If Lubitsch saw the relationship between men and women as a playful battle of wits and whims, Max Ophüls was perhaps the supreme romanticist of the movies, both in his early work in Germany and his later work in the United States. Ophüls did not make a great many films, but his work is marked by a deeply suffused sense of Old World romance and lost splendor. His most famous American film is Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), starring Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in the tale of a young woman who is seduced and abandoned by a brilliant young concert pianist and finds herself alone and pregnant.
The story, like most of Ophüls’s work, takes place in the nineteenth century, in a zone of memory and nostalgia that renders the viewer spellbound. Ophüls is most noted for his luxurious camera movement, maintaining constant motion throughout often lengthy and complex shots. James Mason, who starred in Ophüls’s 1949 melodrama Caught, was deeply amused by the director’s
A shot that does not call for tracks Is agony for poor, dear Max Once, when they took away his crane I thought he’d never smile again.
Ophüls himself noted that “life for me is movement,” and a sense of fluid restlessness pervades all his best work. His crowning achievement is undoubtedly Lola Montès (1955), a French/West German co-production that recounts the affair of a famous adventuress with King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Shot in dazzling CinemaScope and riotous color, the film cost a then-staggering $3.5 million and was initially, like so many films ahead of their time, a failure at the box office. Much to Ophüls’s dismay, the film was then ruthlessly recut and released in the United States under the sensationalistic title The Sins of Lola Montès, in a cheap black-and-white version that ruined his masterly color design.
Seen today in its original version, the film is an overwhelming experience, a romance of such lavish and epic proportions that it literally confounds the senses.