Max and Marcel

The cinematographers Ophüls: like father; like... and sometimes unlike... son

La signora di tutti (Eine Diva für alle), 1934 | Photos courtesy of the Austrian Filmmuseum

Alexander Horwath of the Austrian Film Museum has developed a knack for throwing together disparate films to great effect – such as Le Père de mes enfants (The Father of My Children) by Mia Hansen-Løve and Woyzeck by Werner Herzog; or Cries and Whispers by Bergman and The Red Shoes by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The pairing works because one is pleasantly surprised at how films with different styles and contents complement one another. They are much like two different courses in a meal.

For the May-June program, he has hit upon another brilliant idea: pairing the films of Max Ophüls with those of his son Marcel.

Marcel Ophüls had no difficulty assessing his relationship to his father:

“I was born under the shadow of a genius, and that spared me from being vain. I don’t have an inferiority complex – I am inferior,” he told The Guardian.

Whether this be true or not, and this critic doubts the statement, the comparison between the careers of the two men is nevertheless fascinating. For one thing, they both landed on their feet. Max Ophüls wanted to be an actor but ended up directing, while his son wanted to direct feature films but ended up making documentaries. Both were passionate in their pursuit of authenticity; both were remarkable for their compassion and humor; and both were wary of patriotism:

Le Plaisir, 1952 | Photos courtesy of the Austrian Filmmuseum

“I’ve come to believe that patriotism is a lie,” Marcel said, “and anyone who is a patriot is a fool. Even though I’ve been a French citizen since 1938, most of them still think of me as a German Jew; an axe-grinding, obsessive German Jew who wants to bash France and go on and on about the treatment of Jews.”

The reason for the antipathy toward Marcel is obvious: His masterpiece Le Chagrin et la pitié: Chronique d’une ville Française sous l’occupation (The Sorrow and the Pity: Chronicle of a French City under the Occupation) aroused indignation in France and was banned for a decade.

“One of the jobs of documentary filmmaking,” Marcel said “is to prevent people from reinventing the past.” And France, like every other Western European country bar Denmark had very much need for reinvention.

Intended as a film for television it was shot in three countries with a 16mm Éclair Coutant (NPR) and a Nagra, had a budget of approximately 500,000 marks, (the equivalent in 1972 of around $160,000) and a shooting ratio of 15:1. Yet even with these limitations, few documentaries have proved more important. It directly influenced both Peter Davies (Hearts and Minds) and Michael Moore, who Ophüls admires:

“He’s wonderful when he buttonholes the bad guys like Charlton Heston,” Ophüls said. “So pushy! It’s hard to believe he’s not a Jew!”

Although supported by François Truffaut, Ophüls was at the time heavily criticized by Godard for lacking a cutting edge, avant-garde approach.

Die verliebte Firma, 1932 | Photos courtesy of the Austrian Filmmuseum

Marcel said of the film in an interview with Chris Kijne: “If someone called The Sorrow and the Pity a Hollywood film, would I feel insulted? No, I think there’s a great deal of truth to that statement. This movie is a Fifth Column documentary, made by someone telling a story with a beginning, middle, and an end by use of sex, music, cutting, and manipulation, in a field where most of these things are considered by puritans as wrong to do. It’s the puritan who passes on the fiction that if you use real people and take a camera into the street, you are closer to the truth than if you used Spencer Tracy. I don’t believe that.”

Although the films of the son are well worth seeing, one must not forget those of the father, especially his masterpiece Letter from an Unknown Woman based on a story by Stefan Zweig. After all, Max Ophüls had worked as a director at the Burgtheater and Akademietheater (before moving on to movies at Ufa in Berlin), and when his films are shown in Vienna many, like La Ronde, based on the play Reigen by Arthur Schnitzler, feel very much like they are coming home.

Whereas Max Ophüls sought truth in art, his son sought art in truth. What the films of both have in common is a wonderful sense of playfulness and divine comedy. Nobody is more acutely aware of the limitations of human nature. They are capable of laughing at human passions, foibles and blindness with a warmth and generosity few can match.

Neither the one nor the other take mankind too seriously and when a Nazi was shown in one of Marcel’s films expressing his most sincere, passionate and intense convictions, Marcel is capable of laughing at him too.

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