LIEBELEI, based on Arthur Schnitzler's play about a tragic love affair in turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a marvelously acted and beautifully made early film by the great German director Max Ophuls.
In Austria, a young army officer named Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner) is having an affair with a married woman, the Baroness Eggerdorff (Olga Tschechowa), but her husband, Baron Eggerdorff (Gustaf Gruendgens), begins to suspect, and Fritz decides to break it off. Fritz and another officer friend of
his named Theo (Willy Eichberger), meet two girls at the opera one night, and take them out to a café. Theo goes off with the outgoing and friendly Mizi (Luise Ullrich), and Fritz goes with her shy and quiet friend, Christine (Magda Schneider), who's an aspiring opera singer. Theo and Mizi begin a
casual affair, but Fritz and Christine fall madly in love, and he tells the Baroness that he can no longer see her. Fritz and Christine swear their love for eternity during a sleigh ride through the snowy woods, but the Baroness's brother-in-law, Major Eggerdorff (Paul Otto) learns of her affair
with Fritz and informs the Baron.
The Baron confronts Fritz and challenges him to a duel, and Fritz reluctantly accepts due to the military code of honor. Fritz tells Christine that he has to go away for a few days, and preparations for the duel begin, with the military court ruling that the Baron will fire the first shot. Theo
protests that the duel is unjustified, telling the court that Fritz's affair with the Baroness is long over, and refuses to serve as Fritz's second. Before the morning of the duel, Fritz goes to see Christine, but her father tells him that she's auditioning at the opera. The duel commences, and
Theo and Mizi wait in the distance and hear the first shot fired, then silence. Theo runs into the woods and finds Fritz dead, then goes to tell Christine, who is jubilant over passing her audition, but when she hears the news about Fritz, goes to a window and jumps out, landing in the street. The
voices of Fritz and Christine swear their eternal love for each other once more over a shot of the snow-covered woods.
The film of LIEBELEI substitutes romanticism for the caustic irony of Arthur Schnitzler's original play, in which Fritz was a cad who still carried on his affair with the Baroness while merely dallying with Christine. By having Fritz fall deeply in love with Christine, Ophuls has turned the story
into one of the screen's great tragic love stories, filmed in a lyrical style of elegant simplicity. The celebrated sleigh ride through the snowy forest where Christine and Fritz declare their eternal love is deliriously romantic and beautifully filmed, as is the haunting finale, where Fritz and
Christine's voices are heard again. The duel sequence is a classic, as grim officers in black uniforms step out of black carriages being pulled by black horses, and walk though the glaring brightness of the snowy woods. We don't see the duel itself, only Theo and Mizi's reactions to it, and when
only one shot is heard, Theo starts running as Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony" begins to play and is carried into the next two scenes, when Christine's father is playing it at the opera house, and when Christine learns of Fritz's death. Ophuls's legendary fluid tracking shots are exquisitely executed
by the great cinematographer Franz Planer, as when the camera glides and spins across the dance floor with Fritz and Christine, continuing through the next scene at a slightly different pace as Fritz stiffly dances with the Baroness.
Ophuls also draws remarkably naturalistic performances from the entire cast and creates a true sense of spontaneity among the young lovers, and camaraderie between Fritz and Theo, turning a potentially archaic and melodramatic story into something that's real and human. Gustaf Gruendgens is
chillingly effective as the rigid Baron, Luise Ullrich is perfect as the slutty, fun-loving Mizi, and Willy Eichberger is excellent as the philandering Theo. Wolfgang Liebeneiner brings just the right blend of cockiness and naiveté to Fritz, while Magda Schneider is very moving as the simple and
vulnerable Christine (interestingly, Schneider's daughter Romy played the same role in a 1958 remake called CHRISTINE). LIEBELEI was Ophuls's first big success, but since he and Schnitzler were both Jewish, their names were removed from the credits in Germany, and he fled to France to escape from
Hitler and the Third Reich, where he filmed a French version of the story called UNE HISTOIRE D'AMOUR (1933). The Nazis later destroyed the negative and tried to suppress the film due to its antimilitarism, but thankfully, it has survived, and even in its truncated and mutilated form, attests to
Ophuls's cinematic genius. (Adult situations.)
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- Review: LIEBELEI, based on Arthur Schnitzler's play about a tragic love affair in turn-of-the-century Vienna, is a marvelously acted and beautifully made early film by the great German director Max Ophuls. In Austria, a young army officer named Fritz (Wolfgang Li… (more)