Marcel Ophüls: Ain’t Misbehavin’?

20 mins read

The Troubles We’ve Seen, a three-part documentary on war correspondents, was the last film made by Marcel Ophüls, the Franco-German master documentarian, in 1994. Now 86, he has returned to the limelight with the moving and introspective Ain’t Misbehavin’, a film in two acts. The first deals with his father, Max Ophüls, the director of such masterpieces as Liebelei (1933), La Ronde (1950) and the unforgettable Lola Montès (1955). The second act deals with “little Marcel”, as Ophüls often calls himself.

Marcel Ophüls is one of the greatest and most articulate documentary filmmakers of the 20th century. After making a few fiction films in the early 1960s, he turned to documentary and in 1967 directed Munich or Peace in Our Time. His next, The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), proved to be a seminal film dealing with the resistance in France and the collaboration between the Vichy government and Nazi Germany. It earned him fame in the United States and around the world, not to mention an Oscar nomination. Ophüls followed that triumph with A Sense of Loss (1972), a moving look at the war in Northern Ireland and at the innocent victims on both sides.

The Memory of Justice (1973) established a very disturbing comparison between the Nazi participants at the Nuremberg trials and the atrocities committed by the Americans in Vietnam. Yorktown (1982) looked at the preparations for the U.S. bicentennial celebrations, with a healthy dose of Ophulsian irony. His compelling Hôtel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie (1988) dealt with the atrocities committed by the Nazi war criminal. It won him an Academy Award. Ophüls went back to East Germany in 1992, reporting in November Days on the changes that had occurred after the fall of the Berlin wall. The Troubles We’ve Seen: A History of Journalism in Wartime (1994), his penultimate film, is a disturbing portrait of the war in Sarajevo and of the war correspondents that covered it.

Ain’t Misbehavin’ had its World Premiere at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes this year and was also shown at TIFF. But as fate would have it, the film was presented amidst a dramatic feud between Marcel Ophüls and his producers. The 106-minute version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ shown in Cannes and in Toronto is not the film Ophüls intended. He was livid about this and told POV: “The version you saw is a truncated version, against French law, and I am suing the bastards…. Especially when you want to film your own memoir, I should think that the TV people and the small-time, chiselling producers would let you have the length you want. I only want two hours and 10 minutes. That’s not such a drag. North by Northwest is 2 hours and 10 minutes. And so is November Days, which is not a bad film either…. If they don’t give me the two hours, 10 minutes [version] so that I can qualify for a third Oscar nomination, I’m going to kick their ass from here to kingdom hell!”

And to add insult to injury: “The film is dedicated to François Truffaut. And they cut it out! Without my knowledge and without my okay! I find it so outrageous. They’re not going to get away with it!”

This explains the beautiful and moving short moment that Ophüls shares in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Truffaut’s widow, Madeleine Morgenstern-Truffaut. He tells her that he owes everything in life to François Truffaut: the making of his first film, an episode in the portmanteau film Love at 20, and the release in cinemas of The Sorrow and the Pity, which led to its public success in France. It had been made for television, but the French government banned it for 12 years from any form of broadcast.

Even truncated, Ain’t Misbehavin’ is delightful and Ophüls’ most humorous and definitely most personal film. He is very loving when talking about his father, Max, and includes many excerpts from his wonderfully romantic films. He reminds us how delightful and wonderfully crafted they were and entices us to revisit them more thoroughly. Despite a celebrated career in the theatre and in cinema, Max Ophüls, being a Jew, fled Germany in 1933, sensing what was to come. He became a French citizen. In 1941, he moved to the United States, where he hit hard times professionally. His son, Marcel, does not mince words when he recounts how his father was mistreated by the producers in Hollywood, even though he eventually managed to direct films there, though perhaps not his best work.

When asked if he saw his father as a mentor, Marcel Ophüls told POV that “he was also a very difficult father, but he was a wonderful teacher…. I believe my father was—if you consider that movies are the great popular art, along with jazz, of the 20th century—then I think Max Ophuls was a genius in the same way that Louis Armstrong was a genius or that Hitchcock was a genius. There is such a thing as genius, but the word is much overplayed, of course. But genius does exist and I think that Max Ophüls was a genius.”

In Ain’t Misbehavin’, Ophüls confirms his love for classic American films. Indeed, he has inserted clips from these classics in every film he has made, even in his darkest pieces. He often uses them as a counterpoint to a very strong visual or sound element. He is a master of this technique. For this writer, the most striking example is in the third part of The Troubles We’ve Seen. Ophüls follows an interview with Nermin Tulic, a Bosnian Shakespearean actor who lost both legs to a Croatian bomb, with a clip of James Cagney, also a Shakespearean, dancing in Yankee Doodle Dandy. You just want to cry.

Marcel Ophüls comments on his own life with excerpts from such classics as Frank Lloyd’s Cavalcade, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz and the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers. Ophüls had this to say about his use of counterpoint: “You know, the Marx Brothers had this great thing: They used some feeble gags on purpose so people would have time to laugh themselves out before the next strong gag came along. You may have noticed I’m a great admirer of the Marx Brothers.”

His love for jazz music is also apparent, if only in the choice of the Fats Waller song as the title of this autobiography, Ain’t Misbehavin’. The humour is less evident in the French title, Un voyageur. There is such irony in the English title, because if there is one thing that Marcel Ophüls does, and does well, it’s misbehave. And he obviously takes great glee in doing so, to varying degrees, in all his films.

