"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 22, 2012

"Liebelei" (1933) by Max Ophuls (Film review)

Liebelei, made by Max Ophuls in 1933 in Germany, was the first characteristic film of the great director. Like the later La Ronde, it was based on a play by the Austrian author Arthur Schnitzler (see my post on Schnitzler's short stories). Superficially, the story is a rather common melodrama: a young lieutenant, Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner), has an affair with a baroness but falls in love with a musician's daughter, Christine (Magda Schneider). Although he breaks with the baroness, her husband challenges him to a duel. He is killed and the girl commits suicide.

Interesting is the way this story has been filmed:
  • Take the long scene where Fritz accompanies Christine home after he has just met her. Almost in silence, they walk through a snowy Vienna. This was an early "talkie," but Ophuls has the good sense to use words sparingly here. Almost imperceptibly, as they walk on, Christine’s face begins to reflect happiness as she awakens to love. Silence can be more pregnant than words. 
  • A remarkably long shot is also present in the love scene of Christine and Fritz. Filmed at an outside location, they glide in a sleigh through a realistic snow-covered wood, pledging eternal romance:   "I swear that I love you, for all eternity." 
  • There are two interesting, contrasting waltz scenes set close together: at a café, the two lovers waltz to music from a coin-operated Victrola, feeling as if they are in heaven - and at the Baron's mansion, a full orchestra blazes forth as Fritz mechanically dances with the Baroness, a woman he is no longer interested in. 
  • A recurring threatening figure is that of the Baron with his monocle, just watching, icily.
  • A great final sequence is the one where Fritz' friend Theo, his girlfriend Mizzi and Christine's father sit opposite Christine at the entrance of her chamber, trying to inform her about her lover's death. Christine is shown in close-up and we see that she realizes what has happened, and also starts to think that Fritz perhaps never loved her as he has died in a duel for another woman (an understandable misunderstanding). Her face finally expresses pure desolation. 
The theme of the film (and the in its time very popular play) is universal: misplaced male honor - in poultry terms, I would call this the "cock syndrome." In this setting that leads to a duel, today it could give rise a different form of revenge. Fritz' friend Theo tries to break through this fixed, violent pattern and have the top brass call off the duel (without success). The words he uses here were very courageous for the time and place the film was made, Germany 1933: "Every shot not fired in self-defense is murder!"
Based on the play "Liebelei" by Arthur Schnitzler. 
Other films by Max Ophuls reviewed in this blog: Letter from an Unknown WomanCaught - La Ronde - The Earrings of Madam de...