In This Article Max Ophuls

  • Introduction
  • General Works
  • Production History
  • Film Style and Artistic Influences
  • Ophuls and “Auteur” Criticism
  • Ophuls and Formal Criticism
  • Ophuls’s Films and Film Theory

Cinema and Media Studies Max Ophuls
by
Alan Williams
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0172

Introduction

Max Ophuls is widely considered one of the great directors of “classical” cinema, but his greatness is rather particular. Several of his works are beloved cult films, but many others have been almost totally unexamined. Since his death in 1955, he has been a favorite director of film buffs and scholars, but his original intention was to make works for both the general spectator and the connoisseur. His is a fascinating case study in the history of film reception. During most of his life, he was an important member of the international film community—respected for his delicately equilibrated cinematic style and for his often-remarkable direction of actors—but until the scandal of his last, great film, he was little known to the public at large. That situation changed radically with Lola Montès (1955), an ambitious work that failed commercially but found a small group of ardent, mainly young admirers. Most of these were so-called auteur critics—journalists, or academics writing as journalists—and they were interested in the director’s worldview, or ethos. There are still writers exploring this critical tradition, particularly in France. But Ophuls’s rather sudden canonization among journalistic critics coincided with the expansion of cinema studies in major universities, and he soon passed into the hands of more formally oriented, academic critics. When film theory rose to prominence in universities, certain films by Ophuls became privileged objects of analysis for psychoanalytic and/or radical feminist readings. At roughly the same time, academic film historians brought a new rigor to studies of major directors, and here too, Ophuls’s films became privileged objects of study. The momentum given Ophuls’s work by the scandal of his last film has long since dissipated, but he continues to have what amounts to a cult following among film buffs and academics. Unlike most “major” directors, he made films about women, in which the main psychological identification was with the female characters. His cinematic style had a certain, decorative “feminine” quality to it. Yet the ultimate, directorial point of view in his films remained detached and male. He was not obsessive about creating his own stories; most of his works were either adaptations from theater or prose fiction, or original scripts following recognizable, commercial film formulas. It therefore comes as no surprise that his films have appealed to writers interested in narrative point of view, the representation of women, the cinema as spectacle, and questions of film genre. But Ophuls was also a true auteur, whose unique sensibility emerges through most of his works. He was both cynical and sentimental, a detached observer of the foibles of humans and of the absurdities of organized society—each of which caused him amusement and regret, pleasure and pain.

General Works

Book-length works in English about Ophuls are mostly concerned with a particular aspect of his work, with a particular methodology or a particular period. There is no satisfactory career overview of the “life and work” sort. For those who read French, the best place to start is Beylie 1984, a biographical/critical overview, or Guérin 1988 if Beylie 1984 is not available. In German, Asper 1998 is a reliable, comprehensive biography giving greater weight to the genesis and production of Ophuls’s films. In English, the oldest work, and the one closest to a standard biographical/critical overview is Roud 1958, though it is short and occasionally error prone. Other works in English are less complete in various ways. White 1995 offers insightful critical/theoretical readings of almost all of Ophuls’s feature films, but they are taken in thematic order, not chronological, and provide only minimal historical material to provide context. Bacher 1996 provides abundant context in a detailed account of film production, but only of Ophuls’s four Hollywood works. Cameron, et al. 1982 examines and analyzes the four Hollywood works and the four last, great French films. Finally, Willemen 1978 provides a grab bag of mostly unrelated texts, some of them quite interesting, but the collection is best approached only after an acquaintance with several of the more general works. (The reader should note that Ophuls’s autobiographical recollections, written in the 1940s and published in several different languages, are not listed here, and for good reason: the autobiographical writings end just before his greatest works in Hollywood and France, and they are, to put the matter tactfully, only partially reliable.)

  • Asper, Helmut G. Max Ophüls: Eine biographie mit zahlreichen dokumenten, texten und bildern. Berlin: Bertz, 1998.

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    Asper provides the very model of a helpful, thoroughly researched biography of a film director. Major films are treated more or less equally, without disproportionate emphasis given to critical favorites. In easily readable German.

  • Bacher, Lutz. Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

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    Bacher only covers Ophuls’s four American works, but in such loving detail that one learns a great deal about the films and also about the Hollywood “system.”

  • Beylie, Claude. Max Ophuls. Collection Cinéma Classique. Paris: Lherminier, 1984.

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    Beylie was the first serious, nonpolemical French critic to study Ophuls. This is the book with which to start for the reader of French who can find a copy. (Note that it also exists in two other, earlier iterations by other publishers, and in condensed form as a monograph for the magazine L’Avant-scène Cinéma.)

  • Cameron, Ian, Charles Barr, V. F. Perkins, et al., eds. Special Double Issue: Max Ophuls and Melodrama. Movie 29–30 (Summer 1982).

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    Coherent, concise studies (surprisingly so, for multiple authors) of Ophuls’s last eight films, though critical strategies vary somewhat among the different writers. The title is misleading: only the first half of the collection studies Ophuls in terms of melodrama. The rest of the texts are mostly formal analysis, except for a Cahiers du Cinéma-style conversation about the merits and faults of Lola Montès.

  • Guérin, William Karl. Max Ophuls. Cahiers du Cinéma. Paris: Seuil, 1988.

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    Overall, though he gives much more information, and though his readings are much more specific, Guérin provides probably a less satisfactory point of departure in French than Beylie 1984. Nonetheless, the work is very valuable in that it emphasizes Ophuls’s Germanic culture and pays attention to some films (e.g., Liebelei) that others neglect.

  • Roud, Richard. Max Ophuls: An Index. London: British Film Institute, 1958.

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    The closest thing to a general overview of Ophuls’s filmmaking career in English, but too short (forty-four pages) and written too soon after the director’s death, with resultant errors that have, unfortunately, been repeated in some later studies.

  • White, Susan M. The Cinema of Max Ophuls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman. Film and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

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    Arguably the best book of film criticism about Ophuls, in any language. For some readers, its theoretical bases and its cultural sophistication may make it a best second book to consult about the director, but it remains a remarkable achievement.

  • Willemen, Paul, ed. Ophuls. London: British Film Institute, 1978.

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    This uneven anthology is a kind of time capsule of British critical concerns of the late 1970s. Like the other British Film Institute work on Ophuls, it is short (87 pages), and it also has the air of having been hastily prepared. One of Roud’s errors, the mythic “original” 140-minute version of Lola Montès, is repeated uncritically.

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