The book length interview by Jon Halliday with Douglas Sirk published in 1971 was the catalyst for the reappraisal of his contributions to the cinema.1 In the interview he emerged as an intellectual with an understanding of modernist movements in art formed in his education and engagement in theatrical production and filmmaking in Germany in the twenties and thirties. Sirk further brought these insights into his engagement with American culture in Hollywood, where he is credited with historicising a then critically demeaned genre – the family melodrama. Sirk’s cinema has a key place in the development of film studies from the 1960s. Barbara Klinger has described him as “the father of formal political film criticism.”2

During his career as a film director Sirk is credited with 37 features: 7 as Detlef Sierck in Germany at Ufa (1935-8), one in the Netherlands prior to migrating to the USA in 1939 where he directed 29 features (plus two uncredited contributions), including 6 independent productions (1943-50) and 2 for Columbia (1949-50) before signing with Universal where he was assigned Mystery Submarine (1950), the first of 21 Universal productions directed under contract, culminating in 1959 with his greatest box office success, Imitation of Life.

Detlef Sierk, a.k.a Douglas Sirk

Of the eight book/monograph length studies in English of Sirk’s cinema, Tom Ryan’s is the first to comprehensively provide a full perspective on Sirk’s filmmaking career, a labour of love, in the best sense, that Ryan has researched over many years. Until the publication of The Films of Douglas Sirk, Michael Stern’s Douglas Sirk was the only career length study of Sirk’s cinema. Stern did not then have access to his German films.3

Ryan had a series of “conversations”, as he describes them, with Sirk about his films and his time in Hollywood, as well as continuing to correspond with him between visits, some over several days, between April 1975 and May 1981, in and around Sirk’s apartment in Logarno. The way Ryan seeks to approach Sirk’s work, film by film, by implication provides a case for relocating the platform from which it might be viewed. He concludes that “Sirk’s work looks very different from the vantage point of 2018.”

Ryan’s book is the first in English to systematically appraise Sierck’s eight European films, seven of them made at Ufa in the mid-1930s. While Sierck’s political and cultural credentials were indisputably those of a left intellectual, his talents as a director were seen by Goebbels as important to the realisation of the regime’s cultural policies. Andrew Bonnell, for instance, states the intention in his critique “at the outset is not to argue that Sierck intended to promote Nazi ideology in the films he directed, [but rather] to reflect on how these films might have been received at the time.”4 Bonnell finds that some of the extravagant claims made by Halliday, for one, about Zu neuen Ufern and La Habanera (both 1937) “as ‘uncompromisingly tough critical films’ in defiance of the ideological pressures of the Nazi period, are difficult to sustain once the films are considered in the context of 1937.”5 Within West German academia, critiques of Sirk’s apparent political “pragmatism” are more barbed, less willing to acknowledge, than Bonnell, that claims for ironic attributions to characters in the above films nullifying Nazi ideology are impossible to verify because they are, concludes Bonnell, “in the eyes of the beholder.” Placed in the context of his entire oeuvre, Ryan insists that “there is much more going on [in Sirk’s films]. Nor does it occur [to them] just as they have misread and undervalued [the films], so too might have Goebbels and his henchmen.” (p. 53)

In his opening paragraph, Ryan claims that Sirk is “one of last century cinema’s great ironists.” The most distinctive characteristic of his films made in Europe and America, the author notes, is “the rigour with which they create a gulf between how his characters see themselves and our view of them… Whatever the context, Sirk adds another layer to their dramatic shape and to his characters’ struggles within them.” (p. 3) He was most interested in what he called split characters, like George Sanders as the judge in Summer Storm (1944), those played by Robert Stack in the two Zugsmith melodramas and the Susan Kohner character in Imitation of Life. Endings that might otherwise be deemed to be happy become far less reassuringly so in contemplation, ambivalently “happy unhappy.”

Ryan finds it entirely appropriate that the Oxford English Dictionary, in its 2018 revision, introduced the adjective “Sirkian” into the lexicon. He then goes on to note what he sees “as the most extraordinary element of Sirk’s legacy,” that it “appears to be based almost entirely on a handful of the thirty-nine features he directed (or had a hand in directing), in his twenty-five years as a filmmaker. This is especially true of the initial phase of Sirk scholarship which focused primarily on the five melodramas from Magnificent Obsession (1953) to Imitation of Life.

