Max Ophüls
Date of Birth
May 06, 1902
Birth Place:
Saarbrucken, Germany

Biography

Abandoning journalism for the theater, Max Oppenheim changed his name to Max Ophüls so as not to embarrass his father, a German-Jewish garment manufacturer, if he failed. An actor from 1919, Ophüls turned to directing in 1924. Two years later he took creative charge of Vienna's Burgtheater, offering an exhaustive repertory of Austrian, German, Russian, French and English classics. Ophuls had 200 plays to his credit at the time he entered films, in 1929, as dialogue director for UFA's Anatole Litvak. He made his own movie directorial debut with 1930's Dans schon lieber Lebertran. The best of his early films was Liebelei (1932) which included several elements that would distinguish his later work, including lavish settings, a pro-feminist viewpoint, and a climactic duel between an older and younger man. Ever keeping his ear to the ground, Ophüls left Germany after the 1932 Reichstag fire, accurately predicting that the now-inevitable Nazi takeover would be disastrous to him both personally and artistically. From 1933 through 1940, Ophüls directed a steady stream of profitable but forgettable films in France, Italy, Holland and Russia. He became a French citizen in 1938, only to be forced out of his adopted country by (again) the Nazis in 1940. He relocated to Hollywood in 1941, languishing there without work until he was rescued by his longtime admirer, director Preston Sturges. Through Sturges' intervention, Ophüls (billed as Opuls on his American productions) was one of several directors hired to make sense of the benighted Howard Hughes production Vendetta (begun in 1946, but not released until 1949). It was in his subsequent Hollywood films--The Exile (1947), Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949)--that Ophüls truly hit his stride. Unlike some European expatriates, Ophüls loved the efficiency of the Hollywood studio system, and was especially impressed by that system's highly skilled technical and production staffs. He also admired the vulgar, abrasive self-made moguls who created the film industry, sensing that they, like he, truly loved the movies. One stylistic element that became most pronounced during Ophüls' Hollywood years was his fascination with fluid camera movement, specifically horizontal tracking and in-and-out dollying. Some of the directors' associates found this preoccupation endearingly amusing: James Mason, star of Caught and The Reckless Moment, penned a bit of doggerel that read in part "A shot that does not call for tracks/ Is agony for dear old Max/ Who, separated from his dolly, / Is wrapped in deepest melancholy." Those unsympathetic to Ophüls dismissed his trademarked tracking as mere empty virtuosity. But Ophüls' stylistic choices always had thematic purpose. Often he utilized sweeping tracking shots recording the hustle and bustle of extras to point out the contrast between a world where life rolls on unmolested and the serious, life-challenging problems of the protagonists. Just as often, he would place objects between his camera and his actors to emphasize the emotional schisms between the characters on screen. He was particularly fond of camera compositions incorporating sparkling mirrors and glass and/or backgrounds of breathtaking opulence, the better to underline the unhappiness of his characters despite the luxuriousness of their surroundings. Beyond his patented camera dexterity, Ophüls was renowned for his sharply delineated female characters. "The Ophulsian woman," wrote critic Andrew Sarris, "triumphs over reality only through a supreme act of will"--often a figurative or literal suicide. After four happy, creative years in Hollywood, Ophuls sensed that the studio system he so adored was beginning to crumble in 1949. He returned to France, where he made the quartet of films that many consider his masterpieces: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1951) Earrings of Madame De... (1953) and Lola Montes (1955). The last-named film proved beyond doubt that Ophüls was one of the very few directors to fully grasp the creative possibilities of CinemaScope (seeing this film on a "flat" screen is a lost cause). Lola Montes also contained what was arguably Ophüls' finest set piece: the show-stopping 360-degree pan around the once-dazzling Lola (Martine Carol), entrapping her in the depravity to which she has sunk. During his last decade, Ophüls also directed adaptations of the classics for German radio, displaying as much virtuosity aurally as he had visually. Just after the successful opening of a play he'd directed, the 54-year-old Ophüls died in Hamburg of a rheumatic heart. His memoirs, Spiel im Dasein, were published posthumously in 1959. Married to actress Hilde Wall, Max Ophüls was the father of documentary filmmaker Marcel Ophüls (The Sorrow and the Pity, Hearts and Minds etc.) ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

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