Max Ophüls

Maximillian Oppenheimer (/ˈɒpənˌhmər/; 6 May 1902 26 March 1957),[1] known as Max Ophüls (/ˈɔːfəls/;[2] German: [ˈɔfʏls]), was a German-born film director who worked in Germany (19311933), France (19331940 and 19501957), and the United States (19471950). He made nearly 30 films, the latter ones being especially notable: La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), The Earrings of Madame de… (1953) and Lola Montès (1955). He was credited as Max Opuls on several of his American films, including The Reckless Moment, Caught, Letter from an Unknown Woman, and The Exile. The annual Filmfestival Max Ophüls Preis in Saarbrücken is named after him.

Max Ophüls
Maximillian Oppenheimer

(1902-05-06)6 May 1902
Died26 March 1957(1957-03-26) (aged 54)
OccupationDirector, Writer
Years active1931–1957
Spouse(s)Hildegard Wall (m. 1926)
ChildrenMarcel Ophüls


Youth and early career

Max Ophüls was born in Saarbrücken, Germany, the son of Leopold Oppenheimer, a Jewish textile manufacturer and owner of several textile shops in Germany, and his wife Helen. He took the pseudonym Ophüls during the early part of his theatrical career so that, should he fail, it wouldn't embarrass his father.[3]

Initially envisioning an acting career, he started as a stage actor in 1919 and played at the Aachen Theatre from 1921 to 1923. He then worked as a theater director, becoming the first director at the city theater of Dortmund. Ophüls moved into theatre production in 1924. He became creative director of the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1926. Having had 200 plays to his credit, he turned to film production in 1929, when he became a dialogue director under Anatole Litvak at UFA in Berlin. He worked throughout Germany and directed his first film in 1931, the comedy short Dann schon lieber Lebertran (literally In This Case, Rather Cod-Liver Oil).

Of his early films, the most acclaimed is Liebelei (1933), which included a number of the characteristic elements for which he was to become known: luxurious sets, a feminist attitude, and a duel between a younger and an older man.

It was at the Burgtheater that Ophüls met the actress Hilde Wall.[4] They were married in 1926.[5]

Exile and post-war career

Predicting the Nazi ascendancy, Ophüls, a Jew, fled to France in 1933 after the Reichstag fire and became a French citizen in 1938. After the fall of France to Germany, he travelled through Switzerland and Italy to the United States in 1941, only to become inactive in Hollywood. He eventually received help from a longtime fan, director Preston Sturges, and went on to direct a number of distinguished films.

His first Hollywood film was the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. vehicle, The Exile (1947). Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), derived from a Stefan Zweig novella, is the most highly regarded of the American films.[1] Caught (1949), and The Reckless Moment (1949) followed, before his return to Europe in 1950.

Back in France, he directed and collaborated on the adaptation of Schnitzler's La Ronde (1950), which won the 1951 BAFTA Award for Best Film, and Lola Montès (1955) starring Martine Carol and Peter Ustinov, as well as Le Plaisir and The Earrings of Madame de... (1953), the latter with Danielle Darrieux and Charles Boyer, which capped his career. Ophüls died from rheumatic heart disease on 26 March 1957 in Hamburg, while shooting interiors on The Lovers of Montparnasse, and was buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. This final film was completed by his friend Jacques Becker.

Max Ophüls's son Marcel Ophüls became a distinguished documentary-film maker, director of The Sorrow and the Pity and other films examining the nature of political power.[6]


All his works feature his distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots.

Many of his films inspired filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave an introduction on the restored DVD of The Earrings of Madame de... (1953).

Some of his films are narrated from the point of view of the female protagonist. Film scholars have analyzed films such as Liebelei (1933), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), and Madame de... (1953) as examples of the woman's film genre.[7] Nearly all of his female protagonists had names beginning with "L" (Leonora, Lisa, Lucia, Louise, Lola, etc.)

Actor James Mason, who worked with Ophüls on two films, wrote a short poem about the director's love for tracking shots and elaborate camera movements:

A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.


Year Title English title Country Notes
1931Dann schon lieber LebertranI'd Rather Have Cod Liver OilGermanyShort film
Die verliebte FirmaThe Company's in LoveGermany
1932Die verkaufte BrautThe Bartered BrideGermany
1933LiebeleiGermanyFrench version Une histoire d'amour released the same year
Lachende ErbenLaughing HeirsGermany
On a volé un hommeA Man Has Been StolenFranceLost film[8]
1934La signora di tuttiEverybody's WomanItaly
1936Komedie om geldThe Trouble With MoneyNetherlands
Ave MariaFranceDocumentary short film
La Tendre EnnemieThe Tender EnemyFrance
Valse brillante de ChopinFranceDocumentary short film
1938Le Roman de WertherThe Novel of WertherFrance
1939Sans lendemainThere's No TomorrowFrance
1940L'École des femmesFrance
De Mayerling à SarajevoFrom Mayerling to SarajevoFrance
1946VendettaVendettaUnited StatesFired during filming
1947The ExileThe ExileUnited States
1948Letter from an Unknown WomanLetter from an Unknown WomanUnited States
1949CaughtCaughtUnited States
The Reckless MomentThe Reckless MomentUnited States
1950La RondeRoundaboutFrance
1952Le PlaisirFranceNominated for an Academy Award[9]
1953Madame de...The Earrings of Madame de...France
1955Lola MontèsFranceEastmancolor film


  • Max Ophüls (1959), Spiel im Dasein. Eine Rückblende. Mit einem Nachwort von Hilde Ophüls und einer Einführung von Friedrich Luft, sowie achtzehn Abbildungen (autobiography), Stuttgart: Henry Goverts Verlag (posthumously published).

See also



  1. Bock & Bergfelder 2009, p. 574.
  2. "Ophüls". Collins English Dictionary.
  3. Hollinger 1986, p. 271.
  4. Seibel 2009, p. 122.
  5. "Max Ophüls". The Daily Star. 17 December 2016. Retrieved 13 October 2017.
  6. Staff, (21 November 2014). "Marcel Ophuls | Biography and Filmography | 1927". Retrieved 13 October 2017.
  7. Mulvey, Laura (Speing 2013). "Love, History, and Max Ophuls: Repetition and Difference in Three Films of Doomed Romance". Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies. 43 (1): 7–29. doi:10.1353/flm.2013.0005. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. Williams, Alan L.; Williams, Alan Larson (1992). Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674762688.
  9. "Le Plaisir". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 21 December 2008.


Further reading

  • Alan Larson Williams (1977, reprinted 1980, 1992), Max Ophüls and the Cinema of Desire: Style and Spectacle in Four Films, 1948–1955, Dissertations on Film series, New York: Arno Press (reprint). | ISBN 0-405-12924-6
  • Susan M. White (1995), The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, New York: Columbia University Press. | ISBN 0-231-10113-9
  • Lutz Bacher (1996), Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios, Rutgers, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. | ISBN 0-8135-2291-9
  • Melinda Camber Porter (1993), "Through Parisian Eyes: Reflections on Contemporary French Arts and Culture", Da Capo Press. | ISBN 978-0-306-80540-0

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