I’ve blogged a little before about Ophuls and LOLA MONTES, but somehow never got around to quoting Peter Ustinov’s frothy, smart memoir Dear Me. Time to make up for that:
The film of LOLA MONTES was destined to become a classic. There were precious few signs of this destiny during its making. Max Ophüls was a rara avis alright, a German giggler, who lived in his own particular stratosphere of subtlety, and who protected himself against the intrusion of philistine into his private world by a grotesque and wonderful perversity. When I had the sad honour of writing his obituary for the Guardian, I wrote that he had the gift of manufacturing the smallest wrist-watch ever known, and would subsequently insist on suspending it from a cathedral so that passers-by could tell the time.
The new ‘letter-box’ format of Cinemascope was imposed on him for commercial reasons by the producers, but he whispered to me with the glee of a court jester that he had found a way of cheating them, and reverting the beloved intimacy of the small screen.
‘How?’ I asked, thinking he must have found some contractual loophole.
He held his hands up, far apart, and brought them slowly closer to one another.
‘Two pieces of black velvet,’ he whispered, and roared with uncontrollable laughter at the simplicity of his act of sabotage.
Max was the first poet of bad taste, in that he was the first to exploit Art Nouveau as a thing of beauty and style, not merely as a curiosity, the visible cancer of a decadent and dying society, as my generation was brought up to believe it to be. He saw in its asymmetrical outbursts elements of controlled imagination which were eminently cinematic, and to borrow an idea from Calder, he made them mobiles with his camera, which never tired of laying pictorial ambushes for the human face.
In his endless search for subtlety, he would ask you to register hatred or brutality without changing the expression of your face, and then plunge you into shafts of darkness, or shoot you through a metal banister or a net curtain to obliterate every effect except your presence. He was a dictator in the image of a Prussian Junker, who found the most irresistible of all comic creations in the world, the Junkers of Prussia. His father had been a military tailor in Saarbrücken called Oppenheimer, who, like the Jewish tailor in Zuckmayer’s Der Hauptmann von Köpenick, kept barking at his studious son to stand up, with his shoulders well back.
‘Halt dich gerade, halt dich gerade, sonst kommst du nie zum Militär!’ (Stand up, stand up, or you’ll never make it in the army!)
(In Ophüls’ LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, Joan Fontaine’s stepfather is a military tailor. — DC)
The old man was shrewder politically than the majority of officers he fitted. He believed none of the military optimism of the time that the war would be a short one, and since some cavalry regiments wore black trousers, Max remembered him calling up to his assistants — “Fix red stripes on all our tuxedo trousers, this war’s going to go on a long time.’
Unfortunately he could not be expected to know that the cavalry would last a much shorter time than the war.
…Returning to the subject of LOLA MONTES, Ustinov recollects:
A most Germanic idea occurred to him during the huge circus scene. They rhythm of Georges Auric’s lilting score taken up by a series of dwarfs and Lilliputians, moving up and down on ropes like pistons or like wooden horses on a gigantic roundabout. (The real Lola Montez never worked in a circus — DC) The dwarfs were fairly comfortable, unless any of them happened to suffer from vertigo, because their massive torsos were firmly implanted in the leather harnesses. The Lilliputians were less serene, however, since they were perfectly formed miniature people, and they had some difficulty remaining immobile in belts which had been patently designed for dwarfs. One Lilliputian began to slip dangerously, and the belt tried to become a collar, only his arms prevented him from either sliding right through, and dropping some thirty or forty feet, or else being strangled. The pathetic cries of his tiny voices could be barely heard over the caressing waltz. There was a general movement of consternation, nipped in the bud by Max’s rasping imitation of a Prussian warlord.
‘Lass die Zwerge hängen!’ (Let the dwarfs hang.) I looked at him, appalled. He felt my presence, glanced at me with a guilty grin, and dissolved into his uncontrollable fit of silent laughter, taking the time to shout ‘Cut!’ The point was, he had his shot.