The Place of Theatre in the Films of Max Ophuls

Still from ‘Madame De..’ (1953), Staring Vittorio De Sica. Directed by Max Ophuls.

The films of Max Ophuls are testaments to a period of intense turmoil which transformed Europe between the early 1930s and the mid-1950. As films they are sources to the aesthetic and political tensions of the age, but also a profound reflection on the rise of cinema, particularly sound cinema, as the dominant form of popular entertainment at this time. In his essay Style and Medium in Motion Pictures, written in 1937, Erwin Panofsky has argued that the formal progress of cinema ‘offers the fascinating spectacle of an artistic medium gradually becoming conscious of its legitimate, that is, exclusive possibilities and limitations’, as it moved away from imitating older art forms such as theatre.[1] But while Panofsky was right in emphasising the importance of cinema, an examination of Max Ophuls’ films suggests a much more complex interplay between theatre and the development of cinema in this period. One in which the techniques and visual tropes of theatre still played a significant role.

During the last year of his life, in an interview with the Cahier critics Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, Ophuls repeatedly emphasised the influence which theatre had on his film career, claiming he came to his work in cinema as ‘a man of the theatre’.[2] Starting out as an actor in the years following the end of the First World War, Ophuls was first given an opportunity to direct in 1923, going on to produce nearly two hundred plays and operettas, and working across German regional theatres including Frankfurt, Cologne, and Stuttgart, before moving briefly to Vienna in 1926 and Berlin in 1928. His theatre career was one of intense variety, working in with musical theatre, comedy and also more serious political material while he was in Berlin. His adaptation literary material to film can be seen to have its roots in this intense period in regional theatre. As he said in a later interview “I come from the theatre, from the German provincial theatre, and awe and devotion to literature lie deep in my bones.”[3] Though only a brief period, Ophuls’ time working at the prestigious Burgtheatre in Vienna was to be particularly important as it was here he was likely introduced to the works of playwrights Stefan Zweig and Arthur Schnitzler, whom he later adapted to film in his ‘Viennese trilogy’; Liebelei (1932), Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948) and Le Ronde (1950).[4] Though his later direction of Zweig’s novel Letter can be put down to the producer William Dozier’s interest in the novel rather than his own, in the context of his staging of the film and his background in theatre, it is important that Ophuls had a long running association with Zweig’s theatre material, directing his adaptation of Ben Johnson’ play Volpane at the Burgtheatre in November 1926, and also Zweig’s own plays at the New Theatre in Frankfurt in 1927.[5]

Ophuls also had a particular interest in Arthur Schnitzler’s work, which he frequently returned to throughout his career. A Viennese playwright, Schnitzler had a strong association with the Burgtheatre, with his play Liebelei first staged there in 1895 and many of his productions put on at the theatre throughout the 1920s (pp. 257-283). Schnitzler himself had been surrounded in controversy as a Jewish playwright throughout the 1920s and 30s, and was explicitly branded as ‘Jewish filth’ by Hitler during the years of the Third Reich.[6] Ophuls would have known that in January 1921 the Burgtheatre had taken on a production of Schnitzler’s play Reigen, after it had been banned in Berlin at the end of the previous year for its controversial material.[7] And yet, on his return from exile in America, Ophuls explicitly chose to adapt this particular play in his film La Ronde. His value for Schnitzler was apparent early on when he adapted Leibelei, less than a year after Schnitzler’s death and months before his own exile from Germany, despite both their names being removed from the titles at its opening in Berlin.[8] Though Ophuls was obviously drawn to Schnitzler’s work and the way in which he could stage them, his film adaptations reveal something much more personal and political in these screen adaptations which had been informed by Ophuls career in theatre.

