Sunday, 15 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 1: Max Ophuels

Max Ophuels was born Maximilian Oppenheimer on 6th May 1902 in Saarbruecken, Germany. After having started his career on the stage, Ophuels was advised to change his name as Oppenheimer would immediately give away his Jewish origins which, at the time, was deemed to be disadvantageous. These name changes were common practice. Other artists who succumbed to these name changes included Nathan Kohn - who became Fritz Kortner - and the famous operetta star Fritzi Massary, whose real name was Massarik. Ophuels was first trained as an actor before branching out into directing, and it was not until the advent of the talkies, that Ophuels became interested in film. However, he quickly rose to one of Weimar Germany's most prominent directors. His biggest success, Liebelei, starring Magda Schneider - mother of Romy - coincided with the Nazi-takeover following which Ophuels left Germany for France. Having been raised in the Saarland, which was a French protectorate following the Treaty of Versailles until 1935, Ophuels had an easier time making France his new home than did many of his fellow-emigres. Almost immediately after his arrival in Paris, Ophuels continued making films. Among his best known films during this, his first French period are, La tendre ennemie (France 1936), Sans lendemain (France 1939), and De Mayerling a Sarajevo (France 1940). After the German invasion in May 1940 Ophuels was forced to emigrate yet again, and along with him all other German-Jewish emigres still stranded in France. With the concerted effort of friends, the agent Paul Kohner, and various aid organisations, most notably the European Film Fund and the Emergency Rescue Committee, Ophuels managed to obtain a visa, an affidavit, and subsequently emigrate to the US. However, it took him several years until he was able to take up where he left off when leaving France, and at least his early years in the US are a prime example of the hardship many of the refugees were forced to endure as a result of Nazism. Nevertheless, his exile in the US resulted in some of his best films, which since have also have become classics of American cinema, most noteworthy, of course, is his collaboration with Joan Fontaine and her then-husband William Dozier, Letter From An Unknown Woman (USA 1948). Although a commercial failure, the film opened to wide critical acclaim and considered an improvement on Stefan Zweig's novel on which the film is based.

After one last film in the US, The Reckless Moment (USA 1949), Ophuels returned to Europe. Suspicious of both the Federal Republic as well as the so-called Democratic Republic of Germany, Ophuels returned to France rather than his home country. It is primarily his output of his second French period on which Ophuels' reputation as one of Europe's most influential directors of the 20th century is based. Of the six films Ophuels made during the last eight years of his life, La ronde (France 1950), Madame de ... (France/ Italy 1953), and Lola Montez (France/ West-Germany 1955) are especially revered by film aficionados for their camera work, particularly their tracking shots. Among the film makers who are said to have been inspired by Ophuels' use of the camera are, for instance, Stanley Kubrick, whose film, Barry Lyndon (UK 1975) is clearly influenced by Ophuels's work.

Max Ophuels died on 26th of March 1957 in Hamburg as a result of a heart disease. His son, Marcel Ophuels, is an established film maker in his own right. His Oscar-winning documentary, Hotel Terminus (West-Germany/ France/ USA 1988), is considered to be one of the best documentaries on the topic of the Holocaust.

Joan Fontaine and Louis Jourdan in Ophuels' Letter From An Unknown Woman (USA 1948)