Max Ophuls’ Lola Montes was made in 1955, in France and Bavaria, and, except for some festival showings, is now seen here for the first time in unmutilated form. (A butchered, dubbed version was released in 1959.) This is an important event both because of what the film is and is not, and because of what it crystallizes in critical approaches.
Lola Montes was Ophuls’ last work; he died in 1957. He was a German Jew, born Max Oppenheimer, who changed his name because his family objected to his becoming an actor. By the time hew as 22, in 1924, he had become a theater director and by 1930 is said to have directed almost two hundred productions, including some work at the Burgtheater in Vienna. He began directing films in 1930, and for obvious reasons, began directing elsewhere in 1932--France, Italy, Holland, Switzerland. By 1941 he was in Hollywood but did not get his first American job until 1946. He made four pictures in the US; probably the best known is Letter from an Unknown Woman. He returned to France in 1949 and made four more pictures. Preceding Lola Montes were La Ronde, Le Plaisir, and The Earrings of Madame de . . . .
Some critics consider Lola Montes to be “the greatest film of all time.” To say that I disagree is not merely to quibble with the phrase “all time” as applied to a 75-year-old art; not merely to deplore the facileness with which the accolade of greatness, in all three degrees, is broadcast in film criticism; it is to differ thoroughly and fundamentally about the means and potentials of film. Some Lola-lovers concur about some of the flaws I’ll describe; but they give different weight to those flaws. That is the heart of the argument.
The film tells the story--a version of it, anyway--of the famous 19th-century dancer-courtesan. It begins with the older Lola, playing in a circus in New Orleans. She sits in the center of the ring, as the ringmaster narrates her life, and the bulk of the film is in flashback. We see the end of her affair with Franz Liszt, her (earlier) marriage to her mother’s lover, some other embroilments, and her affair with King Ludwig of Bavaria. Throughout, we keep returning to the circus, and it ends there, with people streaming forward to pay a dollar to kiss the hand of Lola, seated in a cage. Thus the structure is cyclical. The cyclical had always appealed to Ophuls: the idea and very title of La Ronde (made from Schnitzler’s Reigen); the reappearance of the earrings in Madame de . . .; the recurrence of the lover in Letter from an Unknown Woman. In Lola the circus ring itself underscores the cyclical motif.
From the first moment to the last, Lola Montes is treasure for the eye, abundant, exciting in its abundance, rich in what Ophuls includes and in the way he handles it. The first things we see are two gorgeous chandeliers descending from a height. (Suggested to Ophuls by Josefstadt Theater in Vienna?) The chandeliers pass a circus band whose leader is in Uncle Sam costume; and the camera, ever moving, then picks up the ringmaster as he enters. He walks past a multi-leveled swirl of activity to the center of the ring, in front of two parallel lines of girls who proceed to juggle ninepins and comment in chorus on the tale the ringmaster is telling in flamboyant style. Soon Lola makes her entrance in a gorgeous carriage and is borne to the center. All this to a counterpoint of changing lights and bizarre costumes. (The film is in color and Cinemascope.) The effect--of glittering chaos falling marvelously into order--is precisely the same as in the operahouse sequence of Citizen Kane and for the same reason, I would guess: both Ophuls and Welles had large theatrical experience. The changes of light within a scene--dimmings, swellings, pinpointings, falls of color--and the knowing use of entrances, these are the marks of stage experience.
The most noted hallmark of Ophuls’ film style is his moving camera and his cuts from one moving shot to another. Here in the beginning it is used to create a sense of overture, partly by the way the camera grandly ignores the richness of what is happening behind or in passing. The combination of swirl and prodigality promises us largesse: we needn’t bother about that dwarf or those splendid horses or that bevy of girls; a great deal is going to spill on screen.
And it does spill. This is not a matter of purchased Hollywood extravagance. It is Ophuls’ gift for selecting the right element of d?cor, like the low Gothic arch in Liszt’s room; for layering every scene with planes of detail (“Details make art,” he said) so that the characters are always moving through a world that just happens to be telling us something relevant or characteristic about itself at the moment they pass. Examples: the hens roosting all the way up the narrow inn steps; the maimed soldier in Ludwig’s castle, past whom the servants have to run when they are on a trifling errand for the king in whose service this man lost his leg; the clown, with whom Lola’s doctor waits, who has the voice and demeanor of a prime minister. And, always, these excellent touches are ignored.
The visual virtuosity is also in what is done, as well as in what is included: Lieutenant James chasing Lola crisscross through the descending galleries of the theater; the rope that swings from the stage-flies in the foreground as, behind it, Ludwig expresses interest in Lola; the students running toward us down a long ramp to meet Lola’s carriage at an angle near the camera; the very last shot in which the camera pulls back over the hordes advancing on Lola until we are far from her. No fadeout; in the theatrical vein of the film, the curtains close.