In this trilogy of Liebelei, Letter and La Ronde, Ophuls continuously returned to the setting of Vienna, particularly Vienna of the fin-de-siecle, as the perfect backdrop to convey his nostalgic visions of melodrama. The city itself iconographically exemplified a crystallised charm in its imperial past and as a theatrical reflection of a pre-modern society which had long since disappeared. In the opening sequence of La Ronde, Ophuls goes as far as to physically represent Vienna as a theatrical backdrop, the baroque buildings reduced to a static theatre set. His recurring use of Vienna, and indeed this period of the fin-de-siecle, reflected a tension and nostalgia for a fantastical vision of glamorous society on the cusp of modernity, especially in light of the humiliation and economic degradation which was being faced in the present. Yet in an interesting comment on his time in Vienna Ophuls stated, “I never really felt at home in Vienna. Fate had put me in a wonderfully golden rococo carriage, but I much rather wanted to ride a motorcycle’.[9] This quotation is intensely revealing, not only of Ophuls underlying intentions in staging so many of his films in Vienna during this period, but also an impression of the tension between the static theatricality of the old imperial world, and movement of modernity which, it could be said, is exemplified by the film camera. His films return to Vienna particularly because, as a visual topography, it enabled Ophuls to not only depict this tension between past and present, but to use this theatrical setting to convey a contrast to the mechanisms and movements associated with modernity, and with the cinema itself.

From the mid-1920s Ophuls had also been forging a side-career in radio, adapting plays, short stories and comedy in which he called his ‘literary shows’.[10] For him, the technologies which enabled sound recording were at the heart of his intention to show the ‘very age and body of the time his form and pressure’, an intention which involved all theatre, as well as radio and film as a means to adapt and convey literary material as an ‘international service for poets and literature’ (p. 183). Helmut Asper has suggested that Ophuls’ interest in the medium of cinema was only apparent after the development of ‘talkies’ which he saw as the ‘continuation of theatre.’[11] Far from causing a distinct divide between film and theatre the development of sound, in Panofsky’s words, he abolished the difference between screen acting and stage acting, enabling the two to coexist. As his early films show, music was an important aspect which this technology enabled, allowing him to explore the classical form of melodrama (melos as music), but also, as he would have known from his background in radio, to express his ideas while escaping censorship.

Both Ophuls’ earliest feature length films, The Bartered Bride (1932) and Liebelei (1933) explicitly revolve around theatrical music and portray principal characters as musicians and performers. The Bartered Bride is itself presented as a short operetta.[12] As a theatrical form of light-entertainment, this light opera form had become increasingly popular among the burgeoning German and Austrian middle-classes from the 1860s onwards, especially in Vienna and Berlin.[13] Famed for frivolity, the operetta gradually changed in the early decades of the twentieth century to become increasingly nostalgic and satirical, drawing on its historical associations with folk theatre as playwrights like Bertolt Brecht inverted its light-entertainment form to reflect more political and social struggles at the heart of Weimar society (pp.7-11). Brecht wrote many operettas and music plays for the stage during the 1920s and early 1930s. His Threepenny Opera (adapted from John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera), was made into a film in 1931, following its success on the stage, only a year before Ophuls’ directed The Bartered Bride.[14]

Valentin in 'The Bartered Bride' (

Ophuls himself would have been very familiar with operettas, working on operetta productions in Elberfeld-Bartmen between 1923-5, but also by writing his own such as Saisonausverkauf, which he first staged at the Breslau Thalia/Lobe-Theatre in 1928/9.[15] He often made explicit reference to the operetta within the dialogue of his films, including a moment in Madame de.. when André suggests they go to see Sarah Bernhardt, a famous musical theatre actress of the period, who would have been known to contemporary European audiences. Like Brecht, Ophuls saw the operetta, as a perfect form to reflect both the tastes of his bourgeois audience, but also to internally subvert their passive consumption of light-entertainment. It is interesting that in The Bartered Bride Ophuls choose to cast Karl Valentin as the circus director; a famed cabaret and circus performer who was himself a considerable influence on Brecht and acted in one of his early silent films, Mysterien Eines Friseursalons (1923).[16] Within the context of the circus performance in The Bartered Bride, Ophuls allowed comedy and music as light-entertainment while, in scenes like the political anti-government speech which Valentin makes, he presenting a much deeper political message. This dualism of entertainment and deeper political intent had its roots firmly in the culture of Weimar theatre as film makers like Ophuls chose to expand the range and audience with which they could stage these ideas.

