Max Ophüls' "Lola Montès": The Art of Lola By Dinko Tucakovic

in 61st Cannes Film Festival

by Dinko Tucakovic

Our story begins more than 50 years ago. It was raining cats and dogs that night in Paris. Paris, December 23, 1955. The opening night and first public screening of the new film by Max Ophüls, Lola Montès, grabbed the attention not only of young cinephiles like Truffaut and Rivette, who had already worshipped the work of the master, but of an audience which had been expecting at least a scandal on account of the star, Martine Carol. The film was in Cinemascope and Technicolor, bigger than life, the end of the technology road for Ophüls who had started making films in 1931 when the seventh art was still in black and white.

But that night, after the screening, as fans of Carol rushed as a mob, Ophüls himself endured a most disastrous moment: He quickly downgraded from a potential hero to less than zero. Those who expected a scandalous biopic on the notorious Lola Montès got in return something they could not comprehend; it was on a whole different scale and fell into a class of cinema called Art! And the critics! There was no Christmas spirit in lines like “… in Lola Montès the aesthetics of gurgling and rumbling are blended with the aesthetics of whipped cream,” and “… it is not a good film. The style is heavily Germanic…” And so on. Even the support of Cocteau, Rossellini, and Tati could not help.

The disaster repeated itself with the German premiere half a year later. And then, the final attack. Behind the back of Ophüls, they created a monster version from this film that is considered by many to be one of the most elegant works in the history of cinema, one which impressed Godard, Kubrick, Truffaut, and certainly Altman, in terms of his narration style and sound mix in Nashville.

More than half of the century later. It was raining cats and dogs that night in Cannes. Cannes, May 17, 2008. The opening of the restored version of Lola Montès. It turned out to be one of the crucial moments of 61st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, to be compared only with the homage to Manoel de Oliveira, who is still young with 99 years behind him.

Those who did the restoration wanted to put it right: La Cinémathèque Française, in collaboration with La Fondation Thomson, guided by filmmaker Marcel Ophuls, son of Max, who had witnessed the 1955 catastrophe. They have succeeded incredibly. This version is as close as possible to the original, having been a demanding and time-consuming, frame-by-frame restoration. Different French and German versions existed, but also one with English subtitles, the one Andrew Sarris saw in New York in 1963 and wrote: “In my humble opinion, it is the greatest film of all time”.

The work had to be done from scratch. Distributors had even altered the original format from 2.55:1 to a narrower 2.35:1. The original stereophonic sound components were missing. Meanwhile, a new generation of the tribe of “Ophulsians” had emerged. The flame is being carried by those involved with this project. Stefan Drössler in Munich did the restoration of the German version. Just a few weeks before, in Paris, one breathtaking reel was shown to the exceptionally demanding audience of the Congress of FIAF, the Federation of the Film Archives of the world, in the new premises of La Cinémathèque Française in Bercy. Serge Toubiana promised that night the final chapter of this saga would be in Cannes. And so it was. Thanks to “Cannes Classics”, we were able to be witnesses to history, as Marcel Ophuls introduced the rebirth of the masterpiece.

Yet the real miracle began in the dark of the cinema, in the “Salle de Soixantième”, when the film, the original version of which had been thought lost for good, flowed for an entire 118 minutes. When we got out, enchanted, the heavy rain seemed like poetic justice, a final apology to the master for the injustice of more than five decades ago.

This projection validates the existence and further development of the “Cannes Classics” section of the festival. We could then always compare cinematic history to the state of contemporary films and — why not? — rewrite that history when necessary.

Lola Montès begins and ends in the rings of the “Mammoth Circus”, a perfect metaphor for the chaotic world that we share. Even during this very edition of Cannes, we watch films as digital hovers and threatens to take over. But that is another story.