the swirling delirium of his camera reaches a fever pitch. Using a flashback structure, the film follows the life and loves of a famous dancer, acrobat, and courtesan (played with haunting effectiveness by Martine Carol), as she recalls her affairs for a rapt circus audience. Ophüls’s only color and widescreen effort, Lola is an impossibly lush, swooning masterwork. The heroine’s dalliances are all colored by bitterness and failure, but they also evoke the immediate passion of their given moments; over and over, we watch love bloom even as we already know that it’s doomed.
The circus of Lola’s present is filled with wonderfully surreal sights, with masked, faceless ushers and dancing gold coins in top hats and tuxedoes — the kind of imagery that might give Lynch and Fellini nightmares. Ophüls follows the ringmaster, played with charmingly oily matter-of-factness by Peter Ustinov, in relentless circles as he rounds the stage, calling out to the audience and offering little asides to Lola (with whom, it is clear, he has been giving these performances for quite some time). The absurdity of this spectacle, plus the fact that the camera keeps going around and around, endlessly and obsessively circling our melancholy heroine, suggests not so much a real circus as a landscape of the mind. It is the most beautiful of films and, in its own way, the most frustrating. I can’t stop watching it, and neither should you.