Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography by Tom Ryan
Biography on Turner Classic Movies
Douglas Sirk films ranked on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:
#199 – Written on the Wind (1956)
#203 – Imitation of Life (1959)
#281 – All that Heaven Allows (1955)
#491 – There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)
#556 – The Tarnished Angels (1958)
#994 – A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)
WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
Google Books lists 10 titles either about or mentioning Douglas Sirk, including:
- Douglas Sirk, Michael Stern. 1979
- Shooting script for Imitation of Life, by Douglas Sirk and Lucy Fischer. Published 1991.
- Melodrama and Meaning: History and Culture and the films of Douglas Sirk, Barbara Klinger. 1994
- Sirk on Sirk: interviews with Jon Halliday. 1972
The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Sirk:
“Most of the projects assigned to him were unpromising in content and miniscule in budget. He was often forced to contend with ridiculous scripts, ranging in genre from thriller to maudlin soap operas. That he managed to overcome the handicap and end up with a good number of thoroughly enjoyable films is a tribute to his personal taste and the formal excellence of his visual style.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk as it has already vindicated Josef von Sternberg. Formal excellence and visual wit are seldom as appreciated at first glance as are the topical sensations of the hour… Any visual style can be mechanically reproduced, but without the linkage to a directorial personality, the effect is indeed mechanical. Sirk’s taste is exquisite, and hence, inimitable. One big obstacle to an appreciation of his oeuvre is an inbred prejudice to what Raymond Durgnat has called the genre of the female weepies as opposed to the male weepies. – Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)
“Though the erudite Sirk worked in the intellectually disreputable realm of the melodrama, his alertness to the injustices underlying the American Dream and his commitment to underdog characters made for heart-rending, thought-provoking cinema.” – Geoff Andrew (The Director’s Vision, 1999)
“Stylish melodramas form the core of Sirk’s reputation, but he lensed suspense films, costume dramas, comedies, and even Westerns with flair.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
“So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less.” – Douglas Sirk
“If I can say one thing for my pictures, it is a certain craftsmanship. A thought which has gone into every angle. There is nothing there without an optical reason.” – Douglas Sirk
More choice quotes from Sirk, found on BrainyQuote:
“I never regarded my pictures as very much to be proud of, except in this, the craft, the style.”
“If I can say one thing for my pictures, it is a certain craftsmanship. A thought which has gone into every angle. There is nothing there without an optical reason.”
“So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less.”
“Your characters have to remain innocent of what your picture is after.”
“Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. It is more perceptive than the human eye.”
‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The New Left Review, 1975
The career of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) is a case study in contradictions. A European intellectual who translated Shakespeare and directed Ibsen, he gained his greatest fame making allegedly schlocky movies for one of the sleazier American movie studios. Once a peer of Weill and Brecht, he later hung out with the likes of gay producer Ross Hunter and exploitationer Albert Zugsmith. In the ‘30s his actors were Europe’s finest; in the ‘50s he worked with Rock Hudson and John Gavin. Sirk’s American melodramas were adored by audiences of the time and made reams of money for Universal, where he was a contract director. But mainstream critics of the time (and later) dismissed them as camp or kitsch or both, an opinion based less on their actual achievement than on their overwhelmingly negative associations — Universal’s reputation as a cheesy studio, melodramatic plots based on the quasi-literate work of hacks like Lloyd C. Douglas and Fannie Hurst, and movie stars like Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman who were considered more icons than actors.
Of course, it didn’t help that Sirk worked often in one of the more disreputable corners of cinema, the women’s picture. This genre has never had the hip cachet of, say, film noir or even the western, and so his films are rarely revived outside museums and film societies. (They are easily available on video and on cable TV stations like AMC, however.) Fortunately, European critics and filmmakers, including Godard and Fassbinder, were part of the rescue team, pointing out to those who cared to listen the glories in this overripe, quite individual cinema.
- Gary Morris, Images Journal
In the early 70s people laughed at me for writing lovingly about Douglas Sirk’s “ridiculous” films. Rainer Werner Fassbinder lauded his fellow director’s outrageousness, however, and a few years later, as Fassbinder’s reputation grew and gay and camp sensibilities became more respectable, Sirk’s melodramatic depictions of mainstream culture were also better received — though often for superficial reasons. Sure, his colors are alluring, and his exaggerations have a certain bleak humor. But ultimately Sirk wasn’t in it for the laughs: he was a fatalist, someone who once said that “happiness exists, if only by virtue of the fact that it can be destroyed.” This emigre, who lived most of his life in Germany, located his general despair in the American materialism of his day, in our reliance on objects to fill the voids where once there were souls.
