1.  When Toni D’Angela asked me to write something on Ophuls for this issue of La Furia Umana (Tuesday, March 13, 2011), Miriam Bratu Hansen had recently died (Friday, February 4, 2011).  Miriam was a real Ophulsian.  She was a professional more than a personal friend, but every so often she would call me to ask, for example:  “Do you have a tape of the German Liebelei?  Or Lachende Erben?”  I usually had what she wanted, and said I would put them in the mail.  The subject changed.  She always updated me about her ovarian cancer, which she had had so long that I think we all believed it would never kill her.  But death came.  Some of her last words were “Ich sterbe.”  An echo of the end of Madame de:  “Elle meurt!”  The shifter signifies.

Der Tod ist eine Seinsmöglichkeit, die je das Dasein selbst zu übernehmen hat. Mit dem Tod steht sich das Dasein selbst in seinem eigensten Seinkönnen bevor. (Sein und Zeit, 250)

Miriam’s web page is still active.  Alive.  On it, future projects are arrested in motion:

I also have been teaching and writing about the notion of cinema as a form of "vernacular modernism," exploring that concept in both its historical and transnational dimensions.  This project evolved in part from my earlier work on literary and artistic modernism, in part from a course (team-taught with Bill Brown) on "Modernity and the Sense of Things" (Eng 292/692 / CMST 274). A related project focuses on the work of exile directors in Hollywood (Max Ophuls, Paul Fejos, Billy Wilder) and their aesthetic-ethnographic critique of American society and the culture industry.

A digital recollection of Miriam begs the question, is cinema more living or dead now that you are gone?


I feel the pulse of your digital presence if I click on a link and it connects.


2. My grief for Miriam took its circuit through the cycles of mourning that lie just beneath the surface of Ophuls’ films, almost imperceptibly enfolding the spectator.  Liebelei opens and closes on partings: first is Fritz leaving behind the chagrined Baroness, whose sorrow is that of the frivolous woman, so lovingly filmed in Madame de . . ., the camera less loving here, I think—but this breaking off has its deadly aftermath.  Fritz’s love affair with Christina, a love so fresh and young, always already marked by loss:  as the film opens, Fritz’s cap falling on the floor at the opera, struck off by the girls’ opera glasses, opening the tragedy.  Later, the baby gloves Mitzi doesn’t have at her shop (Miriam’s work on Kracauer’s little shop girls), anticipating a future tense where Christina and Fritz will have no time to create a family—off-screen, pre-destined, pre-mourned, a pair of empty gloves.  No gloves at all.  (A pair of earrings found in a glove.)  An empty window from which Christina has already jumped, its emptiness crying out to a widowed father.  Music fading from the air.  The little friend whose loss of virtue is covered by gaity.  A few years later, with Komedie om Geld, Ophuls makes a film about the emptiness of wealth, about lost money, a lost daughter, a lost career—echoes of Der Letzte Mann—all recovered in the miraculous ending, ergo the comedy.  A 1936 film directed in Holland by Ophuls, after he and his family left Germany upon the burning of the Reichstag in 1933, Liebelei still in theaters, still on the marquee.


3.  About loss, about the archive, and early Ophuls:  my dissertation on Ophuls was in the process of becoming a book (a book that sold poorly—who knows Ophuls in the U.S.?). Philosopher of language George Wilson directed my dissertation, his pristine intelligence finding no contradiction in the radically different (from his) field of feminist film theory. We loved and love Ophuls.  Then I went to Europe in 1988 to see the films that only existed then in archival prints.  In East Berlin, whose wall marked loss and fear, gone now with the Cold War and all its weird comforts, I watched Lachende Erben  on a flatbed, struggling with the 1930s German, as the stolid archivist ran the film.  Suddenly I understood nothing:  people were on a boat, protagonists incomprehensibly changed. Tears rolled down my cheeks—I was inadequate to the work on Ophuls—what was I thinking?  Then the taciturn woman running the film broke out of her taciturnity:  “Rolle sieben fehlt!  Rolle sieben fehlt!”  She had put on reel seven from another ‘30s film, the Ophuls reel apparently lost (maybe forever) behind the Iron Curtain.  I was happy.  And the heirs in the film were happy (“laughing”) because theirs was not an ancestor to grieve, but one who lives on as a bon vivant through his recorded voice, urging dissipation on his nephew (Heinz Rühmann).


