“Revolution.” The word is first spoken near the beginning of the film: Peter Ustinov’s ringmaster, enumerating the parts of the spectacle that is about to unfold, includes in the list (after “trampled hearts, wasted fortunes, the saraband of loves, scepters, crowns”) “une révolution authentique.” Two mutually facing rows of female jugglers echo, idiotically, the word “authentique.” Revolutions, too, their echo says, can become just spectacle, can be reduced to that surplus of titillation implied in the adjective “authentic.”
Prior to this diminution, revolution is truth, the unity of dream and action, the time when there is no separation between the public and the private, between history and everyday life. “Life for me is movement,” Lola says to Liszt. Revolution would be this movement in its ideal form. But perhaps it’s because she already has a secret knowledge of the reduction to come that, in the same conversation with Liszt, she declines to incorporate her ideal into their dialogue: “Dreams are personal, you can’t share them with anyone.” She keeps her revolution in a space apart from the text of her narrative, safe from the fate that will transform everything outward and historical into a parody of itself. Whatever is expressed or displayed is doomed to end up as fodder for the circus, where it will lose its meaning and become advertising.
This is because all expression, all display, is already simulation. Even revolution, the actual one. When, in the Bavarian section of Lola Montès, it breaks out violently on the image and the soundtrack, revolution proves to be a paltry affair, indistinguishable in its early stages from a mere “riot” (as the king explains to Lola, “If its stops, it’s a riot [émeute]. If it goes on, it’s a revolution”). Pamphlets are printed, Lola burnt in effigy, a few rocks thrown. Lola’s faithful coachman, Maurice, minimizes the danger of it all with a French patriot’s sneer at the Germans’ historical lateness and modesty of scale: “They’re having their revolution, but a small one, a very small one. Oh, how late they are!” “En petit, en tout petit”: the phrase echoes the king’s congratulations to Lola on her opera-house debut: “You’ve just made a small revolution.” (Later, Maurice and the king both express a similar understanding of the inevitability of such events in the cycle of history. The king: “You see, things always come in their time, even revolutions.” Maurice: “What can you do? Revolution happens everywhere, everyone must have his turn.”)
Let’s distinguish between big revolutions, those that bind people to history, and small revolutions, those that separate people from history. The uprising that forces Lola to leave Bavaria (a revolution of the Right, we are informed) is of the first kind. Ophuls’s cinema is in favor of small revolutions and of escapes from the narrative, such as James Mason and Barbara Bel Geddes dancing in the crowded club in Caught, or Mason buying the cigarette filter for Joan Bennett in The Reckless Moment. Isn’t the memory-structure of Lola Montès a way of escaping from the narrative, from the story of Lola Montès as a succession of romantic incidents and an inexorable progression to the meaninglessness of the circus? What this narrative would be, without the escaping, may be indicated by David Robinson’s 1957 account of the now invisible mutilation of Ophuls’s film for the English-language market, called The Fall of Lola Montes (or The Sins of Lola Montes in the USA, with further cuts): “All the flashback sequences, the realistic scenes of Lola’s life, have been strung together with no introduction or links except an occasional line or so of commentary. The formless and disjointed series of incidents which results is at best reminiscent of Mistress Dubarry. The circus sections, severely cut, have been patched together to make a final sequence, just as formless, and—with the heightened pitch of fantasy of these scenes—hopelessly out of key with what has gone before.”
The Bavarian section of Lola Montès, Lola’s “small revolution,” is her attempt to realize freedom in a space apart from history. (She uses a less lofty word than “freedom”: what she has in Bavaria she calls “repos”: peace, calm, rest.) The significance of this attempt becomes clear only after it has failed; while it is under way, it does what everything in Ophuls’s cinema does: it escapes. Either it cannot be, or for some reason is not, shown. One thing we know is that the attempt at freedom, or repos, is deeply irresponsible: told by the king that the cultural institutions of the country have all rejected her portrait, Lola replies in terms that suggest the Marx Brothers: “We’ll fire the Minister of Fine Arts, we’ll close the university, we’ll send the director on a leave of absence, we’ll forget about the archbishop, and we’ll do what we want.”
