In his cinematic essays, Deleuze mentions Brechtian 'jest,' "the link or knot of attitudes between themselves... [that] do not depend on a previous story" (Cinema 2 192), and that Brecht, like Lang, passes the act of judgement onto the viewer (139), but the conspicuous absence of reference to Brecht - or Brechtian theory in the hands of Benjamin or others - when writing about Ophüls, who named Brecht as one of his closest friends, is, I think, a result of Deleuze's sparring with the Frankfurt School over the legacy of Bergson and, by extension, dialectial materialism. Max Horkheimer's Zu Bergsons Metaphysik der Zeit complains that Bergson's generalities of time trivialize the truth of individual experience, its suffering, and unpleasant social realities, and in "Materialism and Metaphyics," Horkheimer decries "Bergson's depreciation of theoretical thinking" "defenselessness.. before any and all supernaturalist tendencies".. "helplessness in the face of spiritism and occultism".. "the neglect of the theoretical in favor of the bare immediate datum.. wholly robs philosophy of its illuminative effect" while years later, the dialectical Badiou credits the anti-dialectical Deleuze for "single-handedly.. secularizing Bergson." (AB's Deleuze 99) Lola Montès is film's closest thing to a full catalog of Brechtian effects, the parts of which were used with more intensity by Godard in the following decades. It's unclear whether or not Ophüls was influenced by Bergson, but as Badiou says of Deleuze "Bergson.. is his real master" (AB's D 38), Deleuze's interpretation of Lola Montès can be read as an attempt to view Brectian theater as an object within a Bergsonian whole.
Defining the crystal-image as the "formation of an image with two sides, actual and virtual" (Cinema 2 68), Deleuze sees the circus-track of Lola Montès and the round of episodes of La Ronde as his spinning crystal, with Lola (Martine Carol) being "thrust on stage" by the Circus Master (Peter Ustinov) in search of a virtual image of herself. After we are appraised of the physical toll the circus is taking on her, Lola asks the girl who plays her as a child about Lola-as-circus-attraction:
Lola: Do you like this?
Girl: Uh huh.
Lola: Do you still like it in the same way?
Girl: Oui madame. I hope it never ends.
Lola: (hugs her) You're right. Go...
The real Lola Montèz never performed in a circus and Ophüls was originally hired to make a film only about Lola's relationship with the Bavarian King Ludwig I. The Circus Master's cracking the whip while warning the audience of "a creature a hundred times more murderous than any beast in our menagerie" through whom "we'll show everything that women dream of doing, but lack the courage to do," whose "authentic revolution" in Bavaria is heralded by Lola impersonators juggling Lola heads and repeating in unison "authentique," may seem to some today - me at least - as a parody of Nietzsche ("the truth and nothing but the truth"), but the "bloodthirsty monster" and the whip go back to Félicien Champsaur's 1888 pantomine Lulu (left), from which it was also lifted by Frank Wedekind for his 1895 play Earth Spirit, and Champsaur's Lulu was loosely based on the stock character Colombine of the Commedia dell'arte, which was entrenched in French culture by the 17th Century. Another traditional theatrical device is that of the Bänkelsang (bench song, pictured below) technique which Ophüls got from Brecht's The Threepenny Opera, in which the balladeer (or Brechtian chorus) would stand on a bench and gesture to stories pictured on a scroll, the scroll of tableaux which opens and closes Lola Montès, doubling as an allegory of depth of field. The "bench song" was common in Italy in the 16th Century and dates back to 6th Century India. Brecht was against the presentation of iconic, essentializing characters and the film's implied distance from the descriptions of the exploitative circus master has led Lola Montès to be called a feminist film. Ophüls chose neither the subject matter nor did he want to shoot in color, but after Michael Powell, who turned down the film, colorfully filmed Ophüls' beloved Tales of Hoffman, he may have warmed to the idea of shooting a circus in color, deconstructing with Brechtian irony the Colombine/Lulu icon.