As a film director Ophuls often chose to work with theatre actors, casting many of his early films with actors he had worked or associated with in his theatre career. Although, it could be said, the majority of actors of this period in European cinema would have had experience on the stage, due to the relative infancy of the cinematic medium, talented theatre actors were an obvious benefit when it came to Ophuls’ long tracking shots and his complicated use of choreography within staged sets. Asper has highlighted the strong parallels between Ophuls’ directorial practice with actors on set, and that of Max Reinhardt, especially on the set of his only Hollywood film Midsummers Night Dream (1935).[17] Indeed, Reinhardt’s film has been widely criticised for its theatrical, static staging. Both directors rehearsed with the actors on set before filming began, and both treated their film sets as they would have done in the theatre, showing a consistent preference for staged studio sets which allowed control of all aspects of the staging, lighting and camera movement.[18]

Staircase 1Staircase 2

Ophuls’ orchestration of the cinematic scene is greatly indebted to Reinhardt’s theatrical innovations, particularly his extensive use of staircases and shadows, which had been a prominent part of Weimar theatre and early expressionist film.[19] In one of many sequences, this can be clearly seen in Letter From An Unknown Woman in a reoccurring scene with Lisa on the stairs to Stefan’s apartment. As was common with Reinhardt’s theatre sets, Ophuls’ use of the spiral staircase and dramatic contrasts in lighting here enabled Ophuls to divide the cinematic frame, heightening the dramatic tension in these moments of emotional transition for Ophuls central female protagonist (p. 51).  In his interview with the Cahier critics, Ophuls describes himself as an avid fan of F. W. Murnau, relishing an essentially non-naturalist aesthetic in his films. As theatre director before his move to film, Murnau was famed for his early masterpiece Nosferatu (1922) and was himself heavily influenced by Reinhardt.[20] Both Murnau and Reinhardt’s influence can clearly be seen in Ophuls dramatic staging of the mise-en-scene which, in many of his films, uses dramatic lighting and multi-level sets to create drama, rather than relying on camera close-ups and post-production editing.


The expressionist influence of Reinhardt in many of Ophuls’ films exemplifies what Panofsky called the ‘dynamization of space’ and the ‘spatialization of time’; born from the innovations of stage design which had been a prominent part of the German stage in Reinhardt’s productions, but also in the work of his processor, Adolphe Appia.[21] Appia’s emphasis on what he would call the ‘living art of theatre’ had a profound impact on theatrical staging in the early Twentieth Century, especially the move from customary flat backdrops to more dynamic sets which afforded variation in height and depth of the stage, and the importance which he placed on music to create and craft space.[22] As Helmut Asper has suggested, Ophuls was himself exploring new multi-story stages during his theatre career, and furthermore these innovations in dividing the screen can be seen in his films like Lola Montes, in scenes such as Lola’s attempted escape from her mother’s match to an older man.[23] In Ophuls’ films we see a natural progression of Appia’s ideas about the theatrical space, allowing the development of camera movement to extend this dynamic initiated in the staging and bringing its relationship to the static spectator into question.

