Ophüls. During 2011 and 2012 I saw all of Ophüls’ available films (his early pre ww2 German films are largely unavailable or lost). After leaving his homeland (Germany) he made a few films in Hollywood like Lang and other German defectors and then from 50-55 (just before he died, at age 55) made 4 films in a 6 year period in France- those films are MS, MP, MP, and MP.  Sadly, he died with two top 100 all-time films as the last two films on his resume. I think he was the best director in the world during this time along with Kurosawa and Ozu. His filmography ranks him about 18th and he’s certainly a style-plus director. I get to more below in stylistic innovations/traits but Ophüls is one of the great movers of the camera in cinema history- his camera floats. His absolute dedication to the aesthetic help puts him here. He’s as connected to the tracking shot as Eisenstein is to the montage.

Best film:  The Earrings of Madame de… It’ll blow you away. I’ve got it as the second best film of 1953 (it unfortuitously comes out the same year as Ozu’s best film Tokyo Story). PT adores Ophüls and calls him “the master of the tracking shot”. The camera glides. The film is brisk with no fat. There are dual meanings throughout perfectly marrying style and form. It opens with a stunning 5-minute opening shot, has dancing scenes with tracking and crane shots we won’t see again until maybe Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice. The film isn’t all style either- it’s a brilliant meditation on fate- like almost all of his work.

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beautiful framing in Earrings of Madame De… you can see this same shot from PT Anderson in The Master framing PSH’s face
you’re watching Ophuls track an object instead of a person in many scenes- revelatory

total archiveable films:  8

top 100 films: 2 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes)

top 500 films: 6 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, Letter From an Unknown Woman, La Ronde, The Reckless Moment)

top 100 films of the decade: 7 (The Earrings of Madame De…, Lola Montes, Le Plaisir, Letter From an Unknown Woman, La Ronde, The Reckless Moment, Liebelei)

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before he went to France in 1950 he did solid work in Hollywood- this is from one of his best in that era- The Reckless Moment- great framing work here

most overrated:  Letter From an Unknown Woman. I’ve seen it twice and had it as a MS the first time and a weaker MP the second. It’s a wonderful film but I have it as his 4th best film (essentially tied for 4th) and TSPDT has it as his #2 film only slightly behind Madame De (#117 and #122 (I’ve got this at #250) respectively). Ophüls is just a bolder artist than this film would lead you to believe.

most underrated :  Take your pick, I mean the only ones I don’t think are underrated are Letter From an Unknown Woman and Caught (simple recommend), So literally I think his other 6 films are pretty grossly underrated. If I had to single one out it would be La Ronde which somehow isn’t even in the top 1000 on TSPDT—I have it at #317.

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the camera absolutely floats in La Ronde- the film that started Ophuls best stretch

gem I want to spotlight: Lola Montes. Andrew Sarris, the critic and author who I adore, called it the best film ever made (ok, yes he said this about a few films). It is Ophüls’ only color film and widescreen film and he takes full advantage of both.

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it’s not all camera movement as Lola Montes would prove-
making the most out of both his only color and his only widescreen film in Lola Montes
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a perfect shot- again from Lola Montes

stylistic innovations/traits:   In many ways Ophüls is the perfect example of style over substance so it’s not surprising I like him more than the consensus. On the surface, his films are romantic costume period pieces (at least his French era films). The exact kind of film in France during the era the French new wave leaders were rebelling against (I have no idea whether they admired or hated Ophüls but when I’ve read about the New Wave they were mostly looking to America with Nicholas Ray and Minnelli—I know they liked Melville domestically).  First and foremost he’s one of the absolute masters of the tracking shot and moving the camera—a Mount Rushmore figure there from Murnau to Ophüls to now maybe Cuaron. He has been championed for his work with feminism and women’s pictures. His films most often meditated on fate (hello Coen Brothers) and tragedy. I’ll end with a Sarris quote. “Ophüls is, like all great directors, inimitable, and if all the dollies and cranes in the world snap to attention when his name is mentioned, it is because he gave camera movement its finest hours in the history of the cinema.” – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968).

a carousel randomness, fate, movement- making for a perfectly aligned narrative, theme and aesthetic

top 10

  1. The Earrings of Madame De…
  2. Lola Montes
  3. Le Plaisir
  4. Letter from an Unknown Woman
  5. La Ronde
  6. The Reckless Moment
  7. Liebelei
  8. Caught
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Ophuls’ singular masterpiece, even if Lola Montes gives it a run for its money

By year and grades

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from his pre-war German period- the promise of a talented filmmaker who missed years there, then died early at age 54 after three masterpieces in a row
1932- Liebelei HR
1948- Letter From Unknown Woman MP
1949- Caught R
1949- The Reckless Moment MS
1950- La Ronde MS
1952- Le Plaisir MP
1953- The Earrings of Madame De… MP
1955- Lola Montes MP


*MP is Masterpiece- top 1-3 quality of the year film

MS is Must-see- top 5-6 quality of the year film

HR is Highly Recommend- top 10 quality of the year film

R is Recommend- outside the top 10 of the year quality film but still in the archives