Bergman's classic b/w circus drama Sawdust and Tinsel had been shot in Sweden in February 1953 and released the same year, a year before Ophüls was signed to direct Lola, while Jean Renoir's color Commedia dell'arte farce The Golden Coach was released in early 1953. These three masterpieces provide a window to an era of itinerant performance long since vanished. All three were lambasted by the critics at the time and later praised by Andrew Sarris, who said of The Golden Coach: "To claim, as reviewers of the time did, that Renoir had failed to produce a convincing narrative, is to scorn Matisse and Picasso for not painting plausible pictures." The Golden Coach turned a profit, but the other two almost ended their director's careers: In the Cahiers du Cinéma interview with Truffaut and Rivette near the end of his life, a life which may have been cut short by stress over this film, Ophüls expressed optimism that Lola Montès would "slowly recoup its money," which it didn't. In addition to the trashing it took in the French press, the police stood in front of the Théâtre Marigny, a few feet from the Fourth Republic military displays on the Champs-Élysées, telling viewers to avoid the films of the "cosmopolitan" Ophüls.
For Ophüls, the episodic format used in Le Plaisir and La Ronde and the chorus of La Ronde function as what Walter Benjamin considered the modern form of allegory he found in Brecht's plays and Eisensteinian montage.. As Ophüls told costume designer Yuri (George) Annenkov (recounted in Masao Yamaguchi's essay For an Archaeology of Lola Montès): "Lola is merely an axis around which the drama unfolds.. this is not to.. minimize her role.. I am displacing the center of gravity.. she is the one who provokes the dramas that interest us, she is their trigger..." the tabloid femme who enters the viewer into the realm of the composer Franz Liszt, of Ludwig I, the artistically inclined King of Bavaria, grandfather of the more Wagnerian Ludwig II of Neuschwanstein Castle fame, as well as the domestic drama of her first husband, who digests the customs of his class with alcohol and calls her "the eternal victim." 'High art' and political power are represented in the circus by Lola's ascent on the trapeze into vertical space "higher, Lola, higher!," in which the middle classes are told that royalty trumps being Richard Wagner, who the king's ear doctor doesn't like "you could hear him from the bottom of a whale," or the "even greater and very famous Chopin," a spiral which The Circus Master mirrors himself while ascending a spiral staircase (common in Ophüls films) singing a song (referenced in Godard's My Life to Live) while the cameramen are instructed the change color filters in the middle of a shot, something that hadn't been done before because it was believed impossible. Vertical dimensions take on a significance throughout the film determined by the subculture around them: that of the hotel, the opera house, the baroque staircase at Ludwig's palace and at the event where she meets her first husband; the circus' symbolism of vertical space is equally contexual.
Unlike the "all-knowing interlocutor" that introduces La Ronde, the suspect character of the Circus Master warning us of Lola the "murderous creature" provides a Brechtian filter from empathy for the protagonists. There are very few shots of Lola's point of view: only that of the chandelier, accompanied by the repetition "remember the past?," corresponding to her red balloon as a little girl and setting up the 312-frame dissolve from the opening circus scene to the first recollection, seeing the Latin teacher (Oskar Werner, Truffaut's Jules) hiking through nature in a horizontal depth of field, later looking down at the Latin teacher - with whom she could have settled down with instead of taking up Ustinov's circus offer - from a second floor (ergo lower cost) hotel room, and the looking down before the climactic shot of the leap. Her gaze at cultural rituals like the society dance through the porthole of the ferry (with just a brief POV before her reaction), looking into the dormitory accommodation she so detests on the ferry to Europe, looking at the stars symbolizing her social ambitions at the bow of the boat, and the Bavarian military parade are mediated through the sight of her seeing.
