Monday, November 03, 2008

LOLA MONTÈS—Stefan Drössler PFA Lecture

In mid-January earlier this year Stefan Drössler, the Director of the Munich Film Museum, delivered a lecture co-presented by Pacific Film Archive and the Goethe-Institut San Francisco on the restoration of the German premiere version of Max Ophüls' Lola Montès; a print acquired by PFA from a private collection with help from Drössler and the Munich Film Museum. Among the scope of Drössler's many specialities in film history are German cinema, Hollywood cinema (including his leading expertise on Orson Welles) and the history of 3-D, to name just a few. With Lola Montès currently poised for a theatrical run in San Francisco, I thought now would be a perfect opportunity to share his PFA commentary.

Admitting it is always a pleasure to lecture at PFA, Drössler likewise apologized for his modest English. He outlined that he would first discuss the production circumstances behind Lola Montès, followed by 10 minutes worth of production stills from the film, including a survey of the 1950s artwork used for the film's promotion, which might more fully provide insight as to why there was a near riot when the film was first released. Following that would be a separate 12-minute clip reel comparing the different versions of the film, including rarely-seen takes from the American version, the full version of which is now believed to be lost.

The French version of Lola Montès disastrously premiered in Paris on September 22, 1955. Billed as a "super-production", a huge crowd gathered for the premiere, both inside and outside of the cinema. After the film had run no more than a few minutes the audience began to laugh, jeer and shout boos. Truffaut described that the exiting audience warned those waiting for the next screening not to bother because the film was a disaster. On the night of the first showing the producers, responding to public disdain, immediately began editing the film, produced in Cinemascope with a magnetic sound track. They worked on the sound track to erase certain words, especially one word in a scene early on in the film where Lola (Martine Carol) as a young girl is entering the sleeping cabin of a ship. In the scene she is asked her age and—though in the existing print you can see her lips moving in response—you hear nothing. Originally she responded she was 16 and this is what started the disbelieving laughter in the audience who knew Martine Carol—considered the French sex star of the '50s—was far from 16. Carol, in fact, was reputably one of the first French actresses to bare her breasts for the camera, scenes with her were always provocative, and the audiences at Lola Montès were admittedly there to satisfy their salaciousness.

The German version of the film premiered three months later on January 12, 1956 and, once again, it proved disastrous, though this time the producers explained to the audience that they would be watching a preview print that would be cut and redubbed for general release three weeks later in Germany.

Thus began the unfortunate tale of the long butchering of Ophüls' last film Lola Montès. By the time the film was finally released in America in 1959 under the title The Sins of Lola Montès, its original two-hour length was cut down to 75 minutes, redubbed three times, with the sequential ordering of scenes changed. Unfortunately, all of these edits were done on the original negatives, which has made it extremely difficult to reconstruct the film; but, Drössler felt it important to recapitulate the sad production history of what was the most expensive European film after the second World War. It cost roughly 8 million deutschmarks (roughly $2,000,000), which meant that everyone in France and Germany would have had to go to the theatre and pay an entrance fee just to recover the film's costs. From its inception, it was an ill-fated project engineered by two producers who had no experience in film production; one of them an Italian-French producer Albert Caraco who had made his fortune in Swiss real estate. The other producer was a Nazi who had worked in Paris during the occupation but was unable to continue working in film production in France after the war. He returned to Germany to work in film distribution and made a fortune in bad, cheaply-produced German films. The two men met in Lausanne and began entertaining fantasies of creating a historical drama to rival Hollywood epics. They had no true idea of what they were doing but they began hunting for a property of a known character and came upon the passionate story of Eliza Rosanna Gilbert, better known as her stage name Lola Montez, an infamous cabaret dancer whose numerous affairs included such notable personalities as composer Franz Liszt and Ludwig I, King of Bavaria.

It was clear to them that their film needed to be an international co-production so that it could sell in all the countries. To that effect, they sought out a multilingual European film director. Jacques Tourneur was their first consideration, though Drössler is not sure if they actually contacted him. Michael Powell was their second choice and they contacted him at the Cannes Film Festival. While Powell was pondering the opportunity, the producers decided upon Max Ophüls, who was experienced in shooting films in Germany and then later—during his emigration—in the Netherlands, France, and eventually Hollywood. Ophüls was successful—especially in Germany with his 1950 film La Ronde—not so much for the film's artistic value but its adult themes of illicit love affairs, which passed the German censors only because Ophüls cleverly kept the raciest scenes in French. The producers felt that Ophüls skilled manipulation of censors would be invaluable in their production of Lola Montès.

Despite Ophüls's specific contractual demands that he have complete control over the screenplay, the producers next set their sights on lending their project a spurious air of prestige by finding a literary source upon which the film could be based. To accomplish this, they hired the French bestselling novelist Cecil Saint-Laurent to write a novel about Lola Montez. This is one of the first mysteries of the film. You read in the film's credits that it was based on the novel of Cecil Saint-Laurent but Saint-Laurent didn't write the novel until after the completion of the film. Ophüls wrote his screenplay independently from any novel.

In an interview, Ophüls stated that he had no original interest in directing Lola Montès; but, then he had an idea about a first draft, a treatment, wherein the story would be told as a big circus show so that—in effect—the film would be about show business. The film presents Lola at the end of her career as a performer in a circus with her life rendered in flashbacks. Throughout all the scenes money and business predominate and the film is full of caricatures of producers, by which Ophüls satirized the entertainment industry.

