Ophuls was born in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of Hildegard Wall and the director Max Ophüls. His family left Germany in 1933 following the coming to power of the Nazi Party and settled in Paris, France. Following the invasion of France by Germany in May 1940 they were forced to flee to the Vichy zone, remaining in hiding for over a year before crossing the Pyrenees into Spain in order to travel to the United States, arriving there in December 1941. Marcel attended Hollywood High School, then Occidental College, Los Angeles. He spent a brief period in serving in a U.S. Army theatrical unit in Japan in 1946, then studied at the University of California, Berkeley. Ophuls became a naturalized citizen of France in 1938, and of the United States in 1950.