Max Ophüls

[oh-fuhls; Ger. aw-fyls]

Max Ophüls (born Maximillian Oppenheimer, 6 May 1902, Saarbrücken, Germany - 25 March 1957, Hamburg, Germany) was an influential German-born film director who worked in Germany, the United States, and France.

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."


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).

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. He returned to Europe in 1950. Though he died from rheumatic heart disease in Hamburg, Ophüls was buried in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He had made just over twenty films.

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


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. 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.

Back in France he directed and co-wrote 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.

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.


  • 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)
  • 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 0405129246
  • Susan M. White (1995), The Cinema of Max Ophüls: Magisterial Vision and the Figure of Woman, New York: Columbia University Press. | ISBN 0231101139
  • L. Bacher (1996), Max Ophüls in the Hollywood Studios, Rutgers, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. | ISBN 0813522919

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