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The Tragic Romance of Max Ophüls’ "Liebelei"

Secretive private passions and illicit romances abound in Max Ophüls last film made in Germany before the Second World War.
MUBI is showing Max Ophüls' Liebelei (1933) from November 9 - December 8, 2016 in most countries around the world.
While the primary players in Max Ophüls’ 1933 film Liebelei may be introduced at the same opera house, seeing the same performance of Mozart’s “The Abduction from the Seraglio,” the real drama is produced away from the stage, though it is rarely any less histrionic. As secretive private passions and illicit romances are revealed, so softly and elegantly in what would become the presentational norm for Ophüls, a genuinely pure, ultimately heartbreaking, relationship emerges from the scandalous furor. When philandering German Lieutenant Fritz Lobheimer (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) meets and falls for Christine Weyring (Magda Schneider), the daughter of an opera musician, he is commendably quick to break off his essentially lustful involvement with the adulterous Baroness von Eggersdorff (Olga Tschechowa). Unlike Arthur Schnitzler’s source play (Schnitzler, who would also provide the foundation for Ophüls’ excellent 1950 film, La ronde), this film version amps up the tragedy of the ordeal by having Fritz truly enamored with Christine, rather than depicting their relationship as a typically—for Fritz—one-sided fling. Unfortunately for all involved, however, even if his affair with the baroness has come to an end, the scorned Baron von Eggersdorff (Gustaf Gründgens) remains bitterly jealous.
It would seem this type of amorous misbehavior is par for the course with this particular circle of Viennese officers. Fritz and his compatriot chum, Theo (Carl Esmond), are used to boozy, flirtatious shenanigans, and during one carousing evening, while the former initially shows little interest in the comparatively chaste Christine, the latter gleefully engages with the rather naughtier Mizzi Schlager (Luise Ullrich). Though their relationship also becomes charming in its own way, when Theo advises Fritz to “choose a Mizzi,” adding that it is simpler, his crude comment attests to the ardent starting point of these sexually robust soldiers: They’re not after a specific girl, just a specific kind of girl.
In the fictional setting of 1910 Vienna, these boys and others like them have apparently been behaving badly for some time, and are mildly reprimanded by the concerned higher-ups. In the real Germany of 1933, when Liebelei was released, the depiction of frivolity in uniform raised the ire of watchful Nazi eyes, who did not appreciate the soldiers gone wild waywardness. The Jewish Ophüls also had his name forcefully removed from the picture, and that the film even survives is something of a miracle.
Despite their dubious manner of introduction, and the fact that the fortuitous pairing of Fritz and Christine originally bore no interest for either party, a love still grows. After Fritz merely offers to escort the young lady home (exposing a latent gallantry), the two walk down beautifully lit, snow-covered alleyways—a backdrop that can’t help but be romantic—and their basically speechless stroll produces an instant change in his behavior and sparks the consequent courtship. From there, like this initiating promenade home, their short but sweet harmony is gloriously rendered in primarily visual terms, from a horse-drawn sleigh ride, serenely navigating a luxurious wintery wonderland, to the faint yet revealing expressions of Liebeneiner (his transfixed boyish happiness) and Schneider (her sweetly scrunched-up smile). But when dialogue matters, it, too, is given prominence, most significantly Christine’s adoring statement, “I’ll love you for all eternity,” an assertion painfully revived at the film’s conclusion.
As just Ophüls’ third feature, Liebelei contains much that would foretell the director's characteristic aesthetic. At the same time, the far more seasoned cinematographer Franz Planer also contributes significantly to the film’s crisp, opulent photography. A graceful camera floats amidst ornamental sets, the stealthy maneuvering itself almost musical, a visual waltz of crane shots and dollies, but the movements mean little if there isn’t something worth looking at, or people worth watching. Ophüls and Planer take their time taking it all in: the facial revelations of the characters, their exchanges, a firm sense of space. The form may at times rise above content—an overhead maneuver descending vertically down the length of a long table as men discuss the latest scandal—but just as often, the imagery is at the service of its emotive content.
It’s not just elaborately undulating camera movements that define Ophüls’ visual inventiveness (though that is certainly a plus with his brand of cinema); the camera also holds or slowly pushes in, the importance of a single take placed on performance as well as stylistic flourish. Following the decreed duel between the baron and Fritz, after Theo pleads his case in defense of his friend contending it is an “old affair...from another world,” two of the most powerful single images in Liebelei, indeed in all of Ophüls’ cinema, bare no mobility whatsoever: The first, when the camera rests on Theo and Mizzi as they await Fritz’s return fire, and moments later, when Christine is framed in agonizing close-up, barely able to form a cogent sentence as she is told that shot never came.
Soon after production on Liebelei, Ophüls left for Paris, directing 10 films in a handful of countries before eventually heading to Hollywood in 1941. He was hardly alone in this wartime career trajectory. Esmond, with whom the director would again work on Lola Montès (1955), likewise made his way to California, starring as typecast German figures in Sergeant York (1941) and in fellow emigre Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear (1944), and Planer would see the first of his five Oscar nominations only after he also arrived in America. Liebelei is an excellent film, if not quite on par with some of Ophüls’ more polished work, particularly his final half-dozen or so features. But it does leave one to wonder what form his already evident talents would have taken had the surrounding sociopolitical situation been different. Still, the movie stands on its own merits. As critic Jesús Cortés notes, “Liebelei contains many elements that were developed in Ophüls’ later films, but we shouldn’t call it a sketch–Ophüls’ achievement here is considerable.” 

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