May 6, 1902, is the birthdate of filmmaker Max Ophüls, a German-born Jew who began his movie career in Berlin, fled ahead of the Holocaust – but who would wind up returning to his native land after World War II to make his final masterworks.
With a romantic but ironic sensibility and a shooting style that favored drawn-out shots, extensive panning and minimal close-ups, Ophüls was often unappreciated by the critics. Nor did the public always flock to his films, which were mostly period pieces. When the inevitable reconsideration of his work came, however – starting in the 1970s, long after his death – he became an object of great admiration among cinema cognoscenti, and the subject of retrospectives of his corpus. It probably is true, however, that most of the film-going public remains unfamiliar with his work.
Max the shanda
Maximilian Oppenheimer was born in Saarbrucken, near Germany’s border with France. His father, Leopold Oppenheimer, was a textile manufacturer and owner of several clothing shops; his mother was the former Helene Bamberger.
After an early interest in journalism, Max found himself drawn to acting, and in 1919, he began to appear on the stage. It was at this time that he changed his name to “Max Ophüls,” so as to avoid embarrassing his parents, for whom this was not a completely respectable career choice.
Soon enough, by 1921, Ophüls had realized that he was not destined for stardom, at least as an actor, and he began working as a theatrical director, in Stuttgart, Aachen, Dortmund, and finally Vienna, Austria. There he became creative director of the Burgtheater in 1926.
That same year, he met and married Hilde Wall, an actress. Their son, Marcel, who was to become an important documentary filmmaker (“The Sorrow and the Pity”), was born in 1929.
By the time he began working as a dialogue director at Berlin’s U.F.A. studios, in 1929, Ophüls had directed or produced some 200 different plays on stage. Now he entered the film world assisting the director Anatole Litvak, just as the transition from silent movies to talkies took hold.
Embarrassing himself too?
Ophüls had his first opportunity to direct in 1931, with a comedy short for kids called “I’d Rather Take Cod Liver Oil.” (In an appreciation of the urbane and elegant Ophüls written on the centenary of his birth, New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane wrote that “There is a case for arguing that the remainder of his career was taken up with washing away the taste of that title.”)
He made four more films before fleeing Germany for France, shortly after the burning of the Reichstag, in February 1933, and when his final movie, “Liebelei,” was released, Nazi censors removed his name from the credits.
Ophüls, in turn, used much of the original footage from "Liebelei" in “L’histoire d’amour,” a French-language remake of “Liebelei” in 1934.
In 1938, Ophüls became a French citizen, and the following year was drafted into the army, where he made propaganda broadcasts for the radio before fleeing again after the Germans occupied Paris. One of his radio scripts suggested to an insomniac Hitler that in place of sheep, he count the people he had dispatched to their deaths.
Before heading to California, in 1941, the Ophüls family had brief spells in Switzerland and Italy. Once in Hollywood, it would be five years before Max began to work, and only then after director Preston Sturges arranged for him to be hired as director of a Howard Hughes production called “Vendetta.” Hughes fired Ophüls within weeks, and three years later found himself serving as the basis of a thinly veiled portrayal of a monomaniacal millionaire in the Ophüls movie “Caught.”
Four movies later, the most distinguished of which was the 1948 “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” Ophuls was back in France, where he directed “La Ronde” – like a later film, “La Ronde,” based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler – “The Earrings of Madame de,” “Le Plaisir,” and his final masterpiece, “Lola Montes.” The latter, his only work in color, is a historical drama, like most of Ophul's movies, which plays out as a flashback on the steamy biography of the eponymous, real-life dancer and courtesan.
Max Ophuls died of rheumatic heart disease in Hamburg, while working on a film, on March 26, 1957. He was 54.
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