He has perfected the art of provoking or putting some of his interview subjects in awkward situations. POV asked him how he has managed so cleverly to alleviate tension with moments of lightness and sometimes humour: “I’m an entertainer. Movies. I don’t even care for the term ‘films’. And this you’ve seen in the dialogue between [doc-maker Frederick] Wiseman and me [in Ain’t Misbehavin’]. We detest cinéma vérité. We think this is all pretentious shit. Cinéma du réel, cinéma vérité, a free cinema, all cinema, cinema, fuck it! We’re in the movie business and being in the movie business means being in show business. And being in show business means trying to make people laugh, cry and think.”

One of Ophüls’ best examples of provocation comes in an early scene in Ain’t Misbehavin’, in a reference to an interview from The Sorrow and the Pity with Marius Klein, a shop owner and thoroughly despicable character who, when anti-Jewish laws were passed in France, published an ad in his local newspaper claiming that despite his name, he was not Jewish, so as not to lose his clientele and, most importantly, not be arrested by the Gestapo. Ophüls recalled that moment for POV: “I had done some research in the archives of the local newspaper. I looked through four years of stuff, including the classified ads. And I found this ad, and as we were coming down the street that goes down from the cathedral, on the left, suddenly I saw Chez Marius. I said: ‘Let’s not wrap yet, let’s go over [there]…’ And then it was done in three minutes flat, poor fellow. A lot of people think that it was very cruel, because why should I pin against the wall a man who, after all, was not Albert Speer or [Karl] Dönitz. So people often ask, why pick on a poor fellow? The reason is I feel he’s creepy. And I think it’s the most important interview I’ve done in my life.” Though the scene is short, it is among the most riveting moments of the film, if not of his entire oeuvre.

Hôtel Terminus: The Life And Times of Klaus Barbie demonstrates the epitome of Ophüls’ talent as a filmmaker and his thoroughness and cleverness as an interviewer. This is a film about the atrocities committed by Klaus Barbie, a member of the Gestapo, nicknamed the “Butcher of Lyon” for the horrible and sadistic ways he tortured people. But we also discover how this man was sheltered and protected for a long time by the Americans, until public pressure became such that they withdrew their support. That Ophüls received an Oscar for this film does not come as a surprise. In the television documentary Marcel Ophüls and Jean-Luc Godard: The Meeting in St-Gervais (Switzerland, 2011, directed by Frédéric Choffat and Vincent Lowy), Godard says that Hôtel Terminus proves that Ophüls is a great historian, because he manages to mingle both History with a capital “h” and history with a small “h”. When reminded about this by POV, Ophüls answered: “You want the real truth? I think it’s my most boring film. I suppose it’s an important film, but maybe I just find it boring because, by that time, I was fed up with the Jews and the Nazis. And it was a very difficult film to make. And a very unhappy film to make. That’s the one where I tried to commit suicide, so my love for the film…and all these things are subjective, as Godard pointed out… To me, it’s not…a film I like.”

The conversation then segued into what Ophüls considered to be his best work: “My favourite film is the one just before, The Memory of Justice. It’s the most personal one and it’s the one that deals with post-war Europe and with Germany and with German crimes and the way that the Germans dealt with the crimes, badly or well or medium-well… It is the most personal film and, yes, it is my favourite. And it was a flop. But most of these films, except The Sorrow and the Pity, were flops. But I like the one on the Berlin Wall, November Days, too. I don’t agree with Jean-Luc because that came after. That came after Terminus.”

Obviously Marcel Ophüls is a good “hater” and this is amusingly confirmed in Ain’t Misbehavin’ by his great friend Jeanne Moreau, who asks him if he spends his time hating people. But his anger and indignation are not evident in his interviews with seemingly creepy or scary characters. He carries out the interviews in a thorough, lawyer-like way, often getting amazing statements from his subjects.

At the same time, Ophüls has always cared about everyday people and they have always been part of the backdrop of his films. He consistently brings his vast historical stories back to the people who suffered in their daily lives—and those moments are always tinted with some emotion. In November Days, Ophüls demonstrates gentleness and to some extent affection, particularly toward a couple who went from an ecstatic state of joy when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 to the harsh economic reality that hit them three years later. And then there is the tragic interview with the Northern Irish parents who had lost their 17-month-old foster child in a bombing. “It is one of my favourite interviews,” says Ophüls, “because I had absolutely nothing to do except sit there and listen to them. It was the parents who lost their baby. Nicholl was their name. I think they were very moving. They moved me to tears.”

Ain’t Misbehavin’ certainly allows Marcel Ophüls to remember some very dear people in his life, mostly through the clips in which they appear. The first one is Regine, his German wife of 53 years, with whom he seems to have had a love-hate relationship for a long time. He also rekindles his friendships with John Simpson and John F. Burns, the truly courageous and professional journalists he got to know in Sarajevo at the Holiday Inn where they all stayed. The moment Ophüls shares with Burns, teaching him the lyrics to Happy Holiday—in which the Holiday Inn is mentioned—is quite amusing. Finally, he is compelled to include clips of Danielle Darrieux, who became Ophüls’ favourite actress in the 1950s, and of the great Maurice Chevalier. These two share the privilege of appearing in three of his films. “Why? I love Danielle. I think she’s one of the greatest French screen actresses of the 20th century…. Maurice was one of the great entertainers of the 20th century. Oh! He looked so beautiful with his blue eyes and his white hair… He looked so fantastic!”

Watching Marcel Ophüls’ films again was both a thrilling and enriching experience. There was still something new to discover in every one of them. Furthermore, a Maurice Chevalier or an Ella Fitzgerald song from one of his films could stick with me for quite a while after, allowing me to revisit the film again in my head. When POV interviewed Ophüls, he was most gracious and generous with his time, given that he was in a hospital bed in Germany at the time. Had he not told me I would have never guessed it from his voice tinged with humour, anger, compassion or just sheer mischievousness, depending on the subject. Let’s hope that Ophüls wins his battle with the producers of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and that it will be shown in the uncut version he intended.

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