4. We feel each death as singular, and yet, of course, every death is a repetition.  Evelyn’s suicidal leap into the Seine, played by the twice doomed Edwige Feuillère; she was also the Countess Sophie Chotek in De Mayerling à Sarajevo, riding toward the assassination that would launch a war); La Signora di Tutti’s Gabby goingunder the anesthesia mask, never to awaken from her tormented flashback; Stefan’s last glimpse of the roses that came every year, out of the abyss of the unknown.  Stefan walking out the door, wrapped in a mystical moment and facing a certain death, the already grieving John watching him;, mute Louise de . . . hearing the shot that soumds Donati’s death—there is only a moment of grief, as she dies instants later, clutching the tree that represents the natural world, her nanny’s heart breaking.  That monument of transcendent puppy love, Werther, its self-indulgence nurtured in Ophuls’ film like a small bird.  The lovemaking in La Ronde, a series of couples embracing sexuality-as-death merrily, drunkenly, or in the deadly stillness of marriage.


5. [...] c'est le monde même, une certaine origine du monde, la sienne sans doute mais celle aussi du monde dans lequel j'ai vécu [...]; c'est un monde qui est pour nous le monde, le seul monde, et qui sombre dans un gouffre dont aucune mémoire — même si nous gardons la mémoire, et nous garderons la mémoire — ne pourra le sauver ». Grâce à l'ami, le monde, et notre monde, se sera ouvert de manière tout à fait unique et infinie, “mortellement infinie.”  Comment s'acquitter d'une telle dette?   (Claude Lévesque cites Derrida, Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde; The Work of Mourning/Le travail du deuil )[1]

I think am writing about a kind of friendship.  Michel de Montaigne: “O mes amis, il n'y a nul amy” ("O my friends, there is no friend").  Fritz and Theo are fast friends in Liebelei, one friend always doomed to die before the other, one lover before the other—even if it is just a hushed breath between the end of a letter and a duel, or the sound of the shot and a woman’s heart failure, the lover knows of the death, experiences it completely.  Friendless (despite the Bavarian student’s offer, such a young Oscar Werner, or the ringmaster’s concerned yearning),[2] Lola Montès didn’t have the luxury of death.  Everything died for Lola when she left Bavaria, torn away from her love by a revolution, a revolution centered around her unveiled genitals. But death won’t come in the circus despite the bad heart.  She has to go round and round in the circles that for Ophuls marked an eternal return, the tracks of a dolly, the cycle of consumption, a circus inhabited not just by Lola but by a baited bear, a bartered bride who circulates like the money in Komedie om Geld, ironic Ophuls making fun of the invented Jew fixated on money.  The circulation of Ophuls videos. Miriam’s story: born on April 28, 1949, the daughter of Jewish parents who had survived the war in exile (nota bene) and met afterward on returning to Germany (NY Times Feb. 12, 2011), where Miriam was born.  Ophuls returned to Germany for Lola and died there two years later.


6.  My friend Lutz Bacher and I put white roses on Ophuls gravesite in the Père Lachaise cemetery on the centennial of his birth.  Did we have the right to make such a gesture, staking some kind emotional claim on Ophuls?  I always felt like a poor vessel, or conduit perhaps, for the meticulous director.  I could never achieve his lightness. But over the course of my life I did interiorize him, my version of him, perhaps not as Lisa introjected Stefan, but in some other way that I have never really understood.  May I claim him as “my dead”?  Does that constitute a kind of friendship?  The claiming of the dead as mine, as ours, can tear the hearts out of the living.[3]