Ryan’s is an auteurist-based overview of Sirk’s work with formal and thematic analysis integrated into the author’s consideration of each film on its merits, each with its own place within ten approximately chronological chapter groupings but rearranged where necessary according to generic or thematic factors.

Knowing that the author’s sustained interest in Sirk flowed from his work on melodrama at the University of Warwick under the guidance of Robin Wood, I was initially looking for his own take on Sirk’s engagement with melodrama that goes back to his work in the theatre in the 1920s and early 1930s. On closer inspection, while acknowledging the path-breaking contributions of others in this area beginning in the early 1970s, he seamlessly integrates this central preoccupation of Sirkian studies into the notion of Sirk’s work as dramatically layered “social theatre.” This is subsumed by Ryan in his stated goal for the book: “to open the door on the rest of his oeuvre, to chart its highs and lows, and to identify the consistency with which he chased his particular concerns throughout his entire career.” (p. 256) In his particular interest in holistically identifying the director’s vision, Ryan draws on the idea of “reflexive space” which Sirk’s films invite us to occupy – the space in which the audience finds itself when it comes to recognise that “form should not be understood as opposed to content, but as a formal system that constructs and complicates meaning.” (p. 13)

Most compelling of all is the strength of Sirk’s imagery – his mise en scène, what Andrew Sarris termed as “his formal accomplishments” on the screen – which first engaged cinephiles. What was most marked in the 1970s was the condescension towards the prior sources for his films as trash that he was seen to transform into masterworks. Ryan has been assiduous in tracking down and evaluating these sources as part of his efforts to identify the creative strategies that Sirk brought to the material, in an attempt to make sense of exactly how he was bending them to his style. After he had been “discovered”, Sirk remained uncomfortable, Ryan says, with the extent to which he was painted, in Halliday’s path-breaking book-length interview, as a left-wing intellectual unequivocally critical of all things American. He said that he “always wanted his characters to be more than cyphers for the failings of their world,” and that he “never had to look too hard to find something of himself in them.” (p. 9)

The book uncovers at least one seemingly forgotten if not lost Sirk film, Boefje, made in Holland in 1939 in the months before his departure for the US. It was edited after he left and entered in competition for the subsequently abandoned first Cannes Film Festival. For Ryan Boefje “now seems nothing less than a forerunner” to Italian neo-realism, with the documentary feel of its camera work, its on location filming, and its cast of non-professionals. For the first time in English, I think, Ryan comprehensively brings together the other seven features Sirk directed in Europe at Ufa. Another “first” in the book is a chapter devoted to the four “uncomfortable comedies” directed in succession by Sirk in 1951-52, shortly after signing with Universal. If Sirk had difficulty remembering some of them he was pleasantly surprised when he had the opportunity to re-view the most “uncomfortable” of them, No Room for the Groom (1952). Ryan comments that “melodrama was lurking in the wings throughout Sirk’s career even when he was working in genres beyond its parameters.” (p. 98) Ryan devotes a chapter to “Rock Hudson and the idea of the hero” in three of the six films directed by Sirk in which his protege plays a lead role, and a chapter devoted to “Sirk and the musical.” A chapter titled “Sirk and John M. Stahl” considers the original novels, three Stahl adaptations and Sirk’s remakes.

Early independent productions, A Scandal in Paris (1945) and The First Legion (1950), along with Summer Storm, films of Sirk’s own choosing over which he had more or less full control, both challenged him and set him on what might be called a path of engaged pragmatism in negotiating his 21-film career at Universal. Ryan identifies common threads running through Sirk’s ironic melodramas. The “depiction of a fallen aristocracy” in Summer Storm “can be found lurking in the wings of Written on the Wind.” Sirk acknowledged that he had to set about bringing the original “weepie” material – “hate it and love it” – under control in Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life. The latter shares an ultimate sense of hopelessness and fatalism with his most personal film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958). Ryan makes the case that Fannie Hurst’s novel, the original source material for Imitation, has been “shamefully undervalued.”

Sirk’s initial engagements with studio majors – Warner Bros and Columbia – had been dispiriting, to say the least. It is interesting to speculate on how his career in America might have unfolded in terms of critical reception and subsequent recognition if, after The First Legion, he had continued to follow the path of taking up the challenges in independently making what were, in essence, ‘European art films’ in a film culture more than a decade away from the establishing of any real foothold for such films in domestic distribution and exhibition. It was not as if these five films, made on low budgets but with skilled collaborators, all failed critically and commercially – at least Summer Storm and The First Legion were apparently successful on both scores.

The First Legion (Douglas Sirk, 1950)

As summarised in my own exploration of Sirk’s career, the central part of the Sirk story in a Hollywood approaching the end of the studio era, is set in relief by an extraordinary personal history of self-exile and discovery, of experiment and adaptation also marked by personal tragedy. He did recover sufficient freedom to make two films – The Tarnished Angels (1957) and A Time to Love and a Time to Die – that began as more than simply assignments. In Written on the Wind (1956) and Imitation of Life, Sirk came as close as then seemed possible, within the constraints of the system, to successfully synthesise melodrama with formal experimentation displaced into a melodramatic schema of American class and social relations. In the final scenes of his last three films, melodrama takes a tragic turn displacing the ironic mask of life as theatre. A letter announcing the possibility of a life and happiness floats on the river away from Ernst’s dying hand in the final images of A Time to Love and a Time to Die “bringing together,” as Stern puts it, “the emblems of love and death.” For Ryan it is “a painful detailing of the impossibility of mankind ever finding happiness.” (p. 250) Ernst’s death was for Sirk, Halliday suggests, a possible evocation of his son’s death on the eastern front.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)

Of the major Hollywood directors, Sirk was the most lucid and insightful about his own work within the studio system. As an intellectual receptive to discussing his films and career in depth, Sirk himself played a major role in their reappraisal. Some of his films have not always been easy to locate for viewing, making proper consideration of his work as a whole more difficult. Ryan insists that they are “crucial to any assessment of Sirk as an auteur, their flaws frequently are as illuminating about his working methods and his circumstances in Hollywood as are the films upon which his standing rests.” (p. 143 )

It is worth noting some of Sirk’s recollections, in the Halliday interview, of the genre assignments reflecting, as Ryan recognises, his “engagement in American populist art” and his enjoyment of “the challenge of working there.” Take Me to Town (1952) – “a lyrical poem of the American Western past of which I have very happy memories. […] I liked working with Ann Sheridan. She had real presence. […] The first of my ten films with cinematographer Russell Metty […] we had the same way of seeing things”; Taza Son of Cochise (1953), the first of his three collaborations with writer George Zuckerman, (“I wanted to do a western […] I tried to get Indian lore into the picture […] The battle was the most difficult thing I’ve done”); Captain Lightfoot (1954) (“I read a lot of Irish literature as a young man […] working with cameraman Irving Glassberg in adjusting to the constant change of light […] in a way [it] matched the course of the story […] I especially love the idea of a revolution financed by gambling”); Battle Hymn (1956) based on the autobiography of a preacher who also piloted bomber missions in World War II was, for Sirk, a missed opportunity. Riven by the guilt of the accidental bombing of a children’s orphanage in Germany, Dean Hess tried to atone by saving children in the Korean War. Hess was on the set supervising every scene for “accuracy”. (“I couldn’t bring out the ambiguity of the character I would have liked […] The split […] emerges when he is aware of it. Hess wasn’t really aware of it. He easily combined a soldier’s attitude with a preacher’s […] The whole saving of children comes out of killing children”).6

All That Heaven Allows (1955) was assigned to Sirk by Ross Hunter as a follow-up to the commercial success of Magnificent Obsession. He was generally given, he acknowledged, adequate time by the studio to work on the screenplay before filming commenced. There’s Always Tomorrow (1955) draws on All I Desire (1953), both social dramas more than melodramas in suburban/small town settings.7 As a “woman’s weepie” strongly inflected with social commentary set in the autumnal complacency of upper crust New England, All That Heaven Allows occupies a middle position between the two family dramas and a melodrama of the insecurities and excesses of an imploding oil-rich Texas family in Written on the Wind.