Ophüls, normally evasive and coy, seemed to confide to the kindred spirit Annenkov, a renowned painter (right, Portrait of the dancer Elena Annenkov, 1917) who designed costumes for circus dramas in Russia, resulting in a book by Annenkov about Ophüls in French that hasn't been translated. Ophüls described to him how the color scheme of the circus was a virtual mirroring the actual: "In my film, the circus assumes precisely a symbolic sense... I want all colors to collide with each other in the arena of the circus, because my circus runs through an entire life, encompassing all its stages." If this sounds like Baudelaire's poem "Correspondences" ("through forests of symbols.. // Perfumes, sounds, and colors correspond..,") Ophüls wrote in a play called "Thoughts on Film" that "Baudelaire knew all about [the camera as a human eye] long before their were films" and then recited Baudelaire's prose poem "The Window": "A man looking out of an open window never sees as much as the same man looking directly at a closed window. There is no object more deeply mysterious, no object more pregnant with suggestion, more insidiously sinister, in short more truly dazzling than a window lit up from within by even a single candle. What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can perceive taking place behind a pane of windowglass. In that pit, in that blackness or brightness, life is being lived, life is suffering, life is dreaming...." This reference by Ophüls provides a key to not only the many shots through windows (the brothel in Le Plaisir, Lola looking through the porthole at the dance) but Ophüls' constant practice of placing screens and obstructions between the camera and the scene, something von Stroheim had done in Hollywood before him.
But as Andrew Sarris, the inventor of auteur theory, added to his 1962 proclamation "Lola Montes is in my unhumble opinion the greatest film of all time, and I am willing to stake my critical reputation, such as it is, on this one proposition above all others" (pdf) the 1969 update "I stand by that judgment.. I have been told by authorities in the field that it even fits into the pot [marijuana] scene as it swirls and swoops through space with its delirious director's camera," it is, most notably in the circus scenes, the symbolic encoding between the correspondences of sense, including color, vertical space, depth of field, memory, dolly shots, color filters, personae and caricatures, costume, representations of time and places, filtered through an all-encompassing Brechtian irony, that dispenses of acquired perceptive assumptions to return the viewer to state of child-like discovery, without the manipulation that often awaits children in theaters. As King Ludwig I was notorious for promoting the arts at the expense of the public, hard of hearing and lascivious, Ophüls turns this episode into a running cinematic allegory of sense: at the opera house, tapping his fingers to Lola's dances to music he can't hear, judging a painting by the duration of its production, having Lola replace cigars with pastries while they conspire to dismiss the university faculty, remarking next to a giant model ear at the doctor's office that "there are things I wish to hear nor see" while the white pamphlet against him enters a 76 frame dissolve into a riot scene, reading aloud Hamlet's "How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,/ Seem to me all the uses of this world" while the masses riot outside.
In the final shot (don't watch it if you don't want to see the final shot) the virtual image of Lola and the circus reflects back to the actual phenomonen of the cinema, wherein audience with the former mistress of kings and composers is being offered to the masses for a small fee, deposited into the head of the Lola statue, while the camera pans back at Lola in her animal cage, the cinematic image that André Bazin has likened to a sarcophagus, shrinking behind a crowd of men in hats which can be seen as both a egalitarian celebration and Brechtian alienation-effect, which I fancy to be a precedent to Antonioni's distancing of the female protagonist in L'Eclisse, but as in L'Eclisse retains the melancholy - enhanced by the melody of the barrel organ - of this distancing, both from the empathy towards the protagonist and the circus culture that is vanishing on the horizon of time, blocked off at last by the closing of the Bänkelsang scroll and its illusory perspectives and separated from our eye by that single leaf spiraling in the air.
Circus Master (aside): I was terrified, you know. I couldn't live without you. Thank you.
Lola: It'll be alright.
Circus Master (aloud): Treat yourself to a good time, gentlemen. Come and see Lola! Only one dollar!.. Mind your cigar, sir! Roll up, gentlemen! An unforettable souvenir for a dollar!.. Step right up! Only one dollar. It's next to nothing. You won't regret your money, gentlemen!