Reinhardt’s influence can also be seen in a much more literal way, in Ophuls approach to the pressures between the artistic integrity and commercial success which he encountered in the production of his films. Ophuls had worked many times in theatres with which Reinhardt had been associated, especially when in 1928 he worked at the Theatre in der Koninggratzerstrasse and the Komodienhaus in Berlin.[24]  Many commentators on Reinhardt have remarked that, unlike much of the politically radical theatre of the 1920s, he managed to be not only stylistically inventive but also commercially successful, moving between the two dominant theatrical modes at his time, expressionism and romanticism.[25] While all of Ophuls’ films have a strong modernist style, which led to intense difficulties for him in Hollywood during the 1940s; his films also display a pragmatic commercial viability which exploited the demand for sweeping romantic narratives at this time. The interesting tension between Ophuls’ style and these simple melodramatic plots can be seen as a result of expediency, especially during Ophuls’ time in Hollywood when he was forced to adapt to the commercial Hollywood system. But it could also be seen as a result of his background in regional theatre in which there would have been enormous pressure to be commercially profitable. As shown by Reinhardt’s commercial success in theatre, narratives forms such as melodrama had the ability to attract wide audiences. However, in their adaptation, and the style of their staging, a far more complex and satirical tone could be elicited which entertained and questioned the audience.

La Signora 1 La Signora 2

It was not only Ophuls’ staging which had strong associations to the Weimar theatre culture, but his very attitude to the performance of spectacle which had its roots in the Epic theatre of contemporaries like Bertolt Brecht. In what Mary Ann Doane has referred to as his ‘hyperbolic strategies’, Ophuls’ films often enacted a self-conscious reflexivity which both revelled in the excessive staging of the narrative, whilst also providing a simultaneous critique of the artifice of this spectacle and the glamour of the artificial star.[26] This hyperbolic Olphusian style can be compared to the Verfremdungseffekt (alienating effect), developed by Brecht and others within Weimar Theatre.[27] In many of his films Ophuls’ uses this alientating effect by drawing the audience’s attention to the mechanics of the cinema itself, a dislocation particularly apparent in the film La Signora de Tutti, when Gaby’s manager goes searching for her before discovering her attempted suicide. Ophuls presents this scene as one long tracking shot as the manager moves between the rooms, building dramatic tension to the point where Gaby’s body is discovered, but also distancing the spectator from the dramatic action by moving the camera between the walls, drawing attention to the construction of the set and the camera itself. Ophuls was working here with conventions of modern theatre, but it is through film and the movement of the camera that Ophuls could heighten these theatrical effects and further distort the relationship between the spectator and the object of the gaze. In the film Gaby Doriot becomes virtual, the starlet removed from reality. Her suicide, like the action of the camera in this sequence, is an escape from the confines of performance and artifice.

Ophuls’ films also often play with the neat closure of dramatic narrative which has been associated with Brecht’s Epic theatre.[28] In many of his films he seeks to undo, or at least weaken, the cathartic closure of the narrative. Though his films often end in a death or deaths of the leading romantic character, which ought to lead to a cathartic closure of the narrative, Ophuls often leaves an uneasy feeling that the problems of the narrative have not been completely resolved. This lack of an ending became more pertinent in the films towards the end of his career as he increasingly sought to subvert the expectations of closure in order to fulfill a much more disjointed, circular and self-reflexive style. This lack of a catharsis is especially visible in Ophuls’ last film Lola Montes in which Lola not only fails to die, but which ends with the camera tracking back from Lola in an animal cage as men pay to touch her hands. In an almost purgatorial sense of unending Lola is reduced to a semi-religious icon of commercial fetishism, her touch providing and ironic ‘cure’ to the audience’s desire for her death. With a sense of almost hyper self-reference Ophuls suggests, in this un-resolved ending, an innate connection between the repetitious function of theatrical performance, and the fixed, timeless role of cinema in which the film can be replayed again and again.

Liebelei (1932) The Director behind the curtain looking out at the audience in the auditorium before the opera begins.

It is not only a textual reading of Ophuls cinematic narratives which reveal his hyperbolic strategy, but also Ophuls’ use and staging of the theatre space which is intensely self-reflexive. Ophuls uses the setting of theatre, opera and the circus arena to shine a light, not on the theatrical performance, but the social performance of the theatre audience, and by association to draw the film audience’s attention to their own act of observing the drama. In Liebelei this is apparent in an interesting moment when the director behind the stage looks through the curtain, as if through a mask, at the audience as they wait for the play to start (figure 4). While only a brief glance this gesture suggests that it is the audience which is itself the subject of the gaze rather than the play itself which is never seen. Indeed, as the actor waits behind the scenes he is himself not only waiting for the play to begin, but for the narrative of the film to set itself in motion. In his analysis of the theatre in Berlin between the two wars, Brecht remarked explicitly on the use of masks in order to alienate characters, and as a barrier to empathy, which was employed throughout classical and medieval theatre (p. 192). Ophuls make explicit use of masks many times in his films as symbolic of disjuncture between reality and artifice, particularly in Le Plaisir (‘The Mask’) in which the old womaniser tries to defy his age, and remain at the centre of the social milieu by wearing a mask. In his presentation of the theatrical space, Ophuls urges the viewer to be aware of the social masks and conventions which are on display, distancing us from them, particularly in his depiction of the military in films like Liebelei and Madame de...

The theatre setting comes to represent and visualise the distinctions between class and the static hierarchies of fin-de-siècle society. In Liebelei Ophuls stages this in the difference between Christine and Mitzi’s crowded gallery and the officer’s in the stalls, and further by Christine’s transgression of these social boundaries by dropping her opera glasses. Yet while the baroque glamour of the auditorium comes to mirror the social structures of the old world, Ophuls exaggerates the iconographic contrast with his portrayal of the backstage, which comes to represent a more modern, mobile society. Behind the stage becomes the place in which this performative stasis is transfigured, and in where social hierarchies are transgressed. It is recurring setting for lovers of different social classes to meet; for example Mitzi and Theo in Liebelei, and the King of Bavaria seeing Lola behind the stage in Lola Montes. Ophuls continually connects the backstage scenes with technology and mechanical iconography, reminding the viewer of the construction of the theatrical spectacle, and as a metaphor for cinema.  Ophuls explicitly suggests this in the scene from Letter From An Unknown Woman, where Stefan and Lisa are in an artificial train carriage as a theatrical painted backdrop is mechanically turned to give the illusion of movement (figure 6). This scene was not intrinsic to the narrative, but instead illustrates this hyperbolic modernist style in which Ophuls could draw on theatrical sets to express, in a very Brechtian way, the mechanics of the screen and of the camera.

Ophuls’ last film, Lola Montes (1955), is particularly important to understanding how the theatre space is used. While this essay has predominantly focused the influence of German and Austrian theatre and film, the film also expresses a deep connection with French films like Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945), which also fed into a tradition of staging mime actors and the association between circus in romantic melodrama. In this film, Ophuls once again returned to the circus setting which he had used in The Bartered Bride. Despite being his last film, Lola was one of Ophuls’ most complex and experimental films, not only because of its move to cinemascope and colour film, but for its complex interweaving of multiple narratives and time periods as it tells the story of Lola’s life not only as a flashback within a circus performance, but as a circus performance within a film.[29] Throughout the film Ophuls plays with the audiences’ expectation by continually distorts the linear narrative allowing him to make the performance of the story almost grotesque and hollow in its repetition and self-referential slapstick performance in the circus space. In an interesting innovation with the framing, Ophuls chose to mount curtains around the camera itself which partially open and close creating a blurred framing to the action. In a direct reference to curtains at the theatre, Ophuls often used velvet curtains within his sets, in scenes such as the Lisa and Stefan’s lobster dinner in Letter; and in the ironic stage set in the opening scene of La Ronde. However, in Lola Montes he almost takes this feature out of the interior cinematic set, and makes it part of the mechanical construction of the moving image, distancing the viewer from the spectacle. In this still image, he not only suggests the ‘opening’ of the screen by this cinematic curtain, but also creates a montage, distorting present and past.

Lola Montes cage
Lola Montes (1955) Lola in the closing shot as the camera tracks backwards on her in an animal cage.

