Among the works of Max Ophuls, this film based upon a short story by Arthur Schnitzler stands out as a mature work where his grasp of the story telling and a particular style that we associate with him converge. This is his first milestone and fifth feature film.
Ophuls treats love straightforward and in Liebelei where adultery is not taken casually but with gravity such liaisons that entail between parties of unequal standing. Yet the pull of love the baroness and a junior lieutenant cannot dismiss for the thrill of it. Their expectations from it also seem unequal. As often the case is the woman in such exigencies can demand and get what she desires. The lieutenant thus gives in to a fatal error of giving the key to his lodging house that he shares with his buddy who is oberlieutenant (one rank above). Love and friendship are not stretched to test the credulity of the viewer in order to keep the story move headlong. While the buddies pursue their love, life seems to move away from their social milieu. It is romantic love that people lonely streets, empty cafes, dreamed landscapes where love must grow as naturally as intended. But the past makes its thrust like an assassins stiletto when least expected and it makes this film a poignant essay on love.
The film begins with staging of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio where the heroine is restrained by the Pasha Selim’s harem. The story that unfolds before our eyes is the young lieutenant who is abducted by fate for his past indiscretion. We cannot but feel the malignant gaze of Baron von Eggersdorff from the upper stall fixed on Lieutenant Fritz Lobheimer who is seated below. Even as the young man leaves for his assignment before the third act commences we know he is not far from the thoughts of the suspicious husband. The baron wants to surprise his wife and when he arrives we know it is a matter of time their stolen kisses would leave its shadow on the lovers.
Contrasting the gloom of the baronial mansion that envelops the lover making a getaway we see him with Christine, the daughter of a musician, his new found love and they ride through a romantic landscape. The lieutenant means when he pledges eternal love against the backdrop of fresh snow glittering in the light. He promises to meet her every day except Saturdays where he is obliged to meet Baron and his wife. He is related to the baron and hence the liaison is much more damning for the class that stood for honor and good manners.
The duel between the baron and the lieutenant is crucial to the resolution of the story. A similar duel is treated in Ophul’s later film The earrings of Madame de… which is his crowning achievement as a film maker.
François Truffaut on Ophuls: in a moving obituary for Ophuls, wrote: “He was not the virtuoso or the aesthete or the decorative filmmaker he has been called. He didn’t make ten or eleven shots with a single sweep of the camera merely to ‘look good’ . . . Like his friend Jean Renoir, Ophuls always sacrificed technique to the actor. Ophuls thought actors were at their best and least theatrical when forced to some physical effort—climbing stairs, running through the countryside, or dancing throughout a long single take.”
* Magda Schneider as Christine Weyring
* Wolfgang Liebeneiner as Lieutenant Fritz Lobheimer
* Luise Ulrich as Mitzi Schlager
* Carl Esmond as Lieutenant Theo Kaiser
* Olga Tschechowa as Baronin von Eggersdorff
* Gustaf Gründgens as Baron von Eggersdorff
* Paul Hörbiger as Old Weyring, Christine’s father
Ophüls later remade the film in France as Une histoire d’amour, using most of the original cast.
Magda Schneider’s daughter, Romy Schneider, played the same role in the 1958 film Christine.