Monday, March 6, 2017

Marcel Ophuls

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I WAS NEVER A VERY GOOD STUDENT. It wasn't that I didn't want to be one, but by the time I dropped out of college in the mid-'80s it was obvious to me that I lacked the patience and discipline for classroom instruction. A decade later, though, I was painfully aware of the shortcomings in my education, and in the absence of a thriving social life, I spent most of my nights and spare hours at home reading, trying to make up for what felt like glaring gaps in my understanding of history, politics, economics, science and philosophy.

What there was of my social life was usually spent in movie theatres - mostly rep cinemas and places like the Cinematheque, where the film festival's programmers ran screenings and retrospectives out of the Jackman Theatre at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I remember weeks of screenings devoted to Eric Rohmer and Powell and Pressburger movies, and one day I was called by my editor at NOW and assigned to shoot the subject of a future retrospective - director Marcel Ophuls.

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I knew Ophuls for The Sorrow and the Pity and Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, two major documentaries about the Holocaust, war crimes and collaboration. Both films were in the retrospective, along with other films such as his latest project, a still-in-progress documentary about war reporters and the ongoing conflict in the former Yugoslavia, into which Ophuls had provocatively cut in scenes from old Hollywood comedies and musicals. He'd particularly outraged and baffled some of his audience and critics with a scene shot in Venice, on a break from filming in Sarajevo, where a very attractive and naked call girl lolled around on a bed behind Ophuls, looking very pasha-like in a dressing gown and fedora while he speculated on the morality of war reporters.

Early on in the film, he frames the story by recalling his father, director Max Ophuls, working on his film From Mayerling to Sarajevo. Shot in France at the beginning of World War Two, it recalled the events that started the First World War in Yugoslavia in a historical love story about the romance between the doomed Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Ophuls' father, who had already fled from the Nazis in Germany, was forced to go into exile again when France was invaded shortly after filming finished, this time taking his family with him to Hollywood, where the young Ophuls would attend Hollywood High School and Berkeley.

Marcel Ophuls, Toronto, Nov. 1995

I found Ophuls fascinating, and shot him to look as sagely as possible as he reclined heavily into his chair. I found my clean white wall in the room where we were shooting, and managed to make the shots look like high key studio portraits, and Ophuls like the smartest man in the room, appraising the camera - and his audience, by implication - skeptically. I'd end up attending every night of his retrospective afterwards; I had a lot more patience for long, slow-moving documentaries back then, and was particularly impressed by Ophuls' insistence on avoiding clear cut moral judgments, and spreading the guilt and culpability around. It felt very wise and sophisticated.

As I've gotten older, however, I've come to realize that there are still moral absolutes, and that a refusal to take sides is often less than sophisticated detachment and more like a game meant to dignify sophistry or even mere cowardice. A new film, which Ophuls began crowd-funding in 2014, is apparently sympathetic to the Palestinian leadership and entertains the idea that Muslims are, post-9/11, the new Jews, and sounds less like one of Ophuls' provocations than an embrace of a liberal piety. I'm glad he's still trying to work at a time when documentaries like his are even harder to make than they were when he began, but can't help but contemplate his latest film with dismay.

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