Liebelei: 1933 Berlin
Letter: 1947 Hollywood
Madame de: 1952 France
As film theory and film criticism have changed over the years, so has opinion of Max Ophuls and his films. He was first valued as a great stylist of cinema by the critics of the Cahiers du cinema in the 1950s and also as one of the greatest of the great 'auteur' directors. Later, with the development of feminist film theory, his films were analysed as exemplary of the 'woman's film', the genre that privileges a female central character and addresses a female audience: melodramas, stories of romance, feminised narratives bound up with sexuality or family. My approach here is less generic and more (some might say regressively) [End Page 7] auteurist, because Ophuls's particular take on love and death is of interest to me. The films I am discussing here are 'melodramas of romantic failure', in which death displaces the 'live happily ever after' ending (familiar, of course, from traditional folk tales to industrial cinema, such as Hollywood). Finally, in a break from my previous interest in melodrama, my analysis focuses on Ophuls's representation and treatment of male characters, only returning to the question of the female characters towards the end and through this perspective. These films revolve around an opposition between two types of masculinity and their respective attributes—on the one hand, marriage/the husband; on the other, sexuality/the seducer—a duality that, ultimately, involves an opposition between death and desire. But both types of male characters are, obviously, defined in relation to a woman and to her sexuality. With sexual politics at their heart, these films reflect, and reflect on, not just the power but also the limitations and constraints of the patriarchal conception of femininity.
I have attempted to integrate history into this talk through two different approaches. First of all, aspects of Ophuls's own personal history and, second, his use of a particular historical period: the 'fin de siècle' (Vienna in two films/Paris in one). The first approach is due to the impact of history on his life and work: born in 1900 he lived co-terminously with the troubled first half of the twentieth century. The second approach draws attention to Ophuls's persistent return to a period in which in which patriarchy had not yet been affected by twentieth-century liberalism, in which hierarchies of gender and class were of the essence; in these melodramas of romantic failure, social choice is constrained, and social action is over-determined.
Although the three films I am discussing here may be categorised as German, American, and French, my first contention is that Ophuls, in his work and his cultural outlook, transcended national boundaries and always remained European, even during, or particularly during, his time in Hollywood. This 'European-ness' results from, first, an accident of birth and, second, his pan-European career and his struggle in Hollywood to preserve his own characteristic, non-American, style. Finally, the legacy of European modernism and internationalism, which had marked his generation in the 1920s, always continued to be a point of reference for him.
First of all, I want to expand on these considerations in the wider context of Ophuls's life and career. He was born Max Oppenheimer in 1902, the son of a well-to-do Jewish entrepreneur in the Saar, a small province of Germany, bordering on, and sometimes occupied by, France. Determined to work in the theatre, he changed his name to Ophuls in order to avoid embarrassing his highly respectable parents and family. Although these two accidents of birth might have contributed to his ability to cross [End Page 8] frontiers, he left the provinces for the internationalist, intellectual, and modernist milieu and the dynamic cultural life of Weimar Germany. Georges Annenkov, who worked as costume designer on Ophuls's 50s' films, became a friend and confidante, publishing a short account of their working relationship, in which both men refer back to the modernist cultural origins that they still considered defined...