I first saw Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in 1959 at The Yeadon, a neighbourhood movie house in a white working-class suburb of Philadelphia. I was 16. Imitation of Life was about four women, two of them black. When we came out afterward, most of us were crying. The theatre owner’s wife was standing in the lobby with a box of Kleenex. Many people gratefully took a tissue to dry their eyes.

This is what Sirk wanted, I believe. The critics had barfed all over the film, hating it as “a soap opera” for the same reasons Sirk and we loved it. The movie had played us, communally, as its instrument. It had passed like a ritual sacrifice, with fear and pity climaxing with the immolation of the (black) heroine for us whites. This movie experience had had a quality I would call “sacramental” but which Douglas Sirk, following his beloved Arthur Schopenhauer, preferred to call “irony” – in the Aristotelian sense: art’s ability to clarify and anneal. Sirk thought movies should function for society, as Socrates’ dialogues and Euripides’s melodramas did in ancient Athens. Imitation of Life seared us. The melodrama played the audience, as though we were its piano. “Melodrama” means “music and drama”. Music with the text accentuates emotions, which in cinema enact battles of love and dread, good and evil, light and darkness, in movements choreographed. Movies that move, which have first of all to be emotional experiences, are quintessentially melodramatic – motion and light and music and text. L’Arrivée d’un train à la gare de Ciotât, The Searchers, Star Wars, The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Birds, Pierrot le fou, Paisà, Snow White, Citizen Kane, Diary of a Country Priest (1) … what good movie is not ultimately good melodrama?

Imitation of Life was Sirk’s biggest success and last commercial film. He had been all but ignored during his career and was resurrected only a decade after it by tiny yet earnest coteries scattered around Europe and America. If his most famous apostle was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, his most Pauline apostle was Jon Halliday, whose interview, Sirk on Sirk (1972) – one of the greatest film books ever – reappeared in Sirk’s centenary year 25 percent longer and ten times better (2).

Jon Halliday and Sirk’s other champions had faced a daunting challenge in the 1970s. Saccharine soap operas were a hard sell in that decade’s Zeitgeist, an embarrassment even to Sirk’s Champions, who tended to be Marxian, alienated and cynical. How could Lana Turner and the Rock named Hudson be promoted as radical chic?

Sirk’s Champions seized deliriously on “irony” – but in a sense opposite Sirk’s: to subvert the community rather than anneal it. Yes, they conceded, Sirk’s films were tacky melodrama, but as metaphor for smugness and decay. Actually, they argued, Sirk’s films were subverting the middle-class values they seemed to be endorsing. Actually, they insisted, Sirk’s films meant the opposite of what they seemed. Actually, Imitation of Life was a “hilarious comedy” (Andrew Sarris (3)). Actually, “Love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression” (Fassbinder (4)). Actually, and best of all, it was “safe to say” that Sirk’s original audiences had “felt neither distanced nor subverted by his emotionally charged work” (Michael Stern (5)).

Ah, but we had! We might not have used words like “distanced,” “subverted” or “irony” – either in their cynical sense (as intended by Sirk’s Champions) or in their sacramental/Schopenhauer/Aristotle sense (as intended by Sirk). But we felt all of it in Imitation of Life: the searing paradox and despair of racism in America, the ambivalence that made it worse, and yes! we felt the “distancing”: we knew we were experiencing a movie. Of course the characters were plastic and the funeral at the end was lugubrious. Yet we saw ourselves in each of the people. That’s why we were crying.

Today some say Sirk’s tears were unprogressive. In John Stahl’s earlier production of Imitation of Life in 1934, the black mother is an independent businesswoman. In Sirk’s version she is a maid; there is no “positive role-model”. Sirk’s change was deliberate. In Sirk’s movie to be black is horrible in America, a nightmare. The teenager who tries to pass for white resembles a Jew trying to pass in Nazi Germany: at any moment she will be found out. There is no solution. In this sense Sirk is unprogressive. But in 1959 his movie had blared a tocsin for us of a revolution soon to be blowing in the wind. This was the movie’s sacramental purpose, its “irony”, its way of putting not a face on reality, but a feeling, a desire, a Will.

We weren’t cretins at The Yeadon and Sirk’s satire was not subtle. In the instances of “subversion” most frequently cited – like the country club scene and the television-for-Christmas in All That Heaven Allows (1955) – the satire is closer to Jerry Lewis than to Lubitsch. And we had known since Adam ate the forbidden fruit and Christ was crucified that love can be repressive. A Sirk Champion like Thomas Elsaesser may gasp agog at Sirk’s assaults on “bourgeois rationality, hypocrisy and the pressures to conform” (6), and Halliday may marvel that All That Heaven Allows‘ “swinging attack on petit bourgeois moralism” is actually “the history of the concealed disintegration [of] New England, the starting point of white, WASP America […], the home of Thoreau and Emerson” (7). But the same themes had been treated by The Scarlet Letter in the 1850s, in East Lynne during the rest of the century, in Way down East in the 1920s, and in a dozen John Ford movies. Casting stones at New England hypocrisy is as commonplace in America as apple pie (and, as a Philadelphian living in Boston can testify, equally refreshing). Indeed, all through the ’50s, every other Hollywood movie seemed to be jabbing at the smugness and decay of our Eisenhower era – Rebel without a Cause, Picnic, Summer Place, Some Came Running, Peyton Place, Johnny Guitar, The Quiet Man (8) … It was precisely of smugness and decay that JFK, already dazzling “the America people” in swimming trunks, was going to purify us.

