A WONDERFUL MERRY-GO-ROUND OF LOVE WITH ELEVEN STARS.
Born in Germany, Max Ophüls left his country at an early stage, after the Reichstag fire in 1933, realizing that it would not be possible for him as a Jew to stay in a place where Nazis were in power. His first home outside of Germany became France and the United States his second one, arriving some time after the fall of Paris.
Ophüls made several movies in Hollywood, most notably Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), but when he finally returned to France in 1950, it was as if his career started for real. This was when Ophüls made his best movies, and it started with La Ronde.
Taking place in Vienna
The original play by Arthur Schnitzler was first published in 1900 and the story takes place ten years earlier in Vienna. It begins with a master of ceremonies (Anton Walbrook) informing his audience that we are about to see a waltz of love. Like a merry-go-round the romances will transport us from one couple to the next. It begins with a prostitute, Léocadie (Simone Signoret), convincing a soldier, Franz (Serge Reggiani), to have a little fun under a bridge. Franz goes on to pick up a chambermaid, Marie (Simone Simon), at a dance hall, and she has a flirt with Alfred (Daniel Gélin), the son of her employers, and Alfred… well, on and on it goes, and the master of ceremonies keeps popping up in new disguises to guide us along.
Attacked as a “Jewish pornographer”
Schnitzler’s play was printed in private and spread throughout several European countries over the years, its sexual themes deemed too risqué to have the play produced on a stage. Finally, in 1920, it happened in Berlin and the consequences were severe; Schnitzler was attacked as a ”Jewish pornographer”. Even if the charges of immorality were dismissed in court, Schnitzler made sure the play was removed from German stages. Still, it had a profound effect, inspiring both theater productions and films in several countries; Sigmund Freud reportedly told Schnitzler that the playwright seemed to have reached the same conclusions about human behavior as he had, but through intuition, not by spending hour after hour analyzing people.
When Max Ophüls turned the play into a film, 30 years after it was first staged, it became too sexually daring for certain American tastes; censors in New York banned the movie, but the Supreme Court overruled their decision. Modern audiences will find it hard to understand exactly what is so provocative about this story; after all, all it does is illustrate our sexual curiosity (without showing nudity) and how we are connected to each other. That’s not to downplay the effect of the play and this adaptation; on the contrary, it remains timeless. As the focus of the story jumps from one quick romance to the other, it’s clear that love and sex knows no boundaries; the desires go through different classes and temperaments. It comes as no surprise to learn that modern adaptations of the play obviously add characters that are gay and diverse in other ways.
Watching this story, whether it’s in 2022 or 1922, makes you ponder whatever consequences of casual sex or a romance that seem the most relevant to your own times; it could be perceptions of moral values, or STDs, or the sensual games that lovers play. In Ophül’s version, men usually come across as caricatures because age difference, marriage and different types of passion in the stories fuel satire.
Walbrook is excellent as the master of ceremonies, a character that doesn’t exist in the play, but cleverly and cheekily holds the film together. Oscar Straus’s music score is a perfectly enchanting accompaniment to the film’s merry-go-round.
La Ronde 1950-France. 97 min. B/W. Produced by Ralph Baum, Sacha Gordine. Directed by Max Ophüls. Screenplay: Jacques Natanson, Max Ophüls. Play: Arthur Schnitzler. Music: Oscar Straus. Production Design: Jean d’Eaubonne. Cast: Anton Walbrook (Master of Ceremonies), Serge Reggiani (Franz), Simone Simon (Marie), Simone Signoret (Léocadie), Daniel Gélin, Danielle Darrieux… Jean-Louis Barrault.
Trivia: The play has been adapted numerous times, including as Circle of Love (1964), Chain of Desire (1992) and 360 (2011).
BAFTA: Best Film. Venice: Best Screenplay, Production Design.