I was initially worried after seeing La Signora di tutti (Italy, 1935) that Ophüls’ earlier films would be as unconvincing as that was, all incredibly inspired camerawork and staging, but all sadly foiled by inadequate acting and a storytelling not up to the level of sophistication as the director’s mysterious flashback structures. Thankfully Liebelei, the director’s German film of 1933, is almost up to the level of Ophüls’ acclaimed post-Hollywood films, a film intoxicated by romance and by its loss, rendered with an energetic lilt and a refined sadness.
A philandering lieutenant (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) in—where else?—1900 Vienna, already garnering a reputation of unsavory sexual liaisons in the barracks, decides to forgo adultery after meeting a young, innocent girl (Magda Schneider). Ophüls devilishly directs their pseudo-first date, the lieutenant walking the girl home after his buddy and her friend obviously head off to spend an evening together, as a silent and self-absorbed walk home in the snow, with little crackle and chemistry between the two. Yet they are smitten, and soon reveal their love to each other, especially during a glorious sleigh ride through a landscape positively bowed under a dense blanket of snow—miraculously shot on location and not faked by this director who so loves artifice in the drama! Yet such idylls are not meant to last in the work of this most fateful of directors, and the offended husband of the lieutenant’s early conquest figures out what’s going on right as the young officer is calling off that flimsy relationship for something more pure. As is the custom, a duel is demanded, and the outlook for the couple dims in the last act as death may keep each lover apart from the other.
Liebelei generally forgoes the overly elaborate camerawork and shocking long takes of La Signorra di tutti, but exchanges them for a grander mise-en-scène, a film-world more in touch with emotional assuredness and expression. Stylistically, Ophüls does this through very slow dollies into key scenes (almost as slow as that famous near-final shot in Antonioni’s The Passenger!) and keeping certain information off-screen, most notably that fateful duel between the lieutenant and his offended Baron, and most devastatingly during the admission of a lover’s death. At this climax the camera hangs onto the reaction of the survivor with a sublime empathy and dedication, as she hears and responds to the news delivered off-camera. A multitude of other sophistications are to be found in the film (certainly noteworthy and unusual, the carryover of real classical music, here Beethoven, from a scene where it is diegetic, being played by a symphony on-camera, to overlaying the drama of the following scenes as soundtrack music), but enumerating them probably won’t express the film’s lovingly insular, fated romantic atmosphere. Gustaf Gründgens, in a mostly silent role as the justly angry Baron is particularly spectacular; a quote from an IMDb reviewer is too good to not end this post on: “he is acting mainly only with looks, with stringent, frigid looks, that whoosh across the room like bullets.” Indeed, and Schneider’s looks of love, ones so potent that they can only foreshadow the dedication of such a pure lover, foreshadow actions that, like in a Frank Borzage film, will hopefully unite lovers wrested apart by the outside world.