7.  Among my dead may I also count Thierry Kuntzel?  In the simplest way I want to tell you that I learned to see when he showed us Browning’s Freaks, the opening scene where the crowd is looking in horror at the slut become freakish creature (like Lola in the circus).  At this moment I saw the images that set up the entire film.  It all came upon me at once, like Stefan’s final vision of Lisa as he walks out the courtyard.  When he was young and full of promise Thierry turned to video installations, an art form he helped to pioneer.  His piece, “Trois fois trios,” installed at the Pompidou Center in 1984, as described by Dominque Garrigues:

The whole has a rhythm that grows to a crescendo, from slowness through to acceleration. Nostos is Greek for return. Repetition insinuates itself everywhere among the monitors, from the same to the slightly similar. In the final scene, the voice of Joan Fontaine, in Max Ophuls' Letter from Unknown Woman, comes surging through, bringing the image to an end. Ever since his neon installations of 1976-1977, Thierry Kuntzel has worked with light as a raw material. . . . The nine screens are a metaphor of a "screen of memory," where each of the elements forms the unconscious part where the message remains furtive.[4]

Thierry would not have remembered me two weeks after our class ended.  But I am not even distantly an unknown woman in his life, although perhaps there was an anonymous candle for me waiting on his altar to be lit.  There is no returning to Thierry Kuntzel now, but Letter From an Unknown Woman goes on.  Stefan doesn’t know that Lisa is his until she is dead.  At the opening of the film, Stefan says to his fellow carousers that (the duel) is an engagement he has “no intention of keeping.”  Planning to flee the danger posed by Johan Stauffer, he asks John to pack his bag for an indefinite stay.  It will indeed be an indefinite stay, but in another place. 


8.  The codes of the duel (you can play the reel of the Ophulsian ones in your mind) are as formal and grim as the German Trauerspiel.  Miriam Hansen:

I am bracketing here another sense of Spiel associated with dramatic art, the noun that forms part of the composite term Trauerspiel, literally play of mourning, which is the subject of Benjamin’s treatise on The Origin of Baroque Tragic Drama (1928). Martin Jay reads Benjamin’s “saturnine attraction to Trauerspiel, the endless, repetitive ‘play’ of mourning (or more precisely, melancholy)” as a rejection of Trauerarbeit, the “allegedly ‘healthy’ ‘working through’ of grief”; see Jay, “Against Consolation: Walter Benjamin and the Refusal to Mourn,” in Benjamin’s antitherapeutic insistence on repetition in the endless play of melancholia has a structural counterpart, as we shall see, in his later efforts to redeem repetition as an aesthetic, comedic, and utopian category.  (Hansen, “Room-for-Play: Benjamin’s Gamble with Cinema,” p. 8)[5]

Utopianism:  we can, if we are among the living and possessed of DVD players always access Letter from an Unknown Woman, as if on a permanently turning wheel, repeating again and again Stefan’s words:  “I don’t mind so much being killed.  But you know how hard it is for me to get up in the morning.”  Again and again, Liszt’s (the Liszt of Nietzsche and Susan Bernstein,[6] “the musical actor, the spectacular appendage to Wagner “Sospiro”).  A shock:  “By the time you read this letter I may be dead.” Stefan plays the piano, makes a mistake in a difficult passage, and closes the fallboard.  On the Hale’s tour Stefan, exuberant, will ask to “begin all over again.”  (“Switzerland” perhaps announces the conception of their son.) Later, at the very end of their lives, the fallboard will be locked for all time.  Then, once again, we will see the young Lisa unpacking her bags, blushing, standing at the door (a dog on a leash running by), listening through the transom, a light breeze blowing through her hair.  This is the moment she “lives for.”  Only that living can bring a death.  Oh, please recognize me at last:  I am the woman who will always wait for you in the snow.  Don’t mourn for her, Stefan.  Instead step out and embrace death.