The king’s lapses of hearing form a motif that continually keeps present the themes of irresponsibility and escape. These lapses serve several functions in the film. They punctuate the dialogue, giving it an irregular and lively rhythm that is seemingly at odds with the economy of the narrative, more of a cinematic rhythm, freeing the actors, in particular Anton Walbrook, from the informational content of the dialogue, in a way that correlates with the king’s desire to escape from his duties. Often the king’s failures of hearing are tactical and produce a comic effect that he seems partly to intend. The king is playing a comedian, amusing himself by exaggerating his faulty hearing in order both to conceal, and also to reveal, his infatuation with Lola (with an irony that pretends to pay obeisance to propriety, only to transcend it). Talking with the secretary from the ministry of Beaux Arts, the king has two such lapses, first when the secretary assumes that the subject of the portrait the king wants to commission is to be the queen, second when the king pretends to have forgotten Lola’s name. Earlier, in the king’s box at the opera house, after Lola’s performance, he comments to the queen on the “fascinating” art of dance, then asks her if she understands. She replies with light irony: “Yes, I understand that I should go to Wiesbaden and take my cure.” Putting his hand to his ear, he seems to be about to produce another repetition of his customary “what,” but instead he asks, “When?”
Other lapses of hearing are more somber in implication. The first occurs in the king’s palace, at Lola’s first interview with him. As they discuss her failed dancing audition, Lola puts into question the entire tradition of the audition:
Lola: On ne vous a pas demandé de passer une audition pour être Roi.
(They didn’t ask you to audition to be king.)
The king: Pour être quoi?
(To be what?)
Lola (emphatically): Pour être roi.
(To be king.)
The word “audition,” highlighted by a pause before it is first spoken in the scene (after saying “It seems that you went through—,” the king, picking up a report from his desk, spends several seconds looking unsuccessfully for a magnifying glass before completing the phrase: “—an audition”), has a double meaning since it also alludes to the king’s own problem with audition, in the word’s original, more general meaning of the sense or the act of hearing. The king’s failing audition is not merely an amusing detail of characterization but a thematic sign.
Just before this exchange, Lola flies into a kind of rage which is apparently not a full rage: perhaps it is simulated; the actress (Lola Montès or Martine Carol) trying to work herself up into a rage that she does not feel. In the thrall of this feeling partly authentic, partly put on, Lola delivers a speech that is pertinent to the whole film: “What’s an audition? Can you be yourself on command? Laugh, cry on command? Act, dance on command? They didn’t ask you to audition to be king.” Her question—“What’s an audition?”—refers to the overall movement of the film. Lola’s life is an audition for her star performance in the circus, for which she is qualified not by any artistic talent (the ringmaster, apparently, would concur with the dance experts of Munich in their evaluation of Lola’s dancing) but by the ability to create scandal (which means that she is a star because of how she is perceived).
Lola’s dancing audition is not shown in the film, though her first interview with the king is clearly an implicit audition for the part of his mistress. The Bavarian section of the film contains two other auditions (in the restricted sense of trial performances in view of employment). One is the scene in which several painters present canvases to the king, hoping to be granted the commission of Lola’s portrait. This memorable sequence is full of comic lapses of hearing by the king, as each of the artists in turn, having been told that the painting must be done quickly, tells the king how long he took to finish his painting; each time, the king seems to misunderstand the amount of time stated, which the artist must repeat. This little game goes on until one of the artists, smarter than the rest, realizes that the king’s true desire is just the opposite of what has been announced: not to have Lola leave sooner, but to have her stay longer.
The second audition scene is just a small moment. It occurs on the night of the riot: the first minister, waiting alone at the foot of the stairs in Lola’s palace for the king to descend, tries out, and rejects, a phrase he will address to the King. Then the King descends, and without a perceptible break the minister enters into his role, i.e., passes from rehearsal to the actual performance. This is a significant detail: it means that for the film, there is no such place as an off-stage, and no period of time in which a person does not perform. Thus there is no such thing as an audition (in the restricted sense), no action that is only a preparation for a performance and not a performance itself.
The king’s final failure of audition in the film occurs a little earlier in the same sequence at Lola’s palace.
Lola: Il faut qu’ils te trouvent à ta place, dans ton rôle—
(They must find you at your place, in your role—)
The king: Dans quoi?
Lola: Dans ton rôle de roi!
(In your role as king!)
