Is Max Ophüls the greatest director of love stories ever? I'm starting to think so...
Those whose knowledge of this shamefully underrated genius is restricted to the American/French classics of his later career need to familiarise themselves with Liebelei - not simply because the film's influence on works such as Letter from an Unknown Woman and (the incomparable) Madame de... is ostensible, but also because it's a heartbreaking masterpiece in its own right. Thematically, this is pure Ophüls to its very core: the doomed love affair, disdain for the rigidity of social conventions, the climactic duel of misguided machismo... all these hallmarks of his oeuvre seem to originate from here. Stylistically, Liebelei predates the birth of his extraordinarily fluid camerawork but one nevertheless gets the sense of a master at work: the film brims with marvellous set-pieces and sequences, linked together by Ophüls' curious preoccupation with doorways and windows - as if to constantly augment the shared desire of both director and character(s) to escape and break free of the restrictions imposed upon them (specifically, upon the camera and upon love itself.)
It's when conveying these aforementioned restrictions that Ophüls' strengths as a director begin to luminesce his audience into submission. Of course, the characters' limitations are often explicitly referred to within the dialogue itself (Mizzi's reference to the unattainability of the "gold-braided" members of the military, for example), but in his acute juxtapositions and startling manipulation of music it's the director's magic that leaves the biggest impression. A particularly striking sequence sees the newly-coupled Christine and Fritz losing themselves to a passionate waltz in an unremarkable café - their surroundings underwhelm, but their love does anything but and it's one of the most enchanting moments in the film. As this scene quietly fades to black, the waltz on the soundtrack continues but morphs into something more grandiose and suddenly we find ourselves in the lavish ballroom of the Baroness - Fritz's former lover who's determined to maintain her hold on him. Now it's the turn of Fritz and the Baroness to waltz yet despite the same tune and a more magnificent setting, the affection is painfully absent. Through this simple parallel then, Ophüls effectively highlights the difference between his two filmic worlds and three of the relationships at their centre (it should be noted that the Baron's intense glare is an integral part of the latter scene's tone.) The concept of an idyll disrupted by the powers-that-be is one that surfaces repeatedly during the film: Christine and Fritz's initial walk home is followed by a confrontation with the Major, whilst the party that Theo and Mizzi arrange is interrupted by the Baron's questioning which subsequently seals Fritz's fate.
To return to the initially-discussed sequence for a moment, Ophül's' use of music as continuity here is typical of the way in which Liebelei takes us to the very roots of melodrama, and certainly the presence of music in the film is felt throughout - not just through Ophüls' impressive utilisations but also through its infiltration of the characters' lives: the opening scene at the opera emphasises its relevance as social ritual whilst Theo is seen to be an accomplished pianist. Most notably, Christine and her father are both musicians themselves and such apt professions in a film that often plays like the cinematic equivalent of a tragic melody does much to underline where the director's allegiances lie.
A distinct lack of music then, characterises the more painful moments within the film (through their association with the aristocracy.) Taking this into account, much of the film's final act is relatively chilling in comparison to what's preceded it: the fate of both the star-crossed lovers, Christine's devastating close-up etc. are all set into motion following Fritz's request that Theo stop playing the piano after the Baron inadvertently gatecrashes their soirée. The ease with which Fritz capitulates to the Baron during this encounter is unusual ("I am at your disposal") but maintains Ophüls' observations re: the power of social mores. What's especially stunning about this commentary is his decision to set the story in 1910 - something marked prominently in the film's introductory shot. Ophüls depicts a society dominated by an emotionally barren aristocracy, and governed by a militaristic regimen of codes and conventions (it's no coincidence that the role of the military is so marked here.) Yet from Liebelei's 1933 release right through to today, the audience is gifted with the benefit of hindsight - we are well aware that just four years later this Ophülsian portrait of society would abruptly collapse into irrelevance, and Fritz's painful submission is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that it was perhaps unnecessary. As if to emphasise this point, Ophüls allows for a clash between Theo and the Colonel that proves that it is possible to defy the system. By this point however it's too late for Fritz, and Theo's assertion that "every shot not fired in self-defence is murder!" subtly points towards the events of 1914 and questions whether or not Fritz could have survived WWI as a lieutenant, even if he had managed to successfully avoid 1910.
Liebelei's final act is tinged with sadness (and the finale itself is crushing) and yet to argue the same for the film as a whole would be disrespectful to Ophüls' vision. Too often, this most marvellous of directors has been unfairly maligned for his concern with subject matter that is considered too 'slight' in the world of film criticism. To this, I argue: how on Earth could one argue that love is a 'slight' subject? If anything, it is the most complex feeling of them all, and Ophüls' repeated success at engaging with the topic makes him perhaps even more essential than most (although his brand of cinematic style should render him thus anyway.) Ophüls is as timeless as his favourite issue, so despite the importance of historical context when discussing Liebelei and its tragedy, it's crucial to remember that the film is above all a brilliant meditation on love. The plethora of different relationships on offer here accentuates this: the lack of love between the Baron and Baroness, the affair between the Baroness and Theo, the frivolous nature of Theo and Mizzi's relationship (which forms the crux of the film's humorous counterpoint to its tragedy), and the intense and beautiful romance shared by Fritz and Christine. Although this final pairing makes us emotional wrecks, it's the love and not the sorrow that resonates the most. Liebelei strikes a chord because it's vision of love is nigh-on unrivalled within cinema. For a film made nearly ¾ of a century ago, it stands as a testament to Ophüls everlasting genius that the sleigh ride in the snow is possibly the most effortlessly romantic sequence that I've ever come across. When the film concludes in a similarly snowy field, with the distant voiceovers of Fritz and Christine whispering "I'll love you forever"... well, my eyes are welling up just thinking about it.