All this is superb. There is not a flaw in the mise en sc?ne, not a dull frame for the eye. (Well, one reservation: Ophuls either detested or feared Cinemascope and, in some intimate scenes, he puts arbitrary shadows at the edges to narrow the picture.) But after it’s all over--before then--we are faced with the Chesterton comment. The first time G. K. Chesterton walked down Broadway at night past the flashing electric advertisements, he said, “What a wonderful experience this must be for someone who can’t read.” In the case of Lola, one might add: or for those who want to pretend they can’t--figuratively--read.
For the script of Lola is just one more teary version of the Prostitute with the Heart of Gold, the whore ennobled by the whoring, whom all her friends adore. The matters that made the real Lola an extraordinary woman are omitted completely; we are given only the picture of a woman turned to sexual adventuring by her mother’s callousness; who makes her way with her loins; who dramatizes farewells a bit and can develop a little tenderness if the man is a king who gives her a palace; but is only an adventuress, with a touch of Carmen deviltry. To see this Lola as a mythopoeic figure of romance or a figure of the Eternal Feminine, to posit that her story is related to our culture’s concepts of romance, is to me a quasi-adolescent insistence on glorifying whores. The difference between, say, Dumas’ Marguerite Gautier and Ophuls’ Lola is one between an early attempt to show the particularized humanity of a type and the luxuriant exportation of the type itself.
The acting of most of the principals is very bad. The late Martine Carol, who is Lola, never could act, and here she doesn’t even look pretty. Ophuls spent little time on making her face attractive, even in her younger scenes. Oskar Werner, as her German-student lover, is waxen-faced and cutesie. (Miscast as a twenty-year-old.) Will Quadflieg and Ivan Desny as Liszt and James are sticks. Peter Ustinov, the ringmaster, has merely a fraction of the modulation and shading that he showed in his recent pastry Hot Millions. Only Anton Walbrook as Ludwig is substantial.
Some of the Lola admirers might agree with all of this; all of them might agree with some of it. Together they reject its relevance. Why? Because they subscribe, with passionate and unquestionable conviction, to a theory of the hierarchy of film values. They believe in selecting and exalting sheerly cinematic values, like the matters I have praised earlier, and in subordinating or discounting such matters as those I’ve objected to. To them, this is exultation in the true glory of cinema.
To me, it is a derogation and patronization of cinema. To me, this hierarchy says, “This is what film can do and we mustn’t really expect it to do any more, mustn’t be disappointed if this is all it does.” A chief motive behind the hierarchy is to avoid discussion of the strictured elements forced on film-making by the ever-present money-men. Lola was commissioned as an expensive showcase for Martine Carol. The money-men foisted Miss Carol and a cheap novel--by the author of Caroline Cherie--on Ophuls, so let’s not criticize those elements, let’s concentrate on Ophuls’ marvelous d?cor, detail, and camera-movement and, by the simple act of appropriate omission, presto, we have a masterpiece.
I disbelieve in this hierarchy. There are money-men involved in every art. No one would dream of praising an architect because he designed his interiors well, if he had debased his overall form to please his client’s pocketbook. Why a special leniency for film?
Why, indeed--in the face of the fact that film has proved it doesn’t need it, has achieved thoroughly fine work? The worst aspect of this approach is that it crimps the film out of its cultural heritage: the cinematic and the literary and theatrical and psychological and social and political--and says to it, “Just go and be cinematic. If anything else is achieved, good. If not, no great matter.” It is an aesthetic equivalent of the Victorian ethic of “knowing your place.”
This concentration on part of a work leads to inflation of the value of that part. Ophuls, who in some ways was masterly, is extolled as a master of romance. To speak only of Lola, I see him sheerly as cynic, burdened with this trumpery novel and this mammary star and deciding to give it back to the world in spades. One critic envisions Lola in the circus as a premise “redeeming all men both as a woman and as an artistic creation.” This woman? This artistic creation? The last scene, in which the crowd presses forward to buy kisses of the caged Lola, gave me a vision of Ophuls himself chuckling at the Yahoos wonderstruck by this earlier Zsa Zsa Gabor, this “celebrity” in its synthetic present-day sense, a crowd scrabbling to pay for a touch of this scandal-sheet goddess. And, encompassing this, I also had a vision of Ophuls chuckling at his film audiences, as they press forward to pay for a chance to adulate his caged talent.
Let me give the last word, on this matter of exalting a medium in itself, to the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Writing about McLuhan in the latest Partisan Review, Enzensberger says:
“It is all too easy to see why the slogan ‘The medium is the message’ has met
with unbounded enthusiasm on the part of the media, since it does away, by
a quick fix worthy of a card-sharp, with the question of truth. Whether the
message is a lie or not has become irrelevant, since in the light of McLuhanism
truth itself resides in the very existence of the medium, no matter what it
may convey. . . .”
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann