Melancholy baby

Love comes too late in tragic Liebelei (Love Story)

Writer Arthur Schnitzler's name has become synonymous with a certain sexual malaise and corruption underlying proper society — in the author's day, Hapsburg, Vienna — and in a director like Stanley Kubrick's hands, contemporary Manhattan.

The same sense of decadent claustrophobia Kubrick brought to his film adaptation of Schnitzler's Traumnovelle in Eyes Wide Shut, revered director Max Ophuls brings to his film Liebelei (Love Story). The 1932 film, Ophuls' last in Germany before the Jewish director fled the Nazis for France, is smothered in tension and melancholy.

There is often a beautiful, web-like perversity to Ophuls' films where sexual obsessions and love affairs can suck characters into a condition known in German as weltschmerz — a mood of sentimental sadness produced by a world that does not live up to romantic expectations. And it's a decadence nicely calibrated to the comparable psychological quicksand of Schnitzler, whose work Reigen (1897) Ophuls also adapted to the screen in 1950 as La Ronde.

Ophuls made filigreed, romantic films with a lethal dusting of tragedy that suggested such dreams of eternal love were only a glittering, cruel illusion. Like Austrian-born director Josef von Sternberg's settings, Ophuls' mise en scene is opulent but bitterly cold, with no sign of the sexual heat or gauzy candlelight that warms von Sternberg.

In a sumptuous Viennese opera house two remarkably handsome soldiers, Theo (Carl Esmond) and Fritz (Wolfgang Liebeneiner), discuss women — primarily a married Baroness whose intimate company Fritz has been keeping. As if willing Fritz to look closely before he heads into his doom, a pair of opera glasses fall from the upper balcony to crash at Fritz's feet. The gesture is a portent of disaster, even more telling because Christine (Magda Schneider), the pretty young girl who has dropped it, will soon offer Fritz something more luscious than the company of a beautiful and aristocratic woman, and that is, of course, love.

While Fritz's devoted roommate romances Christine's more "experienced" friend Mizzi (Luise Ullrich), Fritz and Christine bow their heads in prayer-like devotion to each other. She is a poor girl whose father dreams of making her an opera star, and she is dazzled by the sophistication of Fritz's world, defined by lavish balls and the codes of honor of the military, which Schnitzler and Ophuls reveal to be a sham.

Ophuls' storytelling is emotionally precise and choreographed to inspire a maximum of effect from the most delicate of gestures, like the way Christine prepares a scented handkerchief-compress for Fritz to blot away his guilt and anxiety over the Baroness.

Unaware of his infidelity, Christine falls deeply in love, and as the pair walk home from their first real meeting, Ophuls for a brief instant almost convinces us that a fairytale ending may result from this sudden, heartfelt alliance.

But when the Baroness' husband discovers her affair and challenges Fritz to a duel, the movement that so often defines Ophuls' films — the waltzes and music and visual enchantment — becomes a galloping rush that is no longer pleasurable but painful.

There is an unbearable sadness to Liebelei, which decides the blossoming of romantic love for Fritz has simply come too late. Anxious to see Christine before his duel with the Baron, Fritz arrives to find only her father at home. He surveys the cozy house and speaks, for the first time, of Christine's dead mother. Instantly Ophuls conveys the loneliness of his beloved's situation and her desire for someone to fill a void in her heart. Christine is just one of many Ophuls characters who search tirelessly for a love that evades them.