Max Ophüls' final film, Lola Montès, met with a fate all too common of high art in the classic era of filmmaking: it sparked confusion and scandal, so its handlers savaged the film with razors to make it more palatable, as they'd not yet figured out that slicing up an art film only puts off the audience it might have had and never attracts the plebs (in fairness, producers still haven't figured this out). How strange it is that so many can look back so fondly on the silent era, the Golden Age of Hollywood and the postwar cinema of so many countries -- and I certainly count myself among these fans -- when so many truly artistic creations were suppressed, re-cut and destroyed. Lola's brief moment of notoriety faded, leaving the task of its preservation to the critics who reevaluated it. Perhaps the chief reason we can speak today of a fully restored version of the film in accordance with the director's wishes is the famous appraisal of Andrew Sarris, who wrote in the '60s that "in [his] unhumble opinion, the greatest movie of all time." In a time when the only available versions of the film were choppily re-edited and redubbed, such a proclamation meant something, yet the complete version softens Sarris' opinion. For now audiences can easily see the movie for what it is: a female-centric iteration of Citizen Kane.
Like Kane, Lola places its narrative within a seemingly unnecessary framing device: Kane reveals the ultimate result of the life we're about to follow in flashback, while Lola opens at a circus. The ringmaster, played by Peter Ustinov, does his shtick, teasing the audience with wild proclamations of intrigue and unbelievable sights. He introduces his final act as the most shocking, before wheeling out Lola, a countess now forced to sit in the middle of a circus facing hecklers. Kane's open redirected the goal of the narrative, from finding out what happens to a protagonist to why and how, and this circus act reflects the entire film. Ustinov's ringmaster tells the crowd "the truth, nothing but the truth" and they shall receive very little, if any at all. He charges the crowd a quarter to shout questions about her scandalous life, which the ringmaster answers for her. "Does she prefer love or money?" "Both!" he barks. As Lola sits there, paraded about as a shocking, amoral hussy when in fact she sits quietly as the man in her life crafts the myth around her, as she sits in the middle of a tent, confined by curtains and support beams, we see Lola for what she really is: the product of a system that abuses her and then forces her to accept responsibility for that abuse.
This becomes evidently immediately when Ophüls moves to the first flashback, as Lola travels with the composer Franz Liszt. Liszt spends their entire carriage ride declaring his love for Lola, begging her to make him the man she holds onto. He looks outside the carriage to see a buggy following them, Lola's buggy, to be exact. He asks why she feels the need to bring a horse and carriage with her, and she responds that she likes to know that she can get away at any time. This moment feeds into her image as a femme fatale, a "love-em-and-leave-em" heart-breaker, yet Liszt leaves her shortly after they arrive to their home, and she gathers up some of the music he wrote and discarded and leaves tearfully in that carriage she brought with her just in case. Now we can see why she has it follow her anywhere: not to provide a getaway but a means to go home.
The rest of Lola's story plays out in a similar manner, with men both important and insignificant so struck by her beauty that they ignore the scandal surrounding her to be with her, then they cast her off once the waxy sheen wears off, thus adding to her scandal while they can return without a scratch in their own social veneer. She moves up the social ladder throughout the film through her mastery of sexual politics, allowing her men to use her because with every added scandal she becomes that much more interesting. We see her flee her mother, whom we see attempt to pimp her out as a child, by marrying mom's lover, a general who turns out to be a violently alcoholic philanderer. Eventually, she manages even to seduce Ludwig I, King of Bavaria (Anton Walbrook). Ophüls' postmodern doubleback, going back further in Lola's memories before picking up after the Liszt episode, allows the director to structure Lola's story as a crescendo, moving from the low-key bond between Franz and Lola to her disastrous marriage to her outrageous time in Bavaria.
The circus act heats up too, and Ophüls uses his gentle, beautiful tracking shots to craft one of the most bitterly ironic films I can recall seeing. Ustinov's ringmaster speaks of Lola's happy childhood as we see the mother whoring her child in the background, and he sells the crowd on Lola's loving marriage in contrast to the catastrophe we see in her flashback. The ringmaster does strike up a certain rapport with Lola, dropping his voice between pronouncements to check on her, but he understands that he can't win over the crowd by presenting a character worthy of pity. Even though the ringmaster is the only male figure in her life who sees Lola for who she really is, he more than any other feeds the mythos for his own use. He builds the circus act around her, forcing her to re-enact odious lies about bathing nude for a sultan and other carnal rumors as she moves along a conveyor belt in a hideous, perverse vision of Botticelli's Birth of Venus. By the end of the act, he's placed her on such a high pedestal (literally) that the grand aim of the sideshow is throwing her off of it.
Ophüls' direction is itself ironic and subversive: a blatant violation of the 180° rule occurs in the back-and-forth in the carriage between Lola and Franz, just to remind us that we aren't watching this from Lola's subjective memory, though that does not mean that we can accept these flashbacks as pure fact. Ophüls' tracking shots are the foundation of his legend, but they are still jaw-dropping to this neophyte: look at the canted angle shot near the start of the film as the ringmaster brings in his acrobats and other performers in to represent Lola's lovers, the way that it corrects itself slowly to the horizontal axis as it pans to follow the action. These movements call attention to themselves precisely because that's what Ophüls wants. He breaks the illusion that the camera is an audience member in the circus when the first flashback ceases and we follow Lola backstage and gawk at her at her dressing table like a voyeur -- the director even narrows the screen through vertical slits as if peeking to see her -- and any emotional disconnect felt with the story is the product of Ophüls' metastructuring.