9.  The image must finally be stilled.  Raymond Bellour, Thierry’s friend, once wrote, “speaking” of cinema and photograph, of Letter from an Unknown Woman’s shot of Stefan reading the letter as a primary image-text:

on one side there is movement, the present, presence; on the other, immobility, the past, a certain absence. On one side, the consent of illusion; on the other a quest for hallucination. Here a fleeting image, one that seizes us in flight; there a completely still image that cannot be fully grasped. On this side, time doubles life; on that time returns to us brushed by death.[7]

This image that seizes us in flight is the one where Stefan is undergoing the change from a man who repeats an endless and fruitless cycle (the endless parade of women; the “usual” late-night supper—words that devastate Lisa) to a man who grasps the eternal return, who has read the letter and understood


10.  I’ll end with Ophuls in exile, a moment of sunlight that still penetrates:

Paris, which had always amused me on holiday, was too lovely ... emigration was no hardship, it was an outing. It offered the shining wet boulevards under the streetlights, breakfast in Montmartre with cognac in your glass, coffee and lukewarm brioche, gigolos and prostitutes at night. ... Everyone in the world has two fatherlands: his own and Paris. (Ophuls, Spiel im Dasein)

Ophuls’ memoir’s title playfully reflects Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit, but so much more lightly, Miriam, so much more lightly.



Susan White


[1]“Garder vive la mémoire,” Ouvrage recensé: Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde, de Jacques Derrida, Présenté par Pascale-Anne Brault et Michael Naas, Galilée, “La philosophie en effet .” par Claude Lévesque Spirale: Arts • Lettres • Sciences humaines, n° 195, 2004, pp. 13-14.

[2]  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VxsBXyt65Fo&feature=related

Note Oskar Werner, Lola’s Bavarian student, as the dead WWI soldier at the beginning of this clip in La Chambre verte.  This is an important texte-tuteur for the present essay.

[3] The claiming of the dead, as my dead, as our dead.  Marcel Ophuls has expressed anger in the face of any German “claim” to Ophuls. Such a re-appropriation of Max Ophuls has for his son the force of a desecration of the dead.   I report on these matters below insofar as they pertain to to honoring the dead and asking who has the right to love Ophuls?  In a March 27, 2002 letter to his friend Martina Müller, regarding some celebrations of his father’s centennial, he wrote:


Depuis plus de vingt ans, les exégètes d'outre-Rhin ont tendance à vouloir rapatrier mon père en Allemagne, le renaturaliser, en quelque sorte, après sa mort. Cela se comprend! Ils n'ont pas tant de grands cinéastes à se mettre sous la dent, et les choix de Fritz Lang, de Billy Wilder et d'Ernst Lubitsch d'être Américains et uniquement cela étaient trop nets et clairs pour être contestés. Reste mon pauvre papa, qui voulait tant vivre et mourir en France, dans son pays d'adoption, tout en envisageant par ailleurs de travailler le plus souvent possible à Hollywood, dont il admirait la formidable compétence de tout le système. . . .  Ces appropriations nationalistes posthumes sont d'une très grande indélicatesse, et font l'affaire des xénophobes des deux côtés du Rhin. Mon père ne voulait pas mourir en Allemagne! Là-dessus, mon témoignage est formel! C'est pour cela que ses cendres reposent au Père Lachaise, et c'est pour cela que son dernier film est avant tout un film français.

In the same spirit, Marcel Ophuls protested against the restoration of the “German version” of Lola Montez.  But in the way of the internet, cinéphiles on the Criterion commentary site, on the occasion of the release of the restored French version of Lola Montès in 2008, have wondered if the German restoration better represents what Ophuls envisioned, exactly the situation that Marcel had wanted to avoid:

Posted: Tue July 08, 2008 6:50 pm

Just back from "Lola Montez.”  Here's a little report for David Ehrenstein and anyone else interested.

Lola Montes: New Restored Edition

This just in from Carsten Carnecki at Dennis Cooper's blog:

Stefan Droessler gave us a long introduction, detailing the genesis of the three versions of the film. The first one, Max Ophuls' finalized and approved cut (although his son Marcel thinks otherwise) was immediately re-edited after the premiere into the second version, which is the one that most people are familiar with. That second version (which is available on a poor DVD in the US and was released by Criterion on Laserdisc) had some cuts here and there (Liszt and the ship sequence) as well as a shortened tracking shot in the final scene. It was also dubbed (almost) completely into French, thereby ruining Max Ophuls' preferred and intended multi-linguistic quality. The third version, a laughable 80-minute mess called "The Sins of Lola Montes", was shown on rare double features with B-Movies across the States in few theatres.

