This essay will be published in the inaugural issue of Film International, a new Swedish-based film magazine, to be released 25 January 2003, and also on the Film International web site in October 2002. For more information about Film International, please contact the editor Michael Tapper.
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The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere: neither in theater nor in life; otherwise, I’d have no need of it; doing photography doesn’t interest me. That, I leave to the photographer.
- Max Ophuls
A new art. Neither theater nor life nor photography. But something else. What?
At the end of Liebelei (1933), there is a 129-second portrait of Christine (Magda Schneider), who never looks at the camera but who makes us embarrassingly aware of our own off-camera presence, which is aggressive, which does not go away when decency demands, which even edges closer. Our staring so hard may remind us of other moviemakers hounding bereft characters with an aggressive camera – Rossellini’s relentless pursuits of Anna Magnani and Ingrid Bergman in the ’40s and ’50s, Godard’s interviews of actresses in the ’60s, Vidor’s hounding of Jackie Cooper at the end of The Champ (1931), Griffith’s of Lillian Gish locked terrified in the closet in Broken Blossoms (1919). In all these cases, it is our “real” awareness (that we ourselves are looking) which assures us that what we are looking at is equally real. Thus, what is “real” in these movies is not the reality of a Bazinian imprint of reality, nor the Godardian reality of the image, nor even the real reality outside my window (with which all cinema cannot compete). What is real is the point of view – a point of view which is inevitably moral, insofar as it weighs the value of one individual, of one individual’s suffering, of one individual’s existence. And what distinguishes Ophuls’s movies from those of his voyeuristic colleagues is that point of view belongs chiefly to the characters. They are doing the looking, they are the subjects, we are their objects.
Cinema of the subject
Four brief shots in Madame de… (1953) display Ophuls’s peculiar techniques (his “new art”). At this railway customs station, Donati (Vittorio De Sica) and Louise de… (Danièle Darrieux) encounter each other for the first time – and begin a fatal passion.
Four frames from Shot 1:
In Shot 1, Louise walks quickly past Donati as he spins around in the same direction, as though in resonance with her. It is typical of Ophuls that the camera’s 90° pan amplifies Louise’s semi-circular sweep across the screen. She grows bigger as she approaches from the background, exciting Donati; nearly brushes the camera and Donati at perigee; then grows small and distant, draining Donati – which amplifies her sweep even more. The magnetic effect of her kinesis compels Donati to spin around to follow her, echoing her cyclic motion. Using motion to express emotion derives from theater; but these motions can exist only in cinema frames. Ophuls’s lovers often spin around each other, grant control of their bodies to the spin, get dizzy, fall down and sometimes die.
Shot 1 begins and ends with Donati; the shot is about his experiences, not Louise’s; the cyclic motions project his point of view. Thus we would expect that shot 2,
a sudden cut forward to Louise along the line of Donati’s perspective, would appear to be a shot of Louise as seen by Donati – a woman as object of a male gaze.
In fact the picture is nothing of the sort. It is a shot of Louise looking – of Louise in action, asserting her presence, which manifests her own authority far more than it imprints Donati’s gaze, or even Ophuls’s camera’s gaze. Yes, it may be true, technically, that Ophuls’s characters are the objects of Ophuls’s camera’s gaze, but as far as they themselves are concerned this camera is simply their megaphone. Louise is an entire consciousness, physically emotive. Ophuls wanted Darrieux to be a “void”: an egocentric void of desire that sucks us in.
She is like a painting. Ophuls’s frame is less a container than a window, an opening. And the opening is less for us to look in than for Louise to look out. Louise has her own composition, she imposes a perspective, a message, emotions; her compositional lines direct our gaze and highlight where we are supposed to look. She aims authoritatively at Donati, despite the distractions of the people, doorway (and train) surrounding her on all sides. But her frame aims at us, making us aware we are staring. The subject is a person who speaks to us, like in a painting; it is we who respond and thus become the objects of her gaze.
Shot 3 confirms that Shot 2 (“Portrait of Louise”) was the start of a new point-of-view, not a continuation of Donati’s. For now we see Donati from Louise’s emotional perspective. Two shots ago, we saw Donati in his own world. Now he is in Louise’s.
Shot 4 switches us back into Donati’s world, as he chases (in vain!) after the object of his gaze.
