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Filmmakers Marcel Ophuls: A Course in Resistance

Dialogue: Marcel Ophuls with Phillip Lopate

  • Retrospective:November 4–27, 1992
  • Regional Premiere: Novembertage: Stimmen und Wege (November Days)

Marcel Ophuls is a Socratic philosopher with a camera, a gadfly who prods the world with embarrassing questions. The gist of Ophuls’ philosophy can be absorbed in the overall effect of his noble, engrossing, and marvelously entertaining historical inquiries. Argument and counterargument, apology and misgiving follow each other, until the viewer is left with a broader, if more perplexed, wisdom of how complicated the past is.

History records other father-son filmmakers (the Oswalds, the Tourneurs) but none so major as Max and Marcel Ophuls. The father cornered the market on bittersweet Viennese eroticism, graceful camera movements, and female sensibility in films such as Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), La Ronde (1952), and The Earrings of Madame de… (1953). The son staked out other territory: violence, guilt, memory, the nature of evil, the deeds of leaders of little men. His first masterpiece, The Sorrow and the Pity, showed daily life in a historical furnace—Nazi occupied France—and how choices made under those circumstances continued to haunt the people involved, decades later. A Sense of Loss explored the tragic collision course of moral claims in the Irish conflict; The Memory of Justice wove together the Nuremberg trials, Algeria, and Vietnam to ask in what sense war crimes can be punished. Hotel Terminus started with the guilt of Nazi official Klaus Barbie and uncovered an amazing web of old-boy networks and spheres of mutual protection all over the globe.

Ophuls is curious about the way things connect: the chains of casual events. Skeptical, restless, humane, ironic, humorous when the situation allows, he lets civility and tolerance take him as far as they can, after which he is up against the cliffside of the incomprehensible. Indeed, all his work revolves around the limits of tolerance and liberal-democratic values in this ferocious century. He is a collector, a loving archivist of the detritus of civilization in upheaval. And he is an explorer: the émigré who can fit in everywhere yet seems not quite at home anywhere. More and more, Ophuls appears as a character in his own films; mocking the illusion of objectivity, he adjusts his persona from that of the quintessentially kind, cultured European to the angry prosecutor and/or impish provocateur. (See his mischievous baiting of the spymaster Markus Wolf in the most recent film, November Days.)

There are two facets to the documentarist’s art: first, fetching the materials—research, filming; second, assembling and editing. Much as Ophuls has excelled at the former, he has transformed the latter, with symphonic, monumental constructions unique in the history of documentary film. Questions of length and scale are pushed to the limit. For how do you know, in dealing with complex historical materials, when you have come to the final truth? There is always someone else the events impacted on: a neighbor who saw the convoy take off, a chauffeur of the bigwig general. Tenderly, patiently, he gets them talking.

Ophuls is preoccupied with the dynamics of rationalization. Self-excuse is classically a comic theme, as Woody Allen’s movies show; but Ophuls’ camera uncovers the darker, more rueful consequence of lying to oneself. Beyond the unmasking of his interviewees, he challenges the audience. He seems to want us to grasp that we are all, finally, residents of the Hotel Terminus.

─Phillip Lopate

Phillip Lopate is a novelist, poet, critic, and holds the Adams Chair at Hofstra University, where he is Professor of English. He has written about movies for The New York Times, Vogue, Esquire, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cinemabook__, Threepenny Review, Tikkun, American Film, and the anthology The Movie That Changed My Life, among others. A volume of his selected movie criticism, Totally Tenderly Tragically, was published by Doubleday-Anchor in 1998. He is currently editing a massive anthology of American film criticism, from the silent era to today, for Harcourt-Brace.

Marcel Ophuls