MOVE CLOSER. Then move farther away. Then move down the grand staircase, into the ballroom, through the waltzing dancers, out the doors, and onto the balcony where lovers are meeting in secret moonlight embrace. The famous traveling camera of German-born director Max Ophuls took him first to France (just ahead of the Nazis), then to Hollywood in 1941, where he eventually became known for making so-called "women's pictures." He's a favorite example of the auteur theory that each director has a unique signature style—which Ophuls certainly did. But the problem for modern-day viewers is that his style refers to a turn-of-the-century Viennese gilded age that existed more in his head than in history.
begins Max Ophuls Festival, December
4-5 at Grand Illusion
His Vienna is full of iconic courtesans, rich husbands, dashing cavalry officers, scandalous affairs, duels, monocles, and Strauss waltzes. It's about as distant as the Stone Age, this Romanticism that other artists rejected after WWI; yet Ophuls kept mining the same essential material—however disguised—until his death in 1957.
SO WHY BOTHER? Through late January, the Grand Illusion is running eight titles from this summer's NYC Ophuls retrospective, presenting the MTV generation with a chance to acquaint itself with a filmmaker who similarly valued style over story. Indeed, the mood and atmosphere of Ophuls' pictures conveys a richness of feeling that elevates his skimpy plots. It's not what lovers say that matters, but how they look at each other—especially when obstacles are placed in their way—that makes his movies so emotionally resonant.
It's appropriate that Ophuls is following close on the heels of Douglas Sirk at the Grand Illusion, since his films can best be understood as melodramas in period dress. First up is 1932's Liebelei ("flirtation"), his last German film, about an ill-fated romance between a rakish Dragoon and an innocent singer. Fritz meets Christine in the midst of his sordid affair with a baroness, for which his fun-loving friend Theo rebukes him, "That's not love." Fritz's bad conscience finds redemption with the pure Christine. On a snowy sleigh ride, they pledge eternal love to each other—which can only mean one possible outcome in the land of Tristan and Isolde.
The cuckolded baron naturally challenges Fritz to a duel, and when Theo pleads to save his friend's life, Liebelei achieves startling emotional effect. This arcane notion of honor is "from another world," he screams, "sindloss, sindloss!"—literally, senseless. And though Christine can't guess what fate awaits her lover, she chokes up during her opera audition of a Brahms folksong—as if tragedy is in the very air she breathes. The only surprise is how Ophuls' simple, beautiful, predictable tale remains so moving today.