The rapid cycling of perspectives (and empathetic centers) – in four shots – has ignited the lovers’ spin around each other. Presently they will be dancing in circles, night after night, dissolve after dissolve.
Given that Ophuls’s frames are portraits, the mobile camera follows necessarily. The painting becomes the subject’s frame moving through backgrounds. Louise leads us perpetually through rooms, doors, halls and stairs. The background (the world) is passing and ephemeral, yet demands constantly to be dealt with. Louise and her husband the Géneral André de… (Charles Boyer) devote their lives to trivia: drawers and closets to be gone through, piles of papers, formalities of money, customs, carriages, trysts, the hunt, opera, ball, court, church and card-reading, and the manipulation of every social contact with flamboyant gamesmanship and flirtation, even in bed. “Our conjugal happiness is in our own image: it’s only superficially superficial,” protests the General. Indeed, their lives are devoted to trivia profoundly. Louise fakes the theft of her diamond earrings, sends her husband searching all over town, turns her household upside down, turns the opera house upside down, calls in the police, then comes bouncing down the opera stairs absolutely carefree and flirting with two beaux, and exclaims surprise that grave André does not want to go nightclubbing with her beaux. “Don’t make others pay for my stupidity,” she protests. Life is a game.
Imaginative action; imaginative gesture: everything is choreographed in Ophuls, every line and phrase. People don’t just come in a door, there is always some business, some caricaturing action, some experiment. The subject displays herself; it is up to us to register her feelings, her motives, her morality, her quirks – which requires ceaseless and active effort from us, because Louise rarely stops moving or changing or flirting, because there are two other subjects (Donati and André) almost as animated, because there are conflicting passions in each individual, each action, and even the earrings’ adventures are complicated, and because these thousands of facets mean that when we wonder why someone does something, we find ourselves wondering whether chance is coincidental and if our decisions are our own – questions Madame de… does not fail to ponder. And then there is the bewildering tendency of Louise and Donati to merge, sort of, into each other.
They merge via crosscuts, and gaze at each other but not quite straight at us. By not quite looking at us, they reject and solicit our attention, which causes their cycling portraits to echo the flirtation of acceptance and rejection essential to the blighted passion they themselves share, and projects their subjects at each other. In Ophuls, action and confrontation ignite a “crystalization,” the same way as (according to Stendhal in De l’amour) love undergoes a crystalization: love grows rich by feeding on itself, by fantasizing obsessively, elaborating, expanding, until love (and action) shines with a thousand facets. Thus Max Ophuls, in preparing to shoot, would annotate each scene with a tempo, a mood — “allegro” or “andante cantabile” or whatever —— and was convinced he was doing what music does, but in cinema, visually (Lourié, 40).
Motion = desire filling space and time
Ophuls’s long tracks and long takes emphasize things that seem neither ephemeral nor trivial, but are imponderable and cannot be “dealt with”: emotions, desires, anxieties, self-awareness, identity. The tracks emphasize the subject of the portrait. In La signora di tutti (1934, the first Ophuls fully to exploit tracking portraits), the long trajectory of Gaby (Isa Miranda) through the house toward Alma’s dead body projects and prolongs her terror in time and space, while upstairs the radio is blaring music so loud it dominates the house. Cinema experiments to be like music. Ophuls wants to put us visually into Gaby’s madness (and Ophuls will involve us in madness in more than a dozen subsequent films too). Gaby now identifies the music associated with her passion-love with her obsessive guilt; she smashes the radio but cannot stop its sounds in her mind. Months later a wild run to turn off the radio will be blocked by a butler who announces, godlike on the stairs, “We no longer have a radio,” and so there is no music and Gaby is damned. Similarly in Werther (1938) a carillon love song drives Charlotte to flee in hysteria; and in Le Plaisir (1952) the same dance tune makes Ambroise gyrate “like a puppet” in the first episode and drives Joséphine out the window in the third. Desire takes control – and takes the forms of elaborate tracks in all these cases, as lovers seek the core of life in the burning core of emotion and motion. Ophuls, as Jacques Barzun writes of Stendhal, “does not simply describe or discuss, he studies love and he concludes, soberly, that it is a disease. He means that love is oddly external to ourselves, an obsession, a force independent of our will, and yet related to our aggressiveness” (Barzun, 106). In Madame de… what overwhelms Louise is the kinetic geometry of passion – a series of long, intensely emotional portrait-tracks.
