It is said ‘Love makes the world go round,’ and it is a merry go round in this case. We get to see some who are riding the painted horses of their libido and we know it is a cavalcade, a passing show of women at the lower end of the social class and men of stolidity, class and debauchee all well settled on their places. Naturally while it lasts it is impossible to set apart them by their social differences or polish. You see the fast and furious spin can only give us vignettes and it is set in Vienna in the early 1900s. From the world- weary narrator excellently essayed by Anton Walbrook we follow certain characters in particular in their natural habitat. The prostitute and the maid for example dare to ply their trade and accept the risks that their position entails.
The film demands that the audience pay attention to the structure, to the interplay among the characters, and to the opulent visual elements; and the effect is a delight, as typical with films of Ophuls overtly sexual themes are treated both visually and intellectually to take out what is heady and rank. By no means it is insipid but Ophuls’ keen insight into what keeps the male and female, urbane and demimondaine sparkle makes the difference. Passion for any individual is ephemeral but does it not drive him or her to pursue with all the more ardor though the deed is done and the person has gone? It may be first love that one seeks to recapture but no matter the individual is not likely to quit if time is right and occasion comes along. The face and name of the loved may all be different but what drives it is invariably from same source. Metaphor of a merry-go-round for this motivating force in human behavior is apt. Love is fleeting long live love that makes the world go round.
La Ronde is based on a play by Arthur Schnitzler (1862–1931), it was an adaptation of perhaps the most famous and most scandalous play of fin de siècle and not staged in Vienna until 1921—was ideal material for the filmmaker’s return to his roots. It’s an ingenious piece of dramatic construction. In the first of its ten scenes, a prostitute picks up a soldier, who in the second scene romances a chambermaid, who in the next scene is ravished by her young employer, and so on until the end, when a count spends the night with the streetwalker from the opening scene and the play comes full circle.
‘Ophuls shot the picture entirely in the studio, and he and his co-scenarist, Jacques Natanson, added one more character to the ten in Schnitzler’s play: an unnamed, godlike figure, played by Walbrook, who, assuming several different guises, guides all the heedless lovers through their various intrigues, philosophizes between scenes, and, not incidentally, operates a festive-looking but occasionally balky merry-go-round. (When one of the male characters finds himself unable to perform in bed, Walbrook has to make a few repairs so the love carousel can keep turning.)’
Max Ophuls (1902–57)
Ophuls, who was born in Germany, worked in the theater there and in Austria during the twenties, made films in Germany, France, Italy, and the Netherlands in the thirties, and spent the forties in the United States. La ronde was made in France, where the filmmaker had been a citizen since 1938 but had not lived for a decade; its cast consisted mostly of French actors but also included the Italian Isa Miranda, who had starred in his marvelous La signora di tutti (1934). Last but not the least Anton Walbrook (The Red Shoes) plays the cicerone.
Max Ophuls’ career in the German film industry had to be abruptly stopped when Adolf Hitler came into power. He fitted well all the traits that the Nazi’s loved to hold up to ridicule as decadent: a Jew, – a sophisticated and artistic Jew at that. His last film before he left his native land was a tragic tale of adultery and foolish honor called Liebelei (1932) set in Vienna and based on a play by Schnitzler. (The wry romantic fatalism of Schnitzler perhaps fitted Ophuls’ worldview.) Liebelei was for him a threnody of the vanished grace of Vienna that he had known. La Ronde that came after the Nazi Regime was swept off into the rubbish heap of history was much lighter in tone.
Like many European directors his stint in Hollywood was not a very happy one. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which was adapted from a story by another Viennese, Stefan Zweig. Its subtlety was lost on American audiences of the day, and it flopped. His last two Hollywood movies Caught and The Reckless Moment fared no better.
Trivia: Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is based on a novel by Arthur Schnitzler. (ack: Terence Rafferty-The Criterion Collection 15 Sep’08 In the too-brief life and art of Max Ophuls)