We understood Sirk’s melodramas because we felt them. In fact his movies work less as “texts” than as physical emotions. They need to be felt. Whereupon all will be clear. Sirk understood this because his fame and power had been achieved in the theatre; he had even published a German translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But soon after he started making movies, he said, he realized movies do not work like words. He realized, “I needed something more Kino – I needed to go back to my early impressions of the cinema, to melodrama, back to those early [movie] days as a child in the Théâtre Royal in Hamburg, and recapture something of the atmosphere of those films, and of the happiness they gave me as a child.” [43]

The result were Schlussakkord (1936) and Zu neuen Ufern (1937), two giant hits of the decade, both melodramas with struggling heroines in brutal worlds. Such women were an innovation in ’30s German cinema; previously a woman was “the girl”, “the wife”, or an antagonist, never the hero. Even Josef von Sternberg, for example, could not have made Morocco with Marlene Dietrich in Germany in 1931; he had to make a movie in which a man is the hero (Der Blaue Engel, 1930). Sirk broke the pattern to reveal women’s struggles.

To awaken social awareness, Sirk said, had been his goal with Schlussakkord and ever after – while remaining “in the realm of signs and symbols”. [45]

The angles are the director’s thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy. Even to this extent: long before Wittgenstein and some of my contemporaries learned to distrust language as a true medium and interpreter of reality. So I learned to trust my eyes rather more than the windiness of words. [40]

Sirk’s emphasis on women, accordingly, was not only political but artistic. Women are great vehicles for the great physical emotions of melodrama. We can see Sirk turning angles into thoughts and motions into emotions during the mother-daughter fights between Lora (Lana Turner) and Susie (Sandra Dee) near Imitation‘s end. Their words are crude, incomplete, theoretical compared to their motions – the motions of their mouths and eyes, but principally Sirk’s constant framings and reframings; the way their bodies retreat and attack within the frame; the sadism and masochism that changes with each change of whose shoulder we’re looking over; finally the way a character drops down out of the frame in defeat (or in change of tactics). “The camera is the main thing here,” Sirk said, “because there is emotion in the motion pictures. Motion is emotion, in a way it can never be in the theatre.” [43] This is why so much of academia’s struggle to grapple with movies is backwards and fraudulent and blunts rather encourages our sensitivity to cinema. We have to learn to feel movies.

The director’s philosophy comes through when a shot of the four women’s extravagantly chic new house comes right after a back-alley scene between the black mother and her daughter, with the result that the new house seems more fantasy than real – unstable, a show-off. Only wishes sustain it. Sirk is telling us that Imitation of Life is about wishing. Each of the four women gets what she wishes for and then like Faust discovers she has damned herself.

Sirk’s Champions argued in the 1970s that these women are so overpowered by their plastic worlds that Imitation of Life becomes a “black comedy” with puppet people so blind and impotent that they never have a chance, and that thus no real “drama” occurs (9). The Champions made the same argument about the characters in Written on the Wind (1957), The Tarnished Angels (1958), Magnificent Obsession (1954) and most other Sirk movies.

The Champions were wrong, because the only power the plastic worlds have comes from the Will of the characters. When, for example, Susie reaches for a bedpost and turns out a lamp after watching the man she thought was hers kiss her mother, it is not the window or the bedpost or the darkness that impose themselves on Susie, it is Susie who gives symbolic force – emotion – to the window and bedpost and darkness. She is a protagonist, not a puppet. “The angles are the director’s thoughts.”

Sirk is a stern moralist. He never lets his characters off the hook, no matter how much their characters have been shaped and determined by their upbringing. He doesn’t even let his own dead, brain-washed son off the hook in A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958). He was bothered by telling a lie, even a white one told to Nazis in order to escape from Germany – perhaps because he had had the courage 23 years before to speak out against the First World War, despite being beaten up by his classmates. Thus Sirk’s movies are always moral parables. Like Balzac, Dreyer, von Sternberg. Like Arthur Schopenhauer, whose philosophy had permeated for generations Sirk’s Germany as thoroughly as Christianity. Sirk’s characters’ Wills create the worlds they live in, so ultimately they are responsible for what happens in their worlds, so inevitably they emotionalize everything there, so eventually it is their own lust that consumes them, their own unbridled Will.

The lust of Annie (Juanita Moore) in Imitation of Life is Perfect Kindness. Annie is the black mother. She imposes kindness on everyone. She manipulates people with kindness, usually to their benefit, but kindness is how she survives, her craft, her street smarts. Don’t we admire her resourcefulness in the opening scenes when, homeless and on the street with a child, she gets Lora, the white mother, to take her in by creating a kindness – an (all-female) interracial family? Annie, it is clear, “performs” her character, is never off stage, and is a much better actress than vapid Lora. Lora’s lust is stardom, and it ignores everything and everybody except itself. So does Annie’s lust for kindness. Indeed, Annie’s kindness draws its strength from her own perpetual humiliation. In the Stepin Fetchit tradition of self-parody (10), Annie is not merely a victim of racism but a player in the symbiosis of blacks with whites. This is why Annie is gentle with Lora’s white daughter but rather more stern than motherly toward her own black daughter: Annie tries to compel Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) to embrace perpetual humiliation, but Annie cannot make her love it the way she herself does. The only thing Sarah Jane learns is how to parody, maybe because she sees through to Annie’s so-thoroughly-repressed rage. Inevitably Annie dies exhausted and heroic, in the best tradition of melodrama. A bit like Bresson’s Country Priest who embraces “the holy agony”, Annie is a martyr to her own Will.

As are all the characters. Will can never be satisfied; pain is basic to it; life is masochism.

This is Sirk’s master plot. All of his movies are about people whose Wills create hells. Or heavens. For melodrama is not just black, it’s also white. Good usually triumphs over evil in Sirk’s movies, and it is a grievous mistake (gleefully indulged in by Sirk’s Champions) to think that Sirk’s cheery parables like Magnificent Obsession are less straightforward than his dismal parables like Written on the Wind. Will need not destroy; it can vitalize, it can lust for good. Here Sirk improves on Schopenhauer, who saw cessation of pain only in cessation of desire.

Black melodrama and white melodrama contrast in two of Sirk’s first American movies, his two favourites, possibly his two best. Alas they are all but unknown. On these pictures Sirk worked in a freedom most filmmakers dream of and never experience. He was able to indulge his fantasies and had a troupe of intimate associates able to enrich them. His star in both pictures, George Sanders, was a friend who lived with him for a year. His cameraman, Eugen Schüfftan, was another friend (and had to work anonymously because of union regulations) (11). Sirk himself wrote the scripts, in collaboration. “If you talk of art, I consider A Scandal in Paris my best picture – even above [Summer Storm]. (12)

Summer Storm (1945) is a parable of damnation, A Scandal in Paris (1946) of redemption. Sanders plays almost the same character in both movies. In Summer Storm (based on Chekov’s Schopenhaurian “Shooting Party”), he’s Fedor, a degenerate aristocrat on the eve of the Russian revolution, whose passion for a “bad” woman drives him from respectability to murder. In A Scandal in Paris, he’s François Eugène Vidocq (1775–1857), a Napoleonic detective born in prison who was the model for Balzac’s Vautrin, whose passion for a “good” woman drives him from crime to respectability. Both Fedor and Vidocq start out damned. “I’m afraid heaven’s not my destination”, Fedor sighs; prison is home, assumes Vidocq. But pessimistic Fedor’s lust for punishment negates every chance heaven sends him, whereas optimistic Vidocq’s lust for reward stumbles him into redemption. Fedor is cursed by his women, Vidocq blessed. Black melodrama versus white melodrama.

In Summer Storm, the black melodrama, the love of the good woman – whom Fedor betrays for the bad woman – is arid. Indeed, she evolves into a Soviet commissar. Indeed, Fedor (narrating in voice-over) shows her to us as his dominatrix, on horseback and cracking her whip. She is Nadina (Anna Lee).

FEDOR: You don’t like [Count Volsky]?

NADINA: […] He’s everything that’s wrong with Russia, utterly spoiled and […] I never could understand why you two are such good friends.

FEDOR: […] Your description of him fits me perfectly. With one slight difference. I found somebody who can change me [meaning Nadina].

But she doesn’t change him. At his first sin, she reinforces his defeatism (“That wasn’t a mere incident, Fedor. It was something in you that is stronger than either of us”) and huffs out the door. At the end of the movie she tells him, in so many words, “If you want me to love you, kill yourself.” So he does.

Perhaps Nadina is right; Fedor betrayed her and will do it again. Indeed, a later scene (in the chapel) suggests she would have taken him back but he is bent on self destruction. To Olga (Linda Darnell), the bad woman, he moans, “I can’t go back [to Nadina] as long as you’re here. I can’t even try as long as you’re here.”

Is Fedor helpless, damned and “utterly spoiled”, or does he merely think he is? Can he justly blame “something stronger”, or does he simply do what he wants to do? In other words, is Sirk holding Fedor morally responsible, or is he taking a Calvinist position that the damned are born damned? When Fedor kills Olga and lets an innocent peasant take the blame for the murder, Fedor pleads to us (!), voice-off, that he is helpless in terms that could be quotes from Schopenhauer (Sirk’s secret source, the way Stendhal is Ophuls’):

I could have interposed my confession but to my confused mind the chance I’d let slip seemed lost forever. In reality it was the Will to live inherent in every human being that caused me to commit my second and more dastardly crime. [… ]The Will to live is stronger than conscience, stronger than pity.