This restoration undertaken by the Munich Filmmuseum tried to reconstruct the original first cut, Ophuls' preferred and original one. In my opinion they did a stellar job. We get a few more scenes with Liszt in the carriage as well as more footage on the ship. Also back in the film is the crucial multi-language soundtrack, in which every character speaks his native language. So yes, Anton Walbrook (billed as Adolph Wohlbruck in the opening credits) speaks German, with a few words of French here and there, and Ustinov does as well. It is important to note though that this isn't a German version of the film, it's really multi-language. Characters switch from French to German and English depending on whomever they talk to and it creates a densely multi-layered soundtrack which bears resemblance to the work of Renoir, Altman and Hawks. And then there's the final tracking shot, which in this version can be seen in its full version, without any cuts.

The most important improvement, in my opinion, is the restoration of Ophuls' elaborate color scheme. Today's print was sparkling in its sharpness and vividness, yet it was particularly striking to see what Ophuls created with the flashbacks. It was his intention that each flashback would have the coloration of a particular season. The season for the Liszt flashback was autumn, which is why there are beautiful dark yellow, burgundy and brown tones. The Bavaria flashback with Walbrook has more white and light blue. The restored version really lets us see what remarkable things Ophuls achieved with Technicolor. This important aspect is totally absent from the US DVD, due to its washed out image quality. On an interesting side note, Droessler said that Ophuls even had a whole outdoor road (the one to the house where Liszt and Lola sleep over night) painted yellow. One can only appreciate that in a 35mm print of this restoration.

So it's obviously a great film historical achievement, even though the male Beatrice Welles of the film world, Marcel Ophuls, doesn't want to accept the Filmmuseum's restoration and offered his own, which was shown at Cannes this year. Droessler said that Marcel's restoration follows the very same constructional scheme that their version laid out, but Marcel simply used other takes and kept it all French. Quite ludicrous if you ask me, but it's the darn Beatrice-syndrome. Anyway, it's a great film brought to fresh light and I'm glad I caught this special screening.



Because I wanted to screen the German version of Lola Montez at a conference in 2002, I entered into a correspondence with Marcel Ophuls, in which I tried and, I think, failed to express my respect for his witnessing—but hoping that he would allow the DVD release of Lola Montez.


            June 17, 2004

Dear Mr. Ophuls,

I very much appreciated the candor and kindness of your fax today.  I’m afraid that for artists like you (and Annette Wademant has made her views known to me on this topic. . . ) scholars will always be a little suspect.  We are rather like self-appointed mausoleum keepers, fetishizing every moment of a film when the director might have said “Pfah!” and thrown it out.  But—why should a storm in a teacup like this travel to Arizona?  Because it is important for Americans to know that the issue of authors’ rights is a real one and that “definitive” versions of DVDs are not just another product to consume, but something that needs to be pondered.

As one of the mausoleum keepers I want, perhaps impudiquement, to see all the versions.

For more on Marcel Ophuls’ opinions about the German version of L.M., see “An Open Letter to a German Friend,” in Arizona Quarterly Vol. 60, no. 5, 15-24.  This volume is devoted to Ophuls’ work.  See also “Max by Marcel,” a new documentary by Marcel Ophuls about his father and the making of Lola Montès, on Criterion’s 2010 release of the restored French version of the film.

[4] Dominique Garrigues, “Thierry Kuntzel, "’rois fois trios,’ Nostos II Exhibition Catalogue, Musée National d'art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984.

[5] Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan, eds., War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 228.

[6]  “In Formel: Wagner and Liszt,” New German Critique, No. 69, Autumn 1996.

[7] Raymond Bellour: "The Pensive Spectator" Wide Angle Vol.9 No.1 p.6. Christian Metz also points out that the immobility and silence of the still photograph, with its connotation of death, disappears in the moving image. See Christian Metz, ‘Photography and Fetish’, October, no.34, Fall 1985, pp.81-90.