Last Wednesday, I was glad to have the opportunity to see Max Ophüls’s 1940 film De Mayerling à Sarajevo (aka Mayerling to Sarajevo or just Sarajevo). It’s been making the rounds for its 75th anniversary, and it had short run at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring.
I was eager to see it for two reasons. First because for the past few weeks I’ve been working closely with Vejas Liulevicius, a professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and the author of War Land on the Eastern Front and The German Myth of the East. He’s done several lecture series for The Great Courses, including one on the Great War. I learned so much from him about the role of Slav nationalism in Eastern Europe during the buildup to the First World War, and it was an utterly fascinating and unforgettable experience working with him.
My second reason for being interested in Ophüls’s film is that the novel I plan to write after the one I’m currently researching will be set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1913. Like Robert Musil in Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften, part of the idea will be to use the reader’s awareness of the impending war, and the fact that it will bring an end to the 600-year-old empire, as a source of irony.
Ophüls puts the same idea to dramatic effect in his film. In the guise of a typical romance, he tells the story of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek. They meet, they fall in love, and (spoiler alert) they’re assassinated in the streets of Sarajevo, an event which gives rise to the Great War. Though he is Franz Josef’s nephew and heir, Franz Ferdinand’s ideas about a United States of Austria have made him an enemy of his uncle and his ministers. The emperor sends Franz running about the empire with the army, which it turn makes the heir a target for nationalist factions such as the Serbian separatist movement, the Black Hand. Gavrilo Princip is briefly seen preparing for his history-making moment, and again taking his fatal shots, but otherwise the film concentrates on the love between the archduke and his wife.
The overarching irony–from the moment we meet Franz and then Sophie we know they are dead–is extremely moving. Every moment of romantic expression between them is oppressively heavy with the recognition that they’re doomed. And as the plot advances, the machinations of the characters and the minor choices of Sophie–most painfully her insistence on accompanying her husband in the car after they’ve already been attacked with a bomb–conspire to intensify our dread.
It’s really a wonderful movie, and surprisingly modern in its acting style. The casual and very believable interactions between husband and wife build tremendously sympathy for them. Ophüls conveys a lot about his characters in quick strokes, as when the two new lovers ride together in a cab and Sophie insists Franz return to Vienna despite both of them longing to stay in each other’s arms.
The only disjunctive moment, in fact, is the ending, where the film swings abruptly into an advertisement for the war effort in France. Of course, given that the film came out in 1940 and that Ophüls was a German Jew who fled his homeland after the Reichstag fire, the prowar rhetoric is certainly called for and we can all get on board with the anti-Nazi message. But it does take us rather suddenly out of an otherwise intimate story in a way that is a little jarring.