Which proves that Nadina is correct: what is “wrong with Russia” is that everyone is utterly spoiled. At least in Sirk’s Russia, no one does anything but indulge: Olga, her drunk father, the drunk servants, the lascivious count and judge. Urbenin (Hugo Haas), the peasant, indulges in servitude like Annie in racial inferiority in Imitation of Life. They are all so debased that maybe no one is morally responsible – and when the Soviet Nadinas will get a chance to indulge perfection, matters will get even worse. These people are all, arguably, puppets of “something stronger”. So, is Fedor attempting a moral act at the end, by mailing his confession to the police, thus freeing the innocent man, or is he lusting for Nadina’s approval when she tells him she’ll love him if he mails it? Is he under the spell of his own masochism, rushing to death like Roger (Robert Stack) in The Tarnished Angels? Fedor himself cannot decide. Sirk’s long take of him walking like Frankenstein out of Nadina’s office, carrying the dread confession down the stairs, across the street, and then his long struggle in front of the mail slot, keeps us wondering if heaven can be his destination or cannot, if he is “spoiled” or not, and what not-spoiled might mean.

Thus one can argue (and Sirk’s Champions do) that Fedor is not morally responsible. Yet clearly Fedor himself considers himself a criminal and a sinner, and is. If he is a puppet, it is because he had made himself a puppet; he sells out to lust and becomes a demon. “There really resides in the heart of each of us a wild beast which only waits the opportunity to rage and rave […] and destroy”, declared Schopenhauer, who might have denied Fedor has options. But Sirk doesn’t let us see the beast destroying Olga. He wants to focus on Who is Fedor? Is there a Fedor? Or is there just a beast? Could Nadina have changed Fedor? Perhaps. He yearns for good and only gradually becomes a creature of his lust and unable to resist Olga or to resist murdering her. So it is not true, as the Champions say, that there is no real “drama” in Sirk – that everything is decided from the beginning. The more Fedor hesitates in front of the mail box, the more it is obvious that choice is taking place and that he has always been morally responsible – even though this time, before he can choose, someone else pushes the envelope through the slot. Or one might argue that Fedor chooses not to choose. All that has happened in Fedor’s life was not determined entirely outside him. Sirk’s characters may seem simplistic at first, but they become increasingly enigmatic and “conflicted” the more one grasps their emotions. Sirk was proud of this.

In A Scandal in Paris, Vidocq also indulges his lusts, but his opportunism leads him to virtue. Whereas in Summer Storm each chance brings disaster, in A Scandal in Paris each chance sees evil transmuted into good. What’s interesting is that the transmutation is always arbitrary. Fedor chooses failure, Vidocq chooses success.

Vidocq, an escaped criminal who finds himself dining with the Minister of Police, makes a fatal fumble that nearly betrays his identity, but he transmutes his words into a politeness. Similarly, he transmutes a search of his room into the police chief’s dismissal; his own theft of the Minister’s mother’s jewels into their “brilliant” recovery and his own appointment as police chief; his planned robbery of the Band of Paris into marriage to the Minister’s daughter; his accomplices into honest job holders. But Vidocq finds virtue also because, when he is caught in crime, there is a Thérèse (Signe Hasso) to transmute him rather than a Nadina to confirm him.

Thérèse is probably Sirk’s greatest achievement. She is paradigm of his many messianic characters, such as those played by Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession, Battle Hymn (1957) and All That Heaven Allows.

Vidocq enters Thérèse’s room at night, but she dreams it is Saint George, who is depicted slaying a dragon in a church painting. She tells the priest, “I worshipped [his face] ever since I saw it for the first time in this church. It seems to express everything that’s pure and valiant.”

In fact she worships an imitation. Vidocq had posed for the painting while escaping from prison, and then had stolen Saint George’s horse to continue his escape. Nonetheless Thérèse, unlike the women in Imitation of Life, will transmute dream into reality beneficially. The priest teaches her how.

THÉRÈSE: “If a man’s face is good, can his heart be evil?”

PRIEST: “My child, in all of us there is a Saint George and a dragon. That is the true meaning of the legend of Saint George. Evil can be slain only by faith. You must have faith.”

This was a vital idea in the post-war period when A Scandal in Paris was made, as people laboured to reconstruct society. Faith is also the weapon Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) uses to slay evil in Magnificent Obsession. Faith comes from a supra-worldly source (or from our innermost selves). And thus, just as Thérèse’s priest guides her from a separate off-space (marked off by a tree branch dividing the stage in two), so Merrick’s guru guides him godlike from a separate off-space above Merrick’s (hospital) operating theatre. In both instances “faith” means Will: Will to believe, Will for good, the ability to choose good which Fedor failed to exercise in Summer Storm. Said Schopenhauer: “The true artist, the genius, apprehends the Platonic Idea in the individual.” This kind of “faith” is summed up in Vidocq’s maxim, which could be the moral of all Sirk’s sacramental parables: “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do and those who don’t dare.”

