An Imperial Romance: Max Ophüls's "From Mayerling to Sarajevo"

A new print heralds the revival of the great German director's last movie in Europe before the Second World War and his move to Hollywood.
Daniel Kasman

The title invokes tragedies already over and done: "From Mayerling to Sarajevo," a range of time spanning from the suicide of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in Mayerling, a death that eventually made Archduke Franz Ferdinand the next heir to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, to the assassination of the Archduke in the Bosnian capital, precipitating the First World War.

The title invokes a range of cities spanning countries. The director of From Mayerling to Sarajevo, a 1940 picture revived in a new print by The Film Desk and opening at New York’s Film Forum on March 27, is Max Ophüls, himself a roving vagabond auteur, born in Germany and making films not only there but in the Netherlands, Italy, Hollywood, and France, where this film was made on the precipice of the Second World War and the beginning of a new kind of German-speaking empire.

The films of Max Ophüls survive beautiful and aphoristic, although other than Letter from an Unknown Woman it is mostly the films he made in the 1950s, upon returning to France after a bout in Hollywood, that are remembered: La ronde, Le plaisier, Madame de… and Lola Montès—barely less than a third of his oeuvre. These films, set in a past already dreamy and distant from the time of their release, seem doubly far away now, appearing as a kind of dream of a memory, or memory of a dream.

From Mayerling to Sarajevo, whose story spans the 1890s until November 28, 1914, is similarly smitten as those classics with the opulent pomp, costumery and decor of the past, and particularly with the royal-aristocratic splendor of the waning days of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, realized in deep, richly decorated sets toned in luxurious, dappled textures of black and white. Yet the story’s contemporary bookends cannot be ignored. The opening titles remark the fictionalized nature of the story’s forbidden romance between Archduke Ferdinand (John Lodge) and Czech Countess Chotek (Edwige Feuillère) but then admit that this tale singularly illuminates the social and political problems in Europe in 1940. Finally, after the Archduke and Countess are assassinated 14 years into their morganatic marriage, Ophüls discreetly does not show us their bodies—in fact, the last time we see the two in their fated automobile, they speak of their children, all three of whom would live through World War 2—but instead cuts to a montage linking the oppression of many peoples under the double-headed eagle of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to the policies and actions perpetrated under the Nazi’s swastika.

This romance, then, is political. After a bravura sequence of scene-setting through royal palace prepping, scurrying, and pontificating around the absence of the Archduke, Ferdinand finally shows up and is introduced to us and to his Emperor, Franz Joseph, as a liberal radical. Speaking of desiring a “United States of Austria,” he inspires in the Emperor and his chief lackey a conspiracy of political marginalization with hints of more violent repercussions. Yet the crux of From Mayering to Sarajevo’s drama is not the Archduke’s radical political stance and the regime’s repression of its heir, but rather the embodiment of this counter-imperial stance in the figure of the beautiful Countess Chotek. Her brazen advocacy of Czech nationalism is the first thing that attracts Ferdinand to her. Their love, disapproved of and labored against as an affair by the monarchy, and then later their marriage, barely tolerated only because of the diminished status in court and impossibility of birthing heirs in their morganatic marriage, is a union of romance and politics.

This union is in fact an inextricable one, as Ophüls’s elegant style, brief dramatic scenes, and preference, as per the film’s title, to often move the story in time and place, gives us little time to immerse ourselves in the dreamy charge of elicit aristocratic romance. Ferdinand and Chotek’s is a floating love, unmoored by the protocol of court, and hovering delicately, adorned with melancholy, through the final years of empire. Indeed, while such scenes as a forest rendezvous on horseback and conspiratorial documents and maps revealed to the Emperor suggest an edge both to the movie’s love story and its lovers’ united liberal politics, once the Archduke and Countess find each other they seem to turn inward, into themselves as a couple—a brief montage shockingly covers all the years of their married life—and into the discrete distance of the storytelling.

We wonder: what happened to the piqued opinions of the treatment of the Empire’s peoples and the oppressive policies that drew the two together in the first place? They are silent on such matters. Only at the end, from afar—literally, seen through binoculars floating on a yacht outside a city harbor—do they glance at and comment upon such violence. The Archduke is deeply feared by the monarchy, but actor John Lodge—whose 1930s screen career, which includes Josef von Sternberg's The Scarlet Empress, ended with this film, and was followed first by time in the US Navy and then as a US Congressman and Governor for Connecticut—keeps him entirely at arm’s reach, a handsome enigma whose true beliefs and plans for the future are as unstated and unreadable as those of Henry Fonda’s controversially proposed peacenik Secretary of State in Advise and Consent, directed by Ophüls’s movieland doppelganger Otto Preminger. The Duchess of Hohenberg, née the Countess Chotek, has the most radical, if vague, aphorisms: in a veil-draped, joyous mobile shot following the couple’s marriage, she proclaims that she renounces everything but life and happiness. It is an implicit call, if a very general one, against the stifling lockstep of an empire trying desperately to hold onto one of the most complex collections of nationalities, ethnicities, and religions on earth. “What counts is finding each other,” she later cooes, a powerful statement of this unity of heart and mind and nations, but also underscoring the couple’s—and the film’s—continual danger of finding completion in their personal romance when all that stands outside of themselves continues to live unhappily.

This insular idyll connects deeply to American Frank Borzage’s transcendental romanticism found in the contemporaneous anti-fascist melodrama The Mortal Storm, except where Borzage sees one lover's sole sacrifice as inherent in tragic tales of true love, Ophüls’s vision is more pessimistic. This story forever has shadows on the edges of the frame surrounding the couple’s love. These shadows aren’t just the Archiduke’s threatening potential as a radical European leader, but also because, as in other fatal true stories, we begin the film and watch it closely knowing, expecting, waiting and longing for the gunshots we are confident will end the picture. The couple’s death is preordained in the success of their romance; and, in a way, so are their politics. Rather than repulse their marginalization and fight against fate’s magnet pulling them towards Sarajevo, both Archduke and Countess seem to sink into a mostly off-screen contentment that rattles no sabers over their decade and a half relationship.

So while the Austrian-Hungarian royal court is twitching in paroxysms of right-wing worry about the Archduke’s eventual ascendance to the throne, is the love of the Archduke and the Countess truly politically dangerous? Does this love predict the end of an empire? The film’s audacious montage implying serene family life but a static political situation suggests the monarchy may be worrying over nothing, that the royal couple are private liberals and public cowards. Their inaction is underscored by a drama that feels barely in the moment; it’s either unfurling into the past or gathering ominously in the future. As From Mayerling to Sarajevo is redolent with but the perfume of romance it likewise has only the flavor politics, both muffled by the atmosphere of encroaching doom: death of individuals, death of a romance, of a couple, an empire, and perhaps of a certain hope for Europe’s political future. Nevertheless, the court’s chief lackey remarks that where other countries go to war to solve their problems, Austria solves theirs with marriages. No better political policy could so deeply ensconce this odd, nebulous but provocative and gorgeous melodrama. It is a reminder that in this film and others, while Max Ophüls may seem to curl up into the past and melancholic romance, romance can indeed be considered its own form of war.

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