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Ophüls: Neglected genius (Illustration by Michael Daley)

Max Ophüls, born in 1902 to a middle class German-Jewish family, worked as a stage actor, director and producer before he turned to film in 1929. After the Reichstag fire in 1933, he fled to France and began a precarious career making films wherever he could — in France, Italy and the Netherlands — before trying his luck in Hollywood and ultimately returning to France. His career was marked by long periods of forced inactivity, critical acclaim and commercial failure. Although he is now hailed as one of the great masters of cinema, Ophüls’s genius is often underrated.

Ophüls is famous for his long tracking shots. He used the camera like no other director before — or since. His camerawork is effortlessly seamless: the lens glides through walls, objects and rooms, sweeping around figures and lingering almost intrusively during close-ups. His shots are full of movement and achieve a magnificent lightness. “The camera exists to create a new art and to show above all what cannot be seen elsewhere, neither in theatre nor in life,” he said. Throughout his career this “new art” gave form to the permanence of human feelings in the transience of life.

His first success was Liebelei (1933), a film that sets up two of his subsequent masterpieces, Madame De . . . (1953) and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). These are “women’s pictures”, shown from the perspective of a woman and giving voice to her inner life. They reveal women’s innermost feelings, while relishing the outward glamour of their lives. Fine houses, love affairs, duels and opera houses are the stuff of Ophüls’s oeuvre, while his characters inevitably fall in love with the wrong people at the wrong time in a manner completely out of their control.

Liebelei, based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler and set in Vienna at the end of the 19th century, contains all these themes. What stands out is the ending, a two-minute shot of the bereft central character, Christine (Magda Schneider).

The opening of Madame De . . . (1953), Ophüls’s finest achievement, is one of the best in cinema. It begins with a long tracking shot of the aristocratic heroine, whose name we never learn, played by the incomparable Danielle Darrieux. Before we see her face, we hear her voice singing and talking to herself, her hands gliding over the items in her wardrobe and her room. We are both watching her over her shoulder and looking through her eyes. When we eventually do see her reflection, and the camera moves right in on her face, the time we have already spent with her has been so intimate and revealing that the audience is completely in her thrall. The narrative follows a pair of earrings and the woman whose life they haunt. For a filmmaker whose male characters are often so cynical, Ophüls remains an optimist in his presentation of true and all-consuming love.  The heroine’s husband’s comment about their marriage being “only superficially superficial” could apply to the film itself, which keeps its distance yet reveals a depth of truth.
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