Who is it who dares? This is Sirk’s deepest question. Who am I? Am I nothing but a helpless individuation of the Will that Schopenhauer identifies as noumenal reality, as the Champions argue, as Fedor insists? Or, as Schopenhauer argues in his less pessimistic passages, can irony give us some control and salvation? Usually Sirk’s camera moves, following his people, or shifting to some new angle and new attitude – like the close pans and tracks that underline self-indulgence and manic wilfulness in Summer Storm, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life. Unusually his camera constantly stands still staring at Thérèse in long takes. At one point, while Vidocq and her father talk in the foreground, she enters far in the rear, comes slowly into the foreground, and stands static, apprehensive of what is being said, whereupon, suddenly happy, she bounds across to her grandmother. When she bounds, Sirk’s camera pans with her, expressing her elation; earlier, when she came slowly forward, his camera was still, reflecting her curiosity at Vidocq but, more importantly, Sirk’s fascination with her Will to dare, her faith. He keeps the camera staring at her because he wants to get us inside her, into her Will, her independence – a quality he will cite in Thoreau in All That Heaven Allows and that is sorely tested in most of his heroes.

Thus later we are not surprised at the moral wit by which Thérèse transmutes Vidocq from crime to respectability.

SHE: Let’s not pretend. I know everything, how you rode off with the armor of Saint George and the lance and even the halo […] I’m going with you. If I can’t be respectable, I’ll be bad. I could help you […] I could make men fall in love with me.

HE: Good heavens, why should you?

SHE: Between kisses, you know, I could steal their wallet.

HE: Steal?

SHE: Yes. You don’t believe me? I have started already. Look here, grandmama’s jewels. I took them out of her strongbox and nobody even noticed it.

HE: Why, that’s wonderful.

SHE: Yes.

HE: I mean … disgraceful.

SHE: Why? I stole them for you.

HE: Thank you. You don’t expect me to marry a thief?

Sirk’s Champions see only the downside in this scene, as Fedor would. “Each stratum of society is […] made laughable. […] What is most interesting about […] Vidocq […] is his obliviousness to all of [society’s] moral standards”, cheers Champion Stern (13), who finds artistic value only in defeat and accordingly argues that all Sirk’s happy ends are cynical and “ironic”.

In fact the opposite is true. Sirk sets up Scandal‘s melodrama like Summer Storm‘s debate: Is morality possible or not? As Vidocq gradually comes to authentic morality, finding Will for good in himself as Fedor found Will for evil, Thérèse talks about a “miracle” the way Nadina talks about “something stronger”. In fact she transmutes him by faith. She transmutes his sense of identity with the criminal into a sense of identity with the good; she seduces him into the realisation that the good is what he has wanted all along, before his Will became corrupted. On the other hand, Vidocq’s sidekick, the dragon, refuses any transmutation: he’s not capable of extending his sense of identity (even verbally: “No, no percentage”, he insists, “just a cut”). The sidekick is building his own tomb, Vidocq remarks, like the former police chief who can’t tell shadows from reality (like an inmate of Plato’s cave). Sirk’s point is that a happy end is not more arbitrary than a tragic one: both are in our power. “In crime, as in love, there are only those who do and those who don’t dare.”

From 1936 onward Sirk persistently embraced white melodrama and rewrote his material to emphasize its spiritual side. This wasn’t something he was forced into by tawdry producers and box office, as Champion Halliday tries to argue; it was something Sirk adored doing, it was what got him excited about movies. Schlussakkord is the triumph of a mother’s Will over adversity. Zu neuen Ufern is the self-redemption of an innocent convict, the self-damnation of her faithless Fedor-like lover, and the faith of the man who helps her. La Habanera (1937) is the triumph of love. Shockproof (1949), The First Legion (1951), Thunder on the Hill (1951), No Room for the Groom (1952), Captain Lightfoot (1955), All That Heaven Allows, The Tarnished Angels and A Time to Love are all triumphs of the Will.

So also is All I Desire (1953), although for Sirk’s Champions it’s just a muckraking of a vicious, small-minded, contemptuous American family. When Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns home – after deserting her husband and children for years – she stands outside her old home and watches her family fondly through the screen door. The Champions claim she sees a delusion: her husband and children are actually “bacteria” who will keep her feeling “outside” most of the movie – thus the screen between her and them. And indeed Sirk himself admitted he had wanted to retain the slant of the source book, Stopover, where Naomi ends up bidding them good riddance. [102] But in fact once Sirk accepted a different end, a happy end, he refashioned everything. Now the screen door is felt not as a barrier but as the cameo evocation of a pleasurable dream; Naomi feels an emotional tug, echoed in the “distance” set up by the screen. If now and later she appears to see only her family’s dear sides, it is not because she is blinkered (as the Champions claim) – she is not! – but because (like Samuel Fulton [Charles Colburn] in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), whose family the Champions also loathe) Naomi has lived long enough to know that people do mean things and get all twisted out of shape but that this has nothing to with a parent’s genuine love – or with Thérèse’s “faith.” Deliberately, obstinately, Naomi looks at their dear sides; again and again she throws off their assaults the way a parent must, as many of Sirk’s heroes must do: the challenges to faith, the temptations to despair, the contemptuous rejections, the vertigoes of guilt. All I Desire, like A Scandal in Paris, is the parable of a woman’s faith, of her persistence in that faith through wisdom, wit and Will – like Thérèse. Now Naomi redeems her family, transmuting victims like Fedor into moral successes like Vidocq. Perhaps it was because Sirk’s Champions were young like Nadina that they saw bacteria where old Sirk saw nurture.