Louise, in two long tracks with Donati through the restaurant and into the dance, proudly gives public display to her triumph, or rather to her passion‘s triumph: she shows off the diamond earrings Donati has given her in earnest of their love. But, as often in Ophuls, a new track interrupts, like a contrasting key in sonata form, and brings a butler who puts finis to Romance with a summons from André the General. (A similar sequence occurs in La signora when the mother has the butler separate her son from Gaby. Tracks and butlers interrupt also in Liebelei, Komedie om Geld , The Exile , Letter from an Unknown Woman , La Ronde , Le Plaisir and Lola Montès ). The conflict in Madame de… is, first, that these earrings are the ones Louise had claimed she lost (to cover up the fact that she had sold them) and has just now told André she has found, unaware that he long ago had discovered (and pardoned) her “caprice”; second, that these earrings were André’s gift to her after their wedding, so by displaying Donati’s triumph, Louise inadvertently displays André’s humiliation. Passion is reckless and destructive, a Jacobinic defiance of propriety. The sequence ends with the worst portrait-track imaginable: Donati discovers the position Louise has put him in and rejects her. Humiliation seems endless. And then Donati is gone and André has taken back his diamonds.
Characters die from humiliation in Ophuls or, to put it cruelly, they die from frustration. Perhaps we feel Robert Ryan gets what he deserves in Caught (1949), whereas Magda Schneider is an infinitely pitiable victim in Liebelei, but in both cases their suicidal passion results from not getting what they want. Absorbed totally in passion, nothing else exists, as Stendhal says again, and frustrated passion crystallizes like crazy, becomes obsession, and dominates us totally. Werther well understands the prisoner who has jealousy murdered the woman he loves. Passion makes us prisoners first, then criminals. Werther, Louise, Gaby, and Lisa (Letter) die not simply from loss of their loves, but from loss of their friends or husbands as well (1). Finally madness is universal. Passion destroys everything and, grotesquely, even causes people to destroy those they love the most. André challenges Donati to a duel not simply (like the baron in Liebelei) to avenge humiliation but because even after this proud general apologizes for his whole life, Louise persists in suicidal melancholy. Donati accepts not simply (like the lieutenant in Liebelei) from social obligation but because he too has succumbed to passion. His rooms resonate with despair, chambers of the suicidal mind, like with Edmund in Deutschland im Jahre null (Rossellini, 1947).
And what is a duel but a socially-sanctioned outlet for passion’s rule? Louise throws her earrings onto the church altar much as André’s mistress throws them on the Istanbul roulette table – a leap into the void most Ophuls’s heroes make eventually. This circus of Ophuls’s, with its rondes of horror and violence, is vicious. Passion-love only exists in denial; its nature is to consume and destroy. “Oddly external to us,” it may be; but it exists only in our subjects.
Max Ophuls left home to become an actor, became a director instead, and staged 200 plays and a few operettas before making his first movie. From theater comes his notion of cinema as a spectacle, life as a circus, people walking all over the place (each bit player particularized), endless parades of arrivals and departures, constant theater within theater (a make-believe train in Letter, flashbacks in Lola, circuses framing Komedie, Signora, Lola, La Ronde, ringmasters also in Die verkaufte Braut , La tendre ennemie , Le Plaisir and all the butlers). From theater comes the spirit of commedia dell’arte – that a show is a show but so is life, let’s try something new. Thus in The Exile we find King Charles and his men living backstage (or so their dwelling appears), as they await the King’s restoration. Ophuls grabs every chance to experiment. In La signora he shoots a conversation between a car and a boat from all four points of the compass, and from inside as well. In Madame de… he juggles three subjects. In Letter from an Unknown Woman, the spectacle is the theater of one’s own life, acted, written, and directed by Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine).
As in Madame de… we identify with the subject by looking at her, but in addition by hearing her voice-off narration. Her first shot finds her by panning left from a harp to her head; we can thus identify the camera with the voice. We see her from the outside, as she wishes, but it is her outside, with her choices about what to show us. We never see Lisa as others do, nor do we exactly see what Lisa is seeing, for she sees not with an outward regard but with an inner one, an imaginary self, years afterward. She portrays herself age 12, 20 and 30, but always like a woman of 30 who is “acting,” for she remembers herself of today in herself of 15 years before. (Ophuls thus tries to portray a woman from a woman’s eyes, rather than from his man’s eyes.)
Lisa’s is very much a first-person narrative, full of the sort of detail she delights in recalling: her dancing lessons; the music library; stealing a recital program out of a man’s pocket on a trolley car; her mother knocking at her door when she does not want to leave Vienna; the intercut of the parents chatting while she walks with the lieutenant in Linz, and the dolly in to her (rather than to them) when she shocks them by refusing the lieutenant’s suit; and above all, the thrill with which she confesses her secret life.
Typical of Lisa’s self glorying is her depiction of an old Franz-Josef officer remarking, “Really?!” when Madame Spitzer tells him, “She is not like that… Every evening as soon as the shutters are closed, off she goes straight home.”
Lisa gloats: “Madame Spitzer spoke the truth. I was not like the others. Nobody waited for me. Off I went. Not home. But to the only place that had ever seemed home to me. Night after night I returned to the same spot. But you never noticed me. Until one evening…”
The “spot,” she shows us, is under Stefan’s window. She is standing there, in the snow, at night, and within a few seconds Stefan comes by and invites her to dinner. What Lisa does not show us is the “night after night,” with the result that it does not occur to us to wonder what we would think of a friend today who spends a few years waiting under a guy’s window. Indeed, due to her ellipsis, instead of remarking on Lisa’s masochistic lunacy, we see her faith justified, because this is her proof of her love. We applaud her, just as she depicts Madame Spitzer as doing (“Congratulations, my dear!”).
But it is more. On one hand, we may feel that Lisa is unaware that Stefan immediately assumes she is an “easy lay,” a woman who habitually stands on the street waiting to be picked her up by anyone. Rather, Lisa see herself as heaven-sent. “I know who you are,” she says, preppy and matter-of-fact, then turns around, assumes the role of angel, and starts walking. Stefan follows obediently, but with no idea that he has entered a fantasy, or even where they are going. He is in shadow, she is lit with a halo; this is how she wants us to see her. This is her religion. Her subject. Herself.
We never see Lisa from anyone else’s point of view (2). We never go beyond her as subject. When Stefan picks her up on the street, the crosscuts are all from Lisa’s narrating point of view. When Stefan looks at her, we do not see what he sees (object), we see Lisa (subject) experiencing being looked at: this is a big, wonderful event for her.
What we see is Lisa’s self-portrait, as drawn ten years after the event. And we see only what she sees. Stefan himself she never quite sees, only her inner image of him. He is always dimly lit, she glows bright. It is herself she remembers, her emotions, her reactions. Not him.
Later, Lisa as narrator watches from the top of the stairs as Lisa as subject is escorted up the stairs by Stefan. She watches exactly as, years earlier, Lisa as subject watched Stefan escort many another lady of the night up the stairs; there is even the same twist of the camera so she can see Stefan’s door. Far from seeing herself as simply one more body among hundreds, Lisa is telling us that she is achieving her great triumph, after years of crystallization of desire and envy. She tells us she is the angel who is to supplant all these other women. But she does not tell Stefan. After this one night, she makes no attempt to see him again or to tell him he has a son. Debasement and denial are essential to passion. And, eventually, revenge. “By the time you read this letter, I may be dead. I have so much to tell you…”
Why now, and not earlier?
Lisa’s narration, the way she depicts herself to Stefan (and us), pretends innocence, but in fact is humiliating and immoral. Lisa’s masochism is explicit in the Stefan Zweig story from which the movie derives. There she writes: “I grieved, and I wanted to; I wallowed in every deprivation I inflicted on myself while I thought about you (Zweig, 1981, 229). Mourning was my joy; I renounced society and every pleasure, and was intoxicated with delight at the mortification I thus superadded to the lack of seeing you” (Zweig, 1944, 74).
The same masochism pervades the movie, but since we experience it from Lisa’s point of view, we don’t see it as masochism. Instead, we share her delight in dedicating herself; we see her as she sees herself – as a Romantic saint. As in La signora, Ophuls involves us in madness. But none of this makes Lisa less sympathetic, or her suffering less real.
And, unlike Zweig, Ophuls debates madness. In Zweig, when Lisa spots Stefan again after ten years, she is eating in a nightclub with her “husband” and his friends. Instantly she abandons her mate and races across the crowded dance hall to embrace her fantasmatic lover. Can one imagine a scene more Ophulsian?
He didn’t use it. In place of Lisa’s impulsive run, the dancing and music, he inserts a philosophic debate (as he does in Werther). “I’ve no will but his, ever…I can’t help it. I can’t,” Lisa insists, whereupon her husband retorts: “That’s romantic nonsense.” Similarly, Lisa, throughout her narration, insists that everything involving Stefan, even the death of their son, has been inevitable. “I know now that nothing happens by chance. Every moment is measured; every step is counted.” Lisa is capable, willful and independent. She defies her parents, manipulates everyone, constructs her own moral codes, and snares a rich husband. Nonetheless, she depicts herself always as a powerless victim. She is everything Lola Montès is, but tries to hide it. Yet she is careful to let us (and Stefan) know that she knows beforehand that her husband will kill Stefan, if she goes to Stefan; she even depicts her husband watching as she enters Stefan’s building. For the sake of this assignation, she consciously precipitates a duel (and inadvertently sends her son to his death). Sadism is the other side of masochism. Passion destroys subject and object both (3).
Lisa’s second date with Stefan resembles her first. Ten years have passed. Stefan says the same things, does the same things, but he is perfunctory and more obviously a vampire. The first time it seemed miraculous to her that he refused to hear explanations of who she was and how she knew so much about him. “Never mind explaining!… whoever you are and wherever you came from.” Now she recognizes his cynical flirtation, his refusal, his inability, to see her, now or then. “For years…I said to myself, ‘Perhaps today she will come and my life will really begin,’” he tells her, echoing her own fantasy. Now in Stefan’s self-pleasuring inability to focus beyond the moment, Lisa recognizes her own desire for what she cannot have – to be seen by another. “No, I don’t believe you,” she tells him, too softly for him to hear, because she is talking only to herself, as always. She can no longer play innocent, either. In her letter, in her movie, she makes us see her.
And once Lisa is dead, Stefan can believe in her. Imagination is so much easier than reality for these two, who can never get beyond the make-believe life of the amusement-park train trips – because they do not wish to. Everyone is always telling Stefan “Enjoy!” but he is always disengaged. “I almost never get to the place I start out for,” he tells her. Winter is better than spring, she agrees, “because if it is spring, then there is nothing to imagine.” Now her letter is done, she is gone and is no longer directing the movie, all of which has been her self-portrait addressed to Stefan, and only now can he become the subject and reply. He picks up one of her flowers left him on the chessboard, and finds “what was never lost.” Now he sees her – at 12 holding open a door. Now his face is lighted. Now there is finally a shot from his point of view. He had never looked before, any more than he had gone beyond the surface of his music. Now at last someone sees Lisa – when she is no longer there. These two share a disease, not a love: a total despair.
Passion-love is the longing for what sears us and annihilates us in its triumph (Rougement, 1940, 60). In Sans lendemain (1939), Evelyne stands, like Lisa, at a station watching a train leave, helpless, because her willful masochism, her insistence on regarding circumstance as destiny, leads her too, like Lisa, to betray a son and a lover who need her.
Evelyne’s passion crystallizes for ten years, Lisa’s for 18. But Roberto’s and Gaby’s passion (La signora), and his father’s and Gaby’s passion as well, strikes suddenly, as does Christine’s and Theo’s (Liebelei); Werther’s and Charlotte’s; and Madame de…’s and Donati’s. Martin Donnelly’s sudden passion for Lucia Harper (James Mason for Joan Bennett, The Reckless Moment) resembles Lisa’s for Stefan, an elected affinity, as it were, which is chosen already partly crystallized, then cultured through constant crosscuts and confrontations that always conclude with Donnelly staring at Lucia’s “portrait,” at an enriched crystallization (or, saddest of all, at her empty space, when suddenly she is no longer there, and desire absorbs him into its void) – all of this to the utter dismay of sheltered Lucia who (like Gaby) watches her mere existence destroy a man (4) – in contrast to Lola Montès, who finds new Donnellys daily. In contrast, in all of La Ronde and “La maison Tellier” (Le Plaisir), there is constant sex but scarcely any passion at all. Stendhal says passion is very rare in France, but thrives in Italy. Anyway, everyone is happier without it. “Napoleon…said that in love, the only victory is escape,” General André admits. Despite which, the afflicted would all agree with Stendhal that passion-love is “the miracle of civilization,” the reason for being.
Everything Lisa tries to hide, Lola Montès exhibits. Her flashbacks are subjective, colored memories which she reconstructs, like Lisa, to service her fantasies. The historical Lola Montez (5) was infamous for inventive self-promotion; indeed, she was Irish, née Eliza Gilbert, and concocted an entire new identity for herself. Yet the events she depicts in the movie do not stray very far from the truth. She did, for example, cause a revolution in the Kingdom of Bavaria.
What is invented by the moviemakers is the circus (as also in La Ronde). The real Lola Montez never performed in a circus, jumped from atop a tent pole, sat in a cage, or sold permission to kiss her hand. Many viewers have said that Ophuls’s Lola is a victim of this circus, that she is forced to work there to gain her living. But how is it possible to imagine that this young, beautiful, cultured, intelligent, resourceful, willful woman can find no other means of life than a circus where every night she risks killing herself diving into a pale of water? Lola’s circus is how she chooses to exhibit herself to her public, her flashbacks are how she chooses to exhibit herself to herself.
The movie’s drama is not between spectacle and reality, circus and flashbacks, but between Lola as subject and all else as her object. She absorbs spectators the way she absorbs lovers. Why speak of the star as victim? Neither Gaby (La signora) nor Lola are the butts of their publicity and commercialization; they are its creators, they themselves are their subjects. They (like Lisa in Letter) suffer in the new identities they fashion for themselves. But if Lola chooses to sell herself to ever higher-paying lovers, and then to commodify herself, encage herself among the beasts, and submit herself to the male gaze, it is not because anyone else is forcing her to do so, again and again, day after day.
Lola and Gaby want to exhibit themselves to the world the way Lisa exhibits herself to Stefan, emotionally nude. They want to be the attraction, but as subject. Their airs of passivity and wearied victimization are part of their exhibition, its masochism, its obsessive rerunning of the past. Like Lisa, Lola suffers through memories in daily masturbation. Lola is still young. But her pain has become more desirable to her than any possible happiness. “This warm you bring me… this face… leave me absolutely without hope,” she tells a sexy young student (Oscar Werner). She still needs public adoration, though. She needs to exhibit her bosom again the way she did when she created a scandal trying to enter a church. Her jump is the orgasm, her self-directed Liebestod. She does it all in front of everyone, and afterward they applaud and pay homage to her drained figure.
Lola is not passive; the “beast” [fauve] looked at is looking back at us. People who look at Lola do not do so in crosscuts, at least not for long. They get into the same shot as Lola – not just the lovers who all display the same intimidated, stolen glances from behind posts or other constraints, but the circus throngs as well, equally awed. And then, when men find themselves in Lola’s frame, there is a kind of invasion of the body snatcheress: Lola, who first echoes and then supplants the lovers she leaves behind in reality but never parts from in fantasy (as she explains in detail to Liszt, with exquisite gentleness). Lola is la signora di tutti who gives her body and keeps your soul, or sometimes the reverse.
It is Lola who has the museums and universities closed and the ministers dismissed because they do not wish to exhibit her nude portrait. “I’m not a scandal machine,” she explains. “I always do what I like. That’s all!”
It is thus curious that the student who defends her fascism claims she is a victim “of reaction. You represent love, liberty… We are for liberty, for love…[We are] on the left!” Lola, like the student and the circus ringmaster (Peter Ustinov), recognizes that freedom is not merely a defiance of social norms, freedom is a commodity. (Few movies spend so much time talking about how to get money.) Love too is a commodity when passion rules our souls. Lola gazes at the stars as a teenager on the boat because she wants to be a star too. Hers is the “true love” defined by Fichte that rejects any object whatever in order that it may launch into the infinite. Fichte says passion-love is a “desire for something altogether unknown, the existence of which is disclosed solely by the need of it, by a discomfort, and by a void that is in search of whatever will fill it, but that remains unaware of whence fulfillment may come” (Cited in Rougemont, 1983, 219).
