In March 1957, while preparing Paths of Glory, the 28-year-old Stanley Kubrick explored an empty sound stage at Geiselgasteig Studios in Bavaria, picked up the battered remnant of an abandoned set and was startled to find scribbled on its flip side, “Max Ophuls, Lola Montes.” It was a moment of haunting power for the young director. If Kubrick could ever be said to have had a hero, it was Ophuls, who died later that month. And here, in the early stages of his own career — one that would build powerfully upon the polished camera techniques and painstaking production values for which Ophuls was renowned — he was holding in his hand the evidence of his hero’s ruin. Lola Montes (1955), Ophuls‘ last film, had been a box-office dud and was shorn of close to an hour by its panicky distributor, footage now lost forever. Kubrick later lament-ed to British critic Alexander Walker, “I don’t think Ophuls ever received the critical appreciation he deserved.”
For the next month, the L.A. County Museum of Art will redress this grievance by screening nearly everything Ophuls directed, most being gems long unseen in this country. The series kicks off with four strong selections that represent the major phase of his career. From Germany, where he was born in 1902, comes Liebelei (1933), based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler. Because Kubrick‘s Eyes Wide Shut is based on a novel by Schnitzler, his deeper affinities with Ophuls become all the more palpable — but one can also guess at the spell Liebelei cast over the young Orson Welles, who would have been 18 when he saw it. Midway through, there’s a romantic sleigh ride (lovers photographed at a low angle as firs and snowhills soar dazzlingly past) that foreshadows a more famous sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons. Not that Welles was a copycat, but the beauty of the scene is so indelible that it would enter the marrow of any impressionable viewer, and for a younger artist merge with one‘s stores of firsthand memory.
Ophuls came to Hollywood to escape Hitler and mastered the idiom well enough to direct James Mason in two of his best films, back to back: The Reckless Moment and Caught (both 1949). His American masterpiece nonetheless remains Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), in which an aristocrat, faced with a fatal duel at sunrise, realizes the only woman who ever loved him is someone he can’t remember ever having met. Ophuls‘ prowling gaze creates a silky, slippery atmosphere around Louis Jourdan and Joan Fontaine that only enhances their heartfelt performances, and indeed increases the sense that, whatever their failures to connect in this life, their spirits are communicating. This is the value of a moving camera at its most sublime. Ophuls was not a pyrotechnician but an explorer of souls.
Upon returning to Europe in the 1950s, he made the film for which he is best remembered: The Earrings of Madame de . . . (1953). Just as Flaubert’s maid in A Simple Heart mistakes her parrot for Jesus, and Gogol‘s little clerk in “The Overcoat” mistakes his coat for the whole meaning of his life, Madame de — who pawns her wedding-day earrings in the film’s first scene, only to have them come back repeatedly to haunt and taunt her — ultimately identifies those damned earrings with the very hope of love. It‘s a delusion that wrecks every life in reach. In tracking the logic of this, Ophuls’ camera fuses so seamlessly with the story‘s meaning that his intricate, elegant movements among these people and their world of showpiece marriages, carriages and duels at dawn feel like both the commentator of Fate and its moral force. The movements are so assured here that they have not only the elegance of great prose but the eloquence of great voice-over.
So many giants stand on his shoulders (among them his son Marcel Ophuls, director of The Sorrow and the Pity) that Max Ophuls deserves the honor of our complete attention — but not out of any dusty sense of duty. Ophuls never burdens one with his greatness. In his hands, movies become divine playthings, as deeply entertaining as any ever made.