Indeed, the Champions fumed like Cotton Mather over the (middle-class!) human foibles “revealed” in Sirk’s half-dozen sketches of small-town America. The Champions seized rabidly on the grotesqueries at a country club, on the intolerant gossips, leering caricatures and gargoyles of fashion whom Sirk, like Breughel, likes to stick into his canvases. Here, said the Champions, recognizing sin in everyone after having the revelation of it in Satan, are Sirk’s Americans: aren’t they pitiable!

To the contrary, the gargoyles are the exceptions. Almost all of Sirk’s Americans are affectionately drawn. If many of them are types, this is because Sirk lays out his pieces for contrast, like in a commedia dell’arte, and because in this way the individual immediately comes through the type. Sirk often views Americans with a foreigner’s emotions, initially consigning someone to a certain type and immediately recognizing the error. Sirk’s real-life encounters with Americans provided him with real-life models for his weirdest movie heroes. Some encounters even had the same miraculous quality of his white melodramas. During the war, for instance, Sirk and his wife tried to become alfalfa farmers. He had fled Germany in 1937, come to the U.S. in 1939, changed his name from Detlef Sierck and acquiesced in the myth (perpetuated in Halliday) that he was Danish (both parents were Germans, as stated on Sirk’s birth certificate (14)) – and went five years without making a film. The Sirks were failures at farming as well, and realized they were going to lose everything, when a neighbour, remarking on their ineptness, sent over two sons every week for a year to help them. The neighbour and his sons saved the Sirks’ farm, and wouldn’t take a penny. Another time the Sirks were both sick, alone, and helpless, and were cured by a surprise visit by a chiropractor and his new-age wife who went around “helping people for nothing everywhere” – like Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession.

“Life is the most melodramatic story of all” (15), said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical – about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after daring an act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?

Themes of failure haunt Sirk’s movies. “Drama used to be the belief in guilt, and in a higher order. This absolutely cruel didactic is impossible, unacceptable for us moderns. But melodrama has kept it. (16)

The didactic question for the son in A Time to Love is what to do with himself after being part of an execution squad slaughtering innocent civilians. One of his squad takes his own life in remorse; how is the son to go on? The same question recurs in Battle Hymn: faced with disaster – you’ve just killed 37 children – how do you go on? And in Magnificent Obsession: you cause the death of one person and the blindness of another – how do you go on?

Somehow evil has to be transmuted into good. “The difference between the impossible and the possible is the measure of man’s Will”, says a Korean sage in Battle Hymn, echoing the priest in A Scandal in Paris that “Evil can be slain only by faith.” So in Battle Hymn Dean Hess (Rock Hudson) sets out to save orphans and in Magnificent Obsession Bob Merrick becomes a brain surgeon, gives away money, and restores the blind woman’s sight and joy.

This was an embarrassment to the ’70s Zeitgeist of the Champions. Happy endings were not PC during the decade before Breaking Away (1979). Radical surgery was necessary to rescue Sirk’s reputation. Merrick’s achievements suddenly became evidence of Merrick’s utter inability “to act in a positive, potent manner” to alter his life! Champion Stern argued that Sirk’s emphasis on false backgrounds, bright colours and theatrical lighting turned the characters into fools groping in the dark – and thus replaced Lloyd C. Douglas’s “absurd” mysticism with Sirk’s own more satisfying “dark, fatalistic vision of a world devoid of tragic dimension and Christian meaning” (17).

But this argument – that artifice undercuts evident meaning – could be applied to any movie or any work of art. They are all artifice. Yet with art, the more aware we are of artifice, the more real it becomes. “The more stylisation, the better”, said Sirk. [126] Does it make any sense to say that Matisse is less “real” than Norman Rockwell? A Scandal in Paris takes place in a storybook world half von Sternberg, half N.C. Wyeth, that harkens back to those “early days as a child in the Théâtre Royal in Hamburg”. The style captures the wonder of the characters and their adventures.

So too the bright Technicolor “illustrations” of Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. But perhaps because Sirk disregards our conventions of “realism” in these movies, we may, as happens to any truly original artist, conclude that Sirk’s style is impoverished – soap opera in the worst ways. Nothing could be further from the truth. His Technicolor worlds may be idealized, they may be simple and plastic and fanciful, but they are creations of the characters’ emotions, and while it is true that the characters’ emotional worlds threaten to subordinate them to the “machine” of melodrama (to “Will”), the characters are not thereby rendered foolish and blind, nor are sin and virtue abolished (as the Champions aver). Homer’s heroes endure the same fate; so do we all. Philosophy and history persistently argue the inherent arbitrariness of what we call reality. “The basis on which all our knowledge and learning rests is the inexplicable”, said Schopenhauer. Yet life can be nihilistically terrifying without being terrifyingly nihilistic. It is because we are confronted with a fatalistic “world devoid of tragic dimension and Christian meaning” that (and Marxists surely concur) “the measure of man’s Will” is so crucial for making a new reality. In Sign of the Pagan (1954) it’s always twilight: the Roman Empire and civilisation are disintegrating, a thousand years of darkness lie ahead, only Will can see us through. If film captures reality, melodrama captures what’s inside us. Film and melodrama unite in an inquest: What is behind the image? Who am I who dare?

The question obsessed Douglas Sirk, who was at peace with neither his Protestantantism nor his agnosticism. People who believed fascinated him. He made movies about Jesuits, nuns, ministers and mystics, and Thérèse. He granted them miraculous or diabolic powers. “[Religion] is one of my constant preoccupations. Even not believing in God is a religious act in a way. […] In a way, I think everything is about religion: it’s about the unknown things in man.” [95]

Indeed, “reality” for Sirk is only inside, is only the “unknown.” The physical world is merely its projection of our Will. “God and gods and religious ideas reflect the social activities of the worshipper.” [96] There are only two Sirk themes: characters who successfully impose their Wills despite pain (white melodrama), and characters who are dominated by their Wills, who like Faust sell out to lust (black melodrama).

Sirk’s fullest expression of this “Faust” theme is Written on the Wind. Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), an oil billionaire, has picked up a secretary, Lucy (Lauren Bacall), and taken her for a plane ride and, as he chats her up, a red light shines on the back of his head. Why? Not to call attention to the falseness of the storyworld, as the Champions argue (18), but to the falseness of Kyle. Quite simply, Sirk puts the red light there to warn us something is wrong. Similarly he makes the hotel decor horrible and disgusting to warn us something is wrong when Kyle takes Lucy there, and this time Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson) vocalizes the point: “Nice boarding house you’ve got here”, he says to the manager, with a wink to Lucy as he makes “boarding” sound like “bawdy.”

In the plane Lucy is swallowing Kyle’s sincerity act and Sirk, ever the moralist, feels obliged to tell us Kyle is lying. Thus, when we see Lucy’s face from Kyle’s point of view, the back of his head is red and his voice is slightly louder and echoing; the discomfort we feel tells us what’s going on behind the image and how Kyle sees Lucy. But when we see Kyle’s face from Lucy’s side, we see no demonic lighting and his voice is softer: a comfortable feeling – which is the false Kyle that Lucy is experiencing. When she buys his act, Sirk shows it from the red-light side, so we can feel Kyle’s demonic glee at domination. Kyle, like Fedor, is selling out for power; soon his lust (the red light) will consume him.

Written on the Wind is a parable not of Kyle’s impotence, as the Champions argue, but of his potency in the demonic, like Fedor. Cubic shapes, blocks and rectangles grow progressively more dominating as the characters find themselves trapped by their own “utterly spoiled” Wills and their demons infect the spaces around them.

Like Caligari, Kyle crawls up into a writhing ball when his demon takes possession of him. His sister, Marylee (Dorothy Malone), similarly enspelled, writhes in sadomasochistic masturbation, craving power. Diseased humanity is enslaved to irrational desire. And they create their own sadomasochistic theatre for it. Marylee on the court stand seems overcome by her own display. At film’s end, it would be a mistake to think that she is not aware that she is mimicking the portrait above her. Her own fiction has taken control of her.

In All That Heaven Allows Sirk used cubes similarly to signal the demonic possession of the son of Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) – at the start of a painful sequence and at its climax.

Such is black melodrama. “All the cruelty and torment of which the world is full is in fact merely the necessary result of the totality of the forms under which the Will to live is objectified”, said Schopenhauer.

White melodrama is the obverse. We control our Will (through sacramental irony) and create a better world. Here too, as Schopenhauer claims, the world becomes the expression of the Will, its objectification in space/time. In a movie, Will becomes Emotion becomes Motion. What counts for Sirk, what redeems us, is a good heart. “Words”, in contrast, as someone in Captain Lightfoot (1955) says “are a mask for a coward to hide behind” and a proper hero is to be celebrated for his blindness (“for love of his country”), for his arational boldness and mastery of transmutating guise in a “land of phantasmagoria.” We do not know what the “real” is; but human reality is what humans create and it is always changing, always being created, a permanent revolution. The women in Has Anybody Seen My Gal? are just as much actresses in command of their stage as Marylee in Written on the Wind or Annie in Imitation of Life, but their emphasis is on singing (“Red Red Robin”), cleaning, and drawing – creating a nice storyworld.

(Most of Sirk’s other musical numbers, curiously, follow the Faustian model: coy satires celebrating the female dominatrix [modelled on Marlene Dietrich’s numbers in Morocco and Blonde Venus]: Zu neuen Ufern, A Scandal in Paris, Meet Me at the Fair [1953], and Take Me to Town [1953].)

Black and white melodrama collide in The Tarnished Angels. Its Faustian carnival trio have bartered their souls for a kind of permanent rut, a delirium of rutting – Jiggs (Jack Carson) chasing LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) chasing Roger (Robert Stack) chasing lust itself, everyone feeling rejected and guilty. LaVerne is addicted to doing what she does not want to do: parachute jumps. When Roger (“A man conquered by the flying machine, a man without blood in his veins”) self-destructs (like Kyle and Fedor, but mimicking a hero), LaVerne’s mimicking impulse is to throw herself into the arms of Satan.

