At a friend’s house, I saw a video of Liebelei, Max Ophuls’s beautiful film of Arthur Schnitzler’s play which was shown on television some months ago. Made in 1932, this masterpiece is a rarity: although the Third Reich censors removed Ophuls’s name from the credits and he left Germany on the day after the Reichstag fire, it was banned by the Allied Commission when the war was over because its success had happened to coincide with the Nazi regime. It begins behind the scenes at the Vienna Opera House. The first act of The Abduction from the Seraglio has just ended: the stage manager anxiously looks out through a peephole in the curtain to survey the crowded stalls and balconies. We share his view – the spectators are now being spied on. Then, the chandelier in the auditorium flares alight to herald the arrival of the Emperor; the audience rise, turn their backs on the stage and gaze up at the Royal Box. Very subtly – almost subliminally – Ophuls has adumbrated a mystery central to drama: who is being watched, and by whom?
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