In that sense, failing to secure his first choices for the title role proved fortuitous, as Martine Carol, whose talent generally arrived anywhere she went just before she got there, actually works perfectly in the part. The real Lola Montez, who of course never wound up in a circus at all and even commanded higher appearance fees than Dickens when she toured the States, tried her hand at acting, singing and dancing and failed spectacularly at all three. She got by on her sex, which is how Carol collected her paychecks. Her lack of range and performing capabilities allow Ophüls to remove himself further and to further subvert audience expectations. Carol's Lola is as stiff and mannered as the various portraits painted of her -- try not to laugh in a late scene in which Ludwig I commissions a painting of Lola, which looks so completely and eerily like the waxen figure who moves through these flashbacks that even Lola will not have it, as it too clearly "advertises" her wares. Ophüls constantly teases and frustrates us as he both works around Carol's shortcomings and deepens his own thematic and aesthetic choices: we don't see her singing, only Lola whinging over the reviews she receives. When Ludwig places her in a show, we see the king tapping his fingers in time as Ophüls frames them in an iris. The next shot, of the camera tracking up from Ludwig and his ostentatious wife applauding to spot Lola's student lover also clapping wildly until the camera reaches the chandelier in the ceiling recalls not only the finite space of the circus tent but the scene in Citizen Kane where Kane secures an opera of his own to display the dubious skill of his paramour, a tracking shot that moves above the forced applause to find two stagehands holding their noses in disgust. Even when we get the chance to see one or both of Lola's talents, Ophüls abruptly cuts to a protracted shot involving the servants searching the castle for a needle and thread to repair her ripped bodice.
Yet Ophüls displays a humanity that separates him from his more satiric-minded descendant, Stanley Kubrick. Jean-Luc Godard once said, "A tracking shot is a moral act," and while ol' Max typically uses his tracking shots here to undercut morality and humanity, he can occasionally evoke chasms of empathy from them. Take the flashback where Lola and her mother travel on a ship with her mother's lover. The trio board the cruise liner, and Ophüls tracks as the mother and lover stop immediately at their room in first class, and Lola is made to keep walking, just keep walking. She stays almost exclusively in the submissive left as a bellhop/deck hand who's clearly had to do this many times gently leads her along the passageways. The tracking shots last so long that we begin to feel pity for Lola long before she finally, finally reaches her destination, a dormitory filled with other young women relegated to the back of the boat. As she gazes out upon them, Lola realizes that all of these girls are just like her, whored out by mothers who neglect them. This revelation does not assuage her, reassuring her that she isn't the only one who suffers; it crushes her, proving that nothing about her is truly special. We later see her on the boat's deck literally moving between two worlds, on one end the fabulous gala where the mother dances with her lover, on the other a door leading back to her cramped, crowded quarters. She looks up, and for the only time in the film we see the stars. Whatever choice Lola makes, be it a return to be with the jaded women around her age who know the score or an acceptance of the game her mother mastered, she will never know any real freedom, and that brief glance at the stars is the closest she'll ever come to it.
Also, consider the way Ophüls uses all those iris effects to undercut the lush, picturesque imagery afforded by the CinemaScope lens. Remember, it's meant for snakes and funerals, not humans. The iris effects recall the silent era, likely the point in cinematic history in which the emotions of the story most easily meshed with those of the audience, not to mention that the universality of silent film fits well with the multilingual audio track.
What's particularly amazing about Lola Montès is the way in which so much of the film's meaning is not conveyed in editing montage but in the mise-en-scène and the long shots. Characters are nearly always blocked or framed by something -- columns, lacy curtains, etc. -- constraining them even more than their needlessly ornate clothing. Ophüls reminds us that he's been in charge all along, but he allows us to draw our own interpretations.
Never is this more evident than in the climax, where Lola must throw herself off the pedestal erected for her, fulfilling the crowd's desire to kill its idol. Her stunt eradicates whatever lingering doubts anyone might have concerning the validity of the circus: a woman half her age trained all her life in acrobatics could not leap from such a high platform onto a mattress, and Lola has done it for four months. Ophüls films the moment of truth in first person, lending the act even more tension, thrills and horror. Lola Montès ends in tragedy, one of the most shocking and rending I've ever seen, though not in the way you might think after reading the last few sentences. The finale cements Lola as a caged (literally) animal, made to shuffle through men for their own carnal amusement, now with greater efficiency than ever thanks to the ringmaster, who in many ways is the most repugnant character of all. Ophüls then ends, naturally, with a tracking shot, moving backwards to capture the full scope of the nightmare of this existence, stopping when the camera moves outside the theater and the curtains close. Ophüls refuses to let us see the outside world, even for a second, suggesting we're all just the stars of our own circuses, horrifying affairs that parade our failures for the entertainment of the faceless demons who swarm Lola's cage in droves.