But now Burke (Rock Hudson), the alcoholic reporter (on the left) nearly swallowed by their dark orgy, harnesses his lust for LaVerne to nobler desires. In face of LaVerne’s continual rebuffs and challenges to his pride and selfhood, Burke persistently re-asserts the triumph of Will, like Dean Hess or Thérèse. Thanks to him The Tarnished Angels, which like There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) and Summer Storm seemed to be about an uncertain man turning circles, ends up being the parable of a woman who finds again her Will for good. “In crime as in love there are only those who do and those who don’t dare.”

Sirk’s Champions argue that his characters (and his audiences, too) have “total blindness” rather than “genuine understanding”. But understanding in Sirk’s movies means recognizing the forces driving us and using them positively. Understanding, like irony, anneals society. While it is not difficult to argue that both Bob Merrick in Magnificent Obsession and Kyle in Written on the Wind are driven by forces they do not comprehend and make arational choices, Sirk’s point is that all we have in life, ultimately, is Will or the lack of it. We can impose our own blindness or faith on objects in ways that make this a worse world or a better one. This is the same point Roberto Rossellini kept making, inherent in the idea of God becoming flesh or the vision of a just society.


  1. L’Arrivée d’un train à la gare de Ciotât (Louis Lumière, 1894), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc) (Carl Theodore Dreyer, 1927), The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963), Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965), Paisà (Roberto Rossellini, 1946), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Ben Sharpsteen, 1937), Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Le Journal d’un Curé de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) (Robert Bresson, 1950).
  2. Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk (London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1997). Except as stated, all quotations from Sirk are drawn from this book.

    Although I sometimes disagree with Sirk on Sirk, I am not aware of any statements by Sirk, in Halliday or elsewhere, that contradict anything in the present article.

    Moreover, what Sirk thought is frequently unknown. I have, for example, been unable to locate any statements on American politics or character. What stories and reflections about Americans we have from him are affectionate and positive, with none of the contempt and disgust that the “Champions” ascribe to Sirk’s films. And Sirk had lost a lot of his memories at the time of his discussions with Halliday. Even after detailed descriptions by both Halliday and Sirk’s wife, Sirk could remember absolutely nothing about having made All That Heaven Allows, or even recognize the title.

    Halliday had been outraged by American actions in Korea (cf., Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Korea: The Unknown War. New York: Pantheon, 1988). Halliday saw a reflection of this outrage in Sirk’s depictions of American mores. In the 1970s, during America’s actions in Vietnam, most Sirk Champions concurred: that American violence overseas was rooted in obliviousness and racism at home, as depicted in Sirk’s movies.

    That an artist mirrors his times is axiomatic. I have argued similarly about John Ford, Leo McCarey and Josef von Sternberg.

    As Holliday makes clear, Sirk would not permit him to use a tape recorder. The words presented as Sirk’s are Halliday’s recollections of conversations as written down afterward, garnered from notes, and eventually read over by Sirk.

    We can only profit from experiencing Sirk’s movies afresh – before subscribing (or not) to judgments of them.

  3. “The American Cinema”, Film Culture, Spring 1963.
  4. Fassbinder, “Six Film by Douglas Sirk”, in Laura Mulvey & Jon Halliday, Eds, Douglas Sirk (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival ’72, 1972), p. 102.
  5. Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk (Boston: Twayne, 1979), p. 193.
  6. Review of Sirk on Sirk, Monogram 4 (1972), p. 42.
  7. Halliday’s italics. “All That Heaven Allows”, in Mulvey & Halliday, p. 61.
  8. Rebel without a Cause (Elia Kazan, 1955), Picnic (Joshua Logan, 1955), A Summer Place (Delmar Daves, 1959), Some Came Running (Vicente Minnelli, 1959), Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957), Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954), The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952).
  9. “There is no dramatic progression in Sirk’s films: there are long dénouements of a drama already resolved from the start, whose action is systematic (and systematically univocal) to the point of cruelty.” Jean-Louis Comolli, “L’Aveugle et le miroir ou l’impossible cinéma de Douglas Sirk”, Cahiers du Cinéma, 189, April 1967.
  10. Stepin Fetchit was a controversial black satirist, notably for John Ford in Salute (1932), Judge Priest (1934), Steamboat round the Bend (1935) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953).
  11. Ed.: On Summer Storm, the DOP is listed as Archie Stout and Schüfftan is uncredited; on A Scandal in Paris, Eugene Shuftan, as he was sometimes named, is credited as production manager and Guy Roe as DOP.
  12. James Harvey, “Sirkumstantial Evidence”, Film Comment, July 1978, p. 56.
  13. Stern, p. 56.
  14. According to that birth certificate, Sirk was born in 1897, as reported in the revised Halliday, not 1900 as in the first Halliday and most reference books.
  15. Stern, p. 168. For Sirk’s American encounters: Harvey, p. 59.
  16. Stern, p. 108.
  17. Stern, p. 103.
  18. Cf. Fred Camper’s brilliant analysis of Sirk’s surfaces, “The Films of Douglas Sirk”, in L. Fischer, Ed., Imitation of Life (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1991), p. 264.

About The Author

Tag Gallagher is the author of John Ford and The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini and has appeared in Cinéma 0, Trafic, Cinémathèque and Cahiers du Cinéma. More of his work can be found on his website.

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