It is Lola’s void that makes her a subject of desire. It is essential that her personality be elusive, almost empty. The void is her will, her will denied, insatiable desire, a vortex of passion. To object that the real Lola was a phony artist or that Martine Carol is a phony actress, misses the point, like complaining that Charles II (The Exile) was not more of a king or a man (6). Lola’s body language, her decor, her tableaux vivants and ballets, her entire circus, create a vertigo around her void that fatally seduces us to despair. “In crime as in love there are only those who do and those who don’t dare,” remarks someone in Douglas Sirk’s Scandal in Paris (1945). We all want to dare – and to pay a dollar to kiss the hand of someone who, like all Ophuls’s heroes, got sucked into their own dare and make the dizzy plunge. Not only does passion-love not see what is real, but it supplants the real.
To talk about Lola Montès, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Sans lendemain or La signora di tutti as though Ophuls, like Mizoguchi, is championing the oppressed female is to disfigure women who resolutely create themselves and who consent to be an object of gaze only in order to assert themselves as subject.
Barzun, Jacques, The Energies of Art, New York: Vintage, 1962
Lourié, Eugene, My Work in Films, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1985
Rougement, Denis de, Passion and Society, London: Faber & Faber, 1940
Rougement, Denis de, Love in the Western World, New York: Schocken, 1983
Zweig, Stefan, The Royal Game with Letter from an Unknown Woman and Amok, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul, New York: Viking, 1944
Zweig, Stefan, The Royal Game and Other Stories, trans. Jill Sutcliffe, New York: Harmony Books, 1981
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Lola like you’ve never seen her! … and aren’t allowed to!
At Cannes this spring, The Munich Film Museum was to present its restoration of the premier edition of Lola Montez. Instead the screening was blocked by Max Ophuls’s son Marcel.
What audiences saw at Lola‘s first-run engagements in Paris and Munich in December-January, 1955-56, differed from prints in circulation since 1969. These first editions were six minutes longer (more Liszt, more on the boat, and no dissolves in the final tracking shot); ten percent wider (2.55 versus 2.35); had four-track magnetic sound (although Ophuls spurned even stereo effects); and had colors far more brilliant. Also they were multi-lingual. Characters spoke French, German or English, with subtitles where appropriate.
These editions were a disaster. Audiences in Paris protested so noisily that police had to be called. In Le Figaro, Cocteau, Rossellini, Becker, Tati, Kast and Atruc protested the critics’ damnations. After a few weeks, Lola was withdrawn, cuts were made, and subtitled sections were replaced (by hand, in each print) so that everyone spoke one language, German or French, depending on the edition, Lola Montez or Lola Montès. To no avail.
After Ophuls’s death in 1957, Lola was cut a third time, into chronological sequence with 15 or 20 minutes deleted. English versions were released cut even more. To no avail.
Finally in 1968 producer Pierre Braunberger acquired Lola and issued a dupe of the second edition of the French edition – the only Lola most of us have ever seen – missing some of the footage, some of the left side (cropped for monaural optical sound), some of the sound, and some of the color. It is this last edition that Marcel Ophuls has declared sacred, denying that the first edition existed except as a work print, and maintaining that Lola is a French film – despite its having been produced by Germans, filmed in Germany, and shot in German, French and English.
Certainly one may prefer some of the changes Max Ophuls made for the second edition. The boat sequence seems magically improved to me. Less defensible are the changes made by Braunberger, twelve years after Max’s death, in aspect ratio and color. The new Munich print, curated by Stefan Drößler, restores the dark, somber tones of the first circus sequence and the Technicolor-like brilliance of the Nice sequence. Why Marcel opposes this is unclear. In any case, it is not a question of disrespect for Max’s “final choices,” but rather of permitting us to experience his first choices as well.
And this Marcel will not allow. Under French law, he has used his rights as heir to forced cancellation of Munich’s plans to restore the French multi-lingual edition.
(The English version, alas, was issued only in cut prints, in black-and-white, and these seem to have vanished. Since the circus takes place in New Orleans, it’s hard not to wish to hear Peter Ustinov in English!)