The second and third lines terminate with the same rhyme that caps the first exchange about auditions: “quoi” (“what”) and “roi” (“king”). The repeated rhyme—the film’s counterpart to Hamlet’s “the king’s a thing” (it’s fitting that their last night of happiness together finds the king reading Hamlet aloud to Lola)—figures an unformed question: what is a king? In both scenes, Lola insists that the king’s role raises him high above her, something the king is reluctant to admit, as his failure to hear conveys. At the same time, Lola recognizes that they are both on the same level in being performers. (Her complaint about auditions implies this: after all, you didn’t need an audition to be yourself, to play your own role, so why must I have one?) Ophuls stages their being-on-one-level in the scene of their meeting backstage after Lola’s opera-house performance, when the king unexpectedly descends from his box to congratulate her.
The king’s lapses of hearing signify his weak commitment to his “role as king.” They enable him to be, momentarily, a king and no king: both in and out of the given situation as it is understood officially. The lapses also figure the attempt to catch what is slipping away. Making language gestural, they divert time from its flow into history and its drive toward the narrative, trapping it for a moment in a small, private space for creativity.
The important thing is not necessarily the word. (Ophuls: “The height of acting is achieved when the word itself has lost its importance.”) The word is only the sign of what can’t be grasped, what flees. Also, what one wants to avoid, what one does not want to hear. Discussing the problem of where to display her portrait, Lola tells the king that she can’t keep it at her palace because—
Lola: J’aurais l’air de me faire de la réclame.
(It would look like I was advertising myself.)
The king: Faire quoi?
Lola (distinctly and loudly): Réclame.
The king: Comment?
The word the king does not want to hear (or perhaps fails to hear because it’s unfamiliar to him) alludes to Lola’s fate in the circus, where she will be doing nothing but advertising. Her life will be a commodity and will be used to sell other commodities, such as cigars. Not to hear this word, “réclame,” is a true mark of the monarch: the king is far above such a fate; but for Lola (who is still one of the common people) it remains a danger, as she knows, having already been courted by the ringmaster (she refused his proposal, but she didn’t repudiate his claim that “we’re in the same business”).
In the ear doctor’s examination room, the king tears up the pamphlet that has been issued in protest of Lola’s presence in Bavaria. He says, “There are things that I wish neither to hear nor to see.” Finally, though, he must hear such things. Near the end of the riot scene, the king puts his hand to his ear to listen to the first minister’s words, and he doesn’t ask to have them repeated: he knows when the game must end. At the critical moment to which history summons him, freedom, ambiguity, play with language are no longer possible.
Inside the coach that takes her across the border, we learn from Lola’s words to the student who helps her escape that she loved the king, that the Bavarian episode was her “last chance” and her “only peace” (“seul repos”), and that something has broken inside her and made her unfit for further adventures. There remains before her the circus, a Last Judgment that accepts everything because it views everything as a commodity. To reach this stage, Lola must make another revolution: the “incredible jump across the ocean” that, the ringmaster says, brought her to the circus and to “her true friends,” the Americans. Are the Americans her “true friends” because America represents the social realization of the “freedom” of which the student saw her as the symbol? (“You represent love, freedom...”) If so, this is one of the bitterest ironies of this drastically ironic film: Lola’s freedom, in being reduced to spectacle, becomes merely the freedom to be bought and sold. America represents the final devaluation of values, in direct contrast to the summit of power and glory represented by her idyll with the king, the last flashback the film permits itself before rejoining the present time, or timelessness (since no movement seems possible any longer), of the circus.
“We’ll show everything that women in life dream of doing, but never have the courage to do.” The ringmaster’s words mean that, for America, as for the Bavarian student group and its handsome member who adored her, Lola will represent freedom. But the freedom of the circus lacks hope and possibility: it is a false revolution, a suicide (the jump across the Atlantic/the jump from the high platform without a net). Lola becomes her own narrative; instead of true escape, there is escapism. Is this the inevitable result of Lola’s small revolution? Is it because human interaction is already a simulacrum that she changes her mind and willingly ends up as what she said she was not, a “circus freak” (phénomène de foire)? Or is it that after all to escape from history is impossible, that one must either rejoin history (as the king does) or take part in the end of history (as Lola does), where, “alas” (in the student’s words), “nothing ever happens”?
 “The Fall of Lola Montes,” Sight and Sound 27:3 (1957), p. 145.