Guest: Andréas-Benjamin Seyfert - "Ophüls: Thoughts on Filmmaking" / by Samuel B. Prime

Editor's Note: Andréas-Benjamin Seyfert is the great grandson of Max Ophüls. We recently met one another at a screening of Sam Fuller's DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET in Los Angeles. My first impression of him: dapper, charming, and extremely polite. Also, privileged in the sense that he has spent, and continues to spend, time with his grandfather Marcel Ophüls - and he's keeping notes. One of these days, he'll write a book that only he could write. Here, he translates a recently uncovered interview - given in German - for us English speakers.

- Samuel B. Prime, Founder

[Max Ophüls is often remembered for his elegant European charm and seemingly effortless tracking shots, floating through the air like bubbles in a glass of champagne. This indeed characterizes the relatively few films which are often considered to be the core of his work, now available as part of the Criterion Collection (LA RONDE, LE PLAISIR, MADAME DE…, LOLA MONTES) and his earlier Hollywood picture LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN. Unfortunately for his American admirers, a big chunk of his filmography is still unavailable on DVD and Blu-Ray. And whereas a number of remarkable publications exist on the subject of his work, his own memoirs — still in print in France and Germany — are not yet accessible in the English language. What follows is a glimpse at what Ophüls believed filmmaking was all about. These musings originate from a recently reissued German radio broadcast from the year 1956, only a few months before his unexpected death at age 54.]

I think filmmaking usually starts with a certain inclination. I never liked the whole idea of assignments, especially as a child. I remember once, back in school, our Geography teacher asked us to write a report on the flow of the Rhine. To my teacher’s frustration, my paper was entitled ‘The Adventures of a Raindrop.’ It started with a raindrop falling into the Rhine in Schaffhausen and conveniently, whenever I had trouble remembering one of the key parts of the river’s itinerary, the little raindrop would get tired; and so it would just decide to take a little nap and get carried along by the stream of the water until it came to more memorable locations… 

This tendency of using my imagination to get out of something unpleasant like an assignment may already have been a small indication for the skills I would later develop in my profession. But apart from that initial starting point—which seems rather clear and self-evident to me — there are a lot of oddities about the art and the industry that I have come to realize over the years when beginning to seriously think about filmmaking in all its implications. I will present a few of these observations to you. However, keep in mind that these are by no means issues I have come to terms with or questions I have found definitive answers to:

1)    The critics: Are critics necessary? How does a director react to criticism? Here is my answer: Always discard a negative review from which you cannot learn anything. But don’t throw away a positive review from which there isn’t anything to be learned! You should keep a negative review if there is something to be learned from it. And if you get a good review from which you can learn something, you should really, really keep it.

2)    Everyman: I was sitting in a concert once and I was looking down at the orchestra. I saw how the musicians were all waiting for their cue. They reminded me about all the unrecognized people in our profession: the craftsmen who build our sets, the gardeners who plant our flowers, the electricians who stand on the bridges… We owe so much to these people. People who go to work knowing that it is going to be destroyed the very next day, with nothing remaining from it but a piece of film. 

3)    Do films have to be political statements? My very personal answer to this is a counter-question: Do people have to make political statements?

4)    Plagiarism: Today, I wish to thank some of my fellow filmmakers, both living and dead: René Clair, Fritz Lang, Jacques Becker, Carol Reed, Otto Preminger, David Lean, Clouzot, Billy Wilder, Helmut Käutner, Sir Olivier, Murnau, Alexander Korda, Jacques Feyder, Stiller and above all Max Reinhardt. Take a moment and think back to how every art form has evolved since Ancient times. How is it possible to rival the artistic progress of millenaries in a single year with a production of 150 films? It is simply impossible and so we should not be ashamed or afraid of plagiarism, as long as we copy that which we consider good and beautiful. 

5)    The Magic of Filmmaking: The faith in our dreams, in the stories we wish to tell, in our films. This faith should never waiver and should always stand against all form of industrialization. It is a difficult thing to keep this faith alive, because our industry is afraid of this magic. It is afraid of losing money. But it is my personal opinion that if the industry decays and loses its faith in magic, then — even before anyone will have noticed it, especially people in our industry — filmmaking will have died.

- Andréas-Benjamin Seyfert