The complete story of Lola’s making (and unmaking) will be found, along with 115 color/scope frame enlargements, in a gorgeous 296-page book by Martina Müller and Werner Dütsch: Lola Montez: Eine Filmgeschichte, Cinémathèque Municipale de Luxembourg & Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Cologne, 2002, available for 39.80€ at www.buchhandlung-walther-koenig.de.
The Munich Film Museum, using some of the same frame enlargements, has also published a gorgeous 40-page brochure, courageously including (in French) Marcel Ophuls’s lengthy denunciations.
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Max Ophuls Filmography
1931 Dann schon lieber Lebertran (Germany, short, lost)
1932 Die verliebte Firma (Germany)
1932 Die verkaufte Braut (Germany)
1933 Lachende Erben (Germany)
1933 Liebelei (Germany)
1934 “Liebelei” une histoire d’amour (1934, partial remake)
1934 On a volé un homme (France, lost)
1934 La signora di tutti (Italy)
1935 Divine (France)
1936 La Valse brillante de Chopin (France, music video)
1936 Ave Maria de Schubert (France, music video)
1936 La Tendre ennemie (France)
1936 Komedie om Geld (Holland)
1937 Yoshiwara (France)
1938 Werther (France)
1939 Sans lendemain (France)
1940 De Mayerling à Sarajevo (France)
1947 The Exile (US)
1948 Letter from an unknown woman (US)
1949 Caught (US)
1949 The Reckless moment (US)
1950 La Ronde (France)
1952 Le Plaisir (France)
1953 Madame de. (France)
1955 Lola Montès (France); 1956 Lola Montez (Germany)
- Ophuls: “Werther ne se tue pas quand il perd Charlotte, mais quand il perd de plus l’amitié d’Albert.” Le Figaro, 7 déc. 1938. Danièle Darrieux: “Madame de… meurt d’avoir perdu l’estime de son mari en même temps que l’amour de son amant.” Le Monde, 3 juin 1953Ophuls: “Werther doesn’t kill himself when he loses Charlotte, but when in addition he loses the friendship of Albert.” Le Figaro, Dec. 7, 1938. Danièle Darrieux: “Madame de… dies from losing the esteem of her husband at the same time as the love of her lover.” Le Monde, June 3, 1953
- Lutz Bacher (in his Max Ophuls in the Hollywood Studios, New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1996) demonstrates that some exceptions exist which Ophuls was compelled to shoot, for example, Stefan looking up at Lisa from the Opera floor. But such is their context that these shots never transfer our identification to the man (as comparable shots do in Madame de…) but simply figure the man as object of the female gaze.
- Le Plaisir‘s narration is also deceptive, although in this case words add a subjectivity that reminds us not to take things as the narrator does. Letter‘s deceiving narration resembles Huw Morgan’s in How Green Was My Valley (John Ford, 1941). Both recount experiences growing up with attitudes which they present as noble and true but which contribute to the destruction of those they love. We share their myopia, relish their truth, and connive in romanticizing their suicidal sado-masochistic wallowings. For more on this theme, cf., Tag Gallagher, John Ford (Berkeley: University of California, 1986), pp. 183-99.
- Sherry Riddle, in a class paper, wrote that Lucia in her home “rushes about, almost hitting every wall, like a ball inside a pinball machine.” And Lucia fears the world beyond the cradle – not without reason in the postwar coldwar. When Donnelly tells her, “You have your family, I have my Nagle,” he sees Lucia as a victim, and most of those who have commented on The Reckless Moment agree. But Lucia would not. For her it is the absence in Donnelly of dedication comparable to hers for her family that makes him Nagle’s victim and renders his life meaningless. Eventually he agrees. (Lucia would have made the same assessment of Stefan in Letter.)
- Montès” is a concession to French pronunciation.
- Charles (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) plays a series of roles – cavalier, peasant, king – and like Stefan or Lola has little personality of his own beyond immediate pleasure. (Echoing Charles’s own false identities is that of a fool masquerading as Charles.) We are told beforehand of his whorings and multitudes of broken hearts, yet for a moment he seems ready to trade his crown for Katie. He stands in her room, at the end of the film, and the cannon booms, and his look tells us he makes his decision. He comes over and sits on the bed and says, “What will become of you?!” and we know she knows he has abandoned her, and she comforts him as though he is losing more than she. He takes refuge in rhetoric then, like Stefan. “The exile” is Katie, not Charles.