The producers insisted upon making an even bigger film and frequently came up with ideas that Max Ophüls didn't like. He would only agree to their ideas on the conditions that he would be given more money, more extras, and that no limits would be placed on his budget and artistic creativity. The producers wanted the film to be shot in Cinemascope and—though Ophüls didn't like the wide screen—he agreed to the condition but created a cinematographic design that frequently cut the wide screen through the use of side curtains and iris-like effects that reduced the horizontal image. The producers also wanted to shoot the film in color. At that time there were very few film productions in color. Again, Ophüls was in disagreement with the usage of color but circumvented the condition by creatively resisting a realistic usage of color and designing a concept of using special colors for each flashback sequence to indicate seasonal episodes. This necessitated the painting of houses and streets, separate costumes, to conform to his color concepts. The producers wanted to use a magnetic sound track, which Ophüls hated. He used only the front channels instead of the wide channels and decided to use overlapping soundtracks so that people in the foreground were talking as well as people in the background. Often you cannot understand everything everyone is saying. You can only understand the words Ophüls deemed especially important. Though this became a technique used by later filmmakers, at the time it proved confusing to audiences. Finally, the producers wanted to use Martine Carol, the sex star, which he agreed to but you can see what he did with her. There was a sequence where Carol rips open her dress, which the audience was anxiously awaiting, and Ophüls cuts away in a manner that proves comic. In retrospect one can see how brilliantly Ophüls was playfully frustrating audience expectations. Even the flashback structure has no logical sense. It's never made clear why they are not in chronological order; but, this was important for Ophüls and he insisted upon it. Ophüls' stormy relationship with his producers informed his creativity in such a way that—as Rodney Hill states it in his Senses of Cinema essay—"one of the core principles of auteur criticism is that a great director will turn such practical hardships to artistic advantage."

The final piece to this production history, which is less well known, is that the film was shot in three different languages. In the 1930s, before magnetic tapes were invented, sound was recorded on disks. It was difficult to dub a film so separate Italian, German and French versions of a film were made. Even though in the 1950s magnetic tape had come into use, it remained exceedingly difficult to match color negatives and so the practice of filming multiple versions of a film in separate languages persisted. Ophüls elected to shoot Lola Montès three times; once in English, once in French, once in German. This fact determined the selection of the actors. Fortunately Peter Ustinov was multilingual but Martine Carol was not as accomplished and so Ophüls had a lot of problems with her. She was completely dubbed in the English version and partially in the German.

The shooting of Lola Montès took place in the summer of 1955 over five months, beginning in France, with the last four weeks in Munich where the circus sequences were filmed. The film was set in a circus arena and—though there existed a circus arena in Munich—Ophüls insisted on building his own, which was so immense that it had space for 2,000 people. It was built at the Bavaria studios and cost a fortune, especially because Ophüls did not want to hire extras for the circus. He hired an actual circus that had a hundred animals, many of which you never see in the film. If you're lucky you see a few horses and the edge of a polar bear. For his circus audience he photographed extras that he positioned in the bleachers, some of them with moveable arms, and with some live actors inbetween. This process ended up being much more expensive than if he had hired extras.

Max Ophüls is well-known for his long tracking shots, a strategy he devised partially to keep producers from cutting his films. He used the same strategy in the circus sequences of Lola Montès and what is of interest is that you can actually see the tracks in some of the scenes only partially covered by carpeting.

There were many complications during the shoot. At one point Martine Carol went on strike because the producers had trouble securing the money to pay her. During one of Ophüls' color schematics, an owner of a house refused to allow the production company to paint his house red, so they had to make do by draping it in red fabric. For one sequence set in the Munich gardens, 1000 extras were employed for a scene that lasted no more than 30 seconds in the finished film. Since production was frequently postponed, Ophüls could not transfer the company to the high Alps to film the winter sequences so they re-created winter in Hamburg by using salt for snow, causing much architectural damage.

For much of the press photos used to publicize the film to generate interest for its premiere, Martine Carol's breasts were exposed. These are all scenes, some with very daring costumes, which do not appear in the finished film.

In the original film, the credits came first, then the circus, then the flashbacks of Lola's life; but, in the American version, the story was re-sequenced in chronological order so that the circus came last. Ophüls was outraged knowing the producers intended to do this and did everything he could to prevent them from editing his film, but to no avail. His death by heart attack in March 1957 saved him the disgrace of seeing the American version.

The remainder of Drössler's presentation was a fascinating and detailed comparison of various existing versions of the film that underscored the obstacles encountered in reconstructing the film: jumpcuts that were made to shorten the film that interfered with both visual and aural continuity; lefthand cropping of the original cinemascope ratio effected to enchance sound; aesthetic decisions on the part of Ophüls to grade the film darker in the positive print than its original negative, requiring reconstructionists to debate whether or not to use a negative or positive print and the ethical concerns of whether reconstructionists have the right to make a film look better than the author's intent. The reconstruction of Max Ophüls Lola Montès is the first to be completely done in high definition with a Dolby soundtrack. Drössler lobbied against a Dolby digital soundtrack to retain the sound of the film's original magnetic soundtrack, again believing reconstructionists do not have the right to make something sound clearer than Ophüls intended. Hopefully, the DVD extras will include a detailed summation of the restoration. Until then, I strongly recommend Dinko Tucakovic's FIPRESCI write-up from this year's Cannes Film Festival.

Cross-published on Twitch.

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