Throughout his film career Ophuls’ films play with the conventions of the cinema screen itself, enacting cinematic screens within theatrical space. This is particularly true in Lola Montes when two wrestlers’ mock fight behind the screen at the circus, before one breaks through the screen into the arena itself and becoming essentially ‘real’. While Panofsky’s argues that cinema was from the 1930s was becoming aware of itself as a distinct art, it is also clear from the role of theatre in Ophuls’ films that the limitations of the cinematic screen are also in question. Not only does the theatre or circus become a setting in which Ophuls can reflect society, but is also used by Ophuls as a metaphor for film. While Ophuls’ style and use of the cinematic medium necessarily evolved throughout his career, showing a greater sense of style afforded by the movement of the camera and the circular narratives which he could explore in film, it is clear that Ophuls saw theatre and cinema as inherently interrelated. In the very last months of his life Ophuls had returned to working in theatre and was trying to get his production of Der Tolle Tag made for German television.[30] Essentially, he saw the great technological developments of film, radio and later television all as platforms on which he could portray the ‘age and body of his time’; a way of staging great literary material to the widest audience, as ‘a kind of international service for poets and literature’ (p. 183).

[1] Erwin Panofsky, ‘Style and Medium in the Motion Pictures’ in Three Essays on Style edited by Irving Lavin (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), p. 108.

[2] Jacques Rivette and Francois Truffaut, ‘Interview with Max Ophuls’ in Ophuls edited by Paul Willemen (London: British Film Institute, 1978 ), p. 15.

[3] Helmut G. Asper, ‘From Stage to Screen: The Impact of the German Theater on Max Ophüls’ in The Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 5 (2005), p. 185.

[4] Alexandrea Seibel, Vienna, Girls and Jewish Authorship: Topographies Of A Cinematic City, 1920-1940 (New York: New York University, 2009),p. 121.

[5] John Willett, The Theatre of the Weimar Republic (London: Holmes & Meier, 1988), p. 271.

[6] Seibel, p. 122.

[7] Willett, The Theatre of the Weimar Republic, p. 261.

[8] Willemen, pp. 4-5.

[9] Seibel, p. 122.

[10] Willemen, p. 3.

[11] Ophuls quoted from his autobiography Spiel im Dasein in Asper, p. 183.

[12] Willemen, p. 4.

[13] Camille Crittenden, Johann Strauss and Vienna: Operetta and the Politics of Popular Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 7-11 and p.261.

[14] Bertolt Brecht, ‘The Literalization of Theatre (Notes on the Threepenny Opera)’ in Brecht on Theatre: The Development Of An Aesthetic, edited and translated by John Willett (London: Metheun, 1964), pp. 43-46.

[15] Asper, p. 190.

[16] W. Stuart McDowell, ‘A Brecht-Valentin Production: Mysteries of a Barbershop’, Performing Arts Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Winter, 1977), p. 5.

[17] Panofsky describes Reinhardt’s Midsummers Night Dream as ‘the most unfortunate major film ever produced’ for its use of theatrical gesture rather than, in his opinion, the more superior close-up, p. 102; and Asper, p. 192.

[18] Asper, p. 192.

[19] Lotte H.Eisner, The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influences of Max Reinhardt (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), p. 119.

[20] Willemen, p. 15.

[21] Panofsky, p. 96.

[22] Appia, Adolphe, Adoplphe Appia: Texts on Theatre, edited by Richard Beacham (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 9-12.

[23] Asper, p. 192.

[24] Willett, The Theatre of the Weimar Republic, p. 220.

[25] Michael Patterson, The Revolution in German Theatre 1900-1933 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 32.

[26] Mary Ann Doane, Femme Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory and Psychoanalysis (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 128.

[27] Willett, Brecht on Theatre, p. 192.

[28] Willett, Brecht on Theatre, pp. 22-3.

[29] Masao Yamagucchi, ‘For an Archaeology of Lola Montes’ in Willemen , p. 61.

[30] Asper, p. 197.

This piece was written in 2013 by Bea Moyes as part of a Masters course led by Professor Laura Mulvey and Dr Lee Grieveson on the films of Max Ophuls. All rights belong to Bea Moyes.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s