In admitting to Halliday that he didn’t have a strong memory of either Tomorrow or Desire, Sirk seemed not to fully remember (at least until he was able to review All I Desire) how close these two films are to realising what he identified as a key objective in his filmmaking, what he referred to as his aim of invoking in the audience a distanced but still empathetic “social awareness rather than social criticism.” The three (melo)dramas before Written on the Wind are informed by a kind of heightened naturalism realised in the stand-out performances of Wyman, Stanwyck and MacMurray imprisoned by the architecture of the family home, termed by Ryan “a kind of social theatre” also deployed elsewhere in Sirk’s work in an artlessness which he first sought in melodrama as a theatre director in Germany to escape from what he saw as the elitism of high art.

A family melodrama of baroque “excess” initiated by the producer Albert Zugsmith, Written on the Wind is also a career companion to Sirk’s long cherished project, The Tarnished Angels, on which he said producer Albert Zugsmith gave him pretty much a free hand in collaborating with writer George Zuckerman. In Sirk’s account, Imitation of Life was an assignment he would have done just “for the title” – Ryan finds that “imitations are everywhere in the film.”8 Sirk said that he tried hard to inject a social consciousness into the material, not much “liking that kind of picture” (the “weepie”). However the compensation was that, like Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, Imitation of Life is a picture into which “I know I got a lot of what I wanted.”

At the pinnacle of commercial success with Imitation of Life, Sirk decided to quietly withdraw from Hollywood in search of the freedom he deliberately forfeited but successfully set out, by degrees, to recover when he accepted a long term contract with Universal after completing The First Legion. In all likelihood, it was an artistic loss for world cinema that Sirk, for health reasons, was not able to realise plans in Europe to make a film based on the life of the painter Utrillo from a screenplay by Ionesco.

Tom has sought to return Sirkian criticism to origins through a meticulous reconsideration of Sirk’s complete oeuvre. Important as this is, his intent is clearly not merely completist, as is reflected in the strong endorsement he gives to another recent book length study of Sirk’s work which repositions his visual aesthetic in the context of modernist art and architecture, and the avant-garde.9

Tom Ryan, The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019).

Endnotes:

  1. Jon Halliday (ed.), Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (London: BFI, 1971).
  2. Interview with Noel King, “Criticks Sirk-ling Film Studies, Metro 115 (1998), p. 30. See also Barbara Klinger, “Melodrama and Meaning History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk” (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), Ch. 1.
  3. See Michael Stern, Douglas Sirk (Woodburn: Twayne, 1979).
  4. Andrew G Bonnell “Melodramas for the Master Race: Two Films by Detlef Sierck”, Film History vol. 10 (1998), pp. 208-218, here p. 208. See also Bruce Hodsdon “All That Sirk was Allowed” Film Alert part 13 “The critical backlash” 26/7/17, part 14 “The Legacy” 27/7/17 http://filmalert101.blogspot.com/2017/06/bruce-hodsdon-on-cinema-of-douglas-sirk_26.html
  5. See Bonnell, “Melodramas for the Master Race”, op. cit.
  6. See Halliday (ed.), Sirk on Sirk, op. cit., passim Sirk recognised that Hess was not a role for Rock Hudson but for Robert Stack.
  7. Of the 21 films directed under contract at Universal Studios from 1950-59, 11 were produced by Ross Hunter, including three melodramas: Magnificent Obsession and two family melos, All That Heaven Allows, and Imitation of Life. Two melodramas were produced by Albert Zugsmith: the family melo, Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels, based on William Faulkner’s novel Pylon, a film Sirk had wanted to make while working at Ufa in the thirties. See Bruce Hodsdon part 11 “All That Sirk was Allowed” Film Alert 12/6/17 “Drama/melodrama/tragedy” http://filmalert101.blogspot.com/2017/06/dramamelodramatragedy-editors-note-this.html
  8. Tom Ryan, “Obsessions, Imitations & Subversions, Part Two – on Imitation of Life”, Senses of Cinema 77 (December 2015), https://sensesofcinema.com/2015/feature-articles/imitation-of-life-adaptations/
  9. Victoria L. Evans, Douglas Sirk: Aesthetic Modernism and the Culture of Modernity (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017).