Max Ophüls  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Max Ophüls (b. Maximillian Oppenheimer, Saarbrücken, Germany, May 6, 1902—d. Hamburg, Germany, March 25, 1957), German-born film director, known for such films as Letter from an Unknown Woman from 1948, La Ronde from 1950 and Lola Montès from 1955.


Film career

He started his career as a stage actor in 1919 but moved into theatre production in 1924. Two years later, he became creative director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and, having had 200 plays to his credit, turned to film production in 1929, when he became a dialogue director under Anatole Litvak at Universum Film AG (aka 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 older man.

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 USA in 1941, only to become inactive in Hollywood. Fortunately, he was rescued by 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). Once established, he went on to direct Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Caught (1949), and The Reckless Moment (1949) 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. Though he died from rheumatic heart disease in Hamburg, Ophüls was buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.


All his works feature his distinctive smooth camera movements, complex crane and dolly sweeps, and tracking shots, which influenced the young Stanley Kubrick at the beginning of his filmmaking career.

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.


He took the pseudonym Ophüls while pursuing an early career in theatre so that, should he fail, it wouldn't embarrass his garment-manufacturer father. Later, during the American and French periods of his career, the spelling of his surname would occasionally be altered, most commonly through the removal of the umlaut; for the American films Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Caught (1949), he was listed as "Max Opuls."

Max Ophüls's son Marcel Ophüls became a distinguished documentary-film maker.


YearTitleEnglish titleCountryNotes
1931 Dann schon lieber LebertranI'd Rather Have Cod Liver Oil Germany
1931 Die verliebte Firma The Company's in Love Germany Short film
1932 Die verkaufte Braut The Bartered Bride Germany
1933 Liebelei Germany
1933 Une histoire d'amour Love Story France
1933 Lachende Erben Laughing Heirs Germany
1933 On a volé un homme Man Stolen France
1934 La Signora Di Tutti Everybody's Woman Italy
1935 Divine France
1936 Komedie om geld The Trouble With Money Netherlands
1936 Ave Maria France Documentary / Short film
1936 La tendre ennemie The Tender Enemy France
1936 Valse brillante de Chopin France Documentary / Short film
1937 Yoshiwara France
1938 Werther France
1939 Sans lendemain Without Tomorrow France
1940 L'école des femmes France
1940 De Mayerling à Sarajevo From Mayerling to Sarajevo France
1946 Vendetta United States Fired before filming
1947 The Exile United States
1948 Letter from an Unknown Woman United States
1949 Caught United States
1949 The Reckless Moment United States
1950 La Ronde Roundabout France
1952 Le Plaisir France Nominated for an Academy Award
1953 Madame de... The Earrings of Madame de... France
1955 Lola Montès France Eastmancolor film
1958 Les Amants de Montparnasse The Lovers of Montparnasse France Died during filming

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