Throughout Sirk’s films, compositions fall into fragments. Cuts seem to split the space; camera movements alienate rather than connect. Often this is accomplished with great subtlety: inside the drugstore, the shadows of passersby can be seen on the sidewalk, rhythmic disruptions that rob the characters of their power. In a similar scene in All That Heaven Allows (1955), the occasion is happier — dancing after a dinner party in a warmly lit interior — but a skylight shows leaves in silhouette blowing ominously across the roof. Later in the film, in which a well-off widow (Jane Wyman) is ostracized for an affair with her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), she’s seen from outside the house, standing alone at her window observing Christmas carolers. The camera moves in to engage us in her isolation, but it draws so close to the window that, as we become more aware of the glass, the space seems to fracture, leaving her profoundly distanced, even “walled up” — the term one character uses to describe widows. Though All That Heaven Allows has a happy ending, it’s undercut by the gardener’s ongoing redecoration of his home to make it more suburban.
- Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader, April 14 2006
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”, 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”. 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 … 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.”
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.
- Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinema
No other director has blended high, middle, and low sensibilities to such strange, exhilarating effect. In Written on the Wind (1957), Sirk’s juxtaposition of Dorothy Malone’s jutting breasts and buttocks with cars, gas pumps, and a roadside bar anticipates by almost a decade the iconography of lust in Russ Meyer’s films, and it certainly competes with them in crude gusto. Yet Sirk is the director who read T.S. Eliot aloud to Rock Hudson and Robert Stack to get the actors into the spirit of The Tarnished Angels (1958) and who called on the shade of Euripides to guide him through the dramaturgical dilemmas of Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk is also sympathetically middlebrow in his approach to the candy-colored romance-paperback fantasies of Magnificent Obsession (1954).
- Chris Fujiwara, The Boston Phoenix
Fujiwara also has a fascinating comparision of American and Japanese audience reactions to Sirk films, published by the Moving Image Source.
Bright Lights Film Journal devoted its Winter 1977-1978 issue to Sirk, featuring eight articles, which are all now available online. Choice excerpts from some of the articles:
First and foremost, I admire his audacity in confronting his material directly, no matter how fanciful and improbable it may seem. In this he descends from the Germanic tradition of Murnau, Lang and Ophuls with its mystical feeling for the subjective impressions of the mind rendered as objective images. There is a distinctively Sirkian mood — reflective in its reflections, fatalistic, world-weary — which I recognize in most of his films.
Nonetheless, I would not rationalize his career as trash transcended or corn camped up. There is irony in the tension between his style and his basic material, but it is an irony that is neither condescending nor dialectical.
- Andrew Sarris, “Sarris on Sirk”
Jon Halliday’s indispensable Sirk on Sirk has confirmed what Sirk’s admirers and students had long suspected: that his films are not all equally “personal,” and that he had a much freer hand with some of his projects than with others. Today most critics agree about the worth and importance of the more “personal” films. Foremost among these are Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, whose titles are considered by Sirk himself to be the most eloquent. To these should be added A Time to Love and a Time to Die, a film close to Sirk for obvious reasons (notably its German setting), and an early American film, Scandal in Paris, which is a masterpiece of ironical cinema. The “irony” here is not that described by Paul Willemen when demonstrating Sirk’s distanciation from his material, but designates a general and explicit ambiguity, perceptible by the audience at large. Sirk soon felt that this technique was ill-suited to the American public, and, in this sense, Scandal in Paris can be regarded as “the most European” of his American films. The director’s signature — the initials D.S. — is moreover clearly carved on a wall in the opening scene of the film. Thus the second category consists of films over which Sirk had less control and which he therefore had to “bend” (his own phrase) in order to try and subvert their explicit meaning. It includes Imitation of Life, Interlude, All That Heaven Allows, Sign of the Pagan, and most certainly Magnificent Obsession. The distinction does not necessarily imply a difference in the quality of the films:Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows are recognized as essential components of the Sirkian oeuvre. Nevertheless, the feeling that “personal” should be equated with “creative” and therefore “better” remains strong, and it is a fact that even some of Sirk’s devotees have trouble in accepting Magnificent Obsession.
- Jean-Loup Bourget, “God Is Dead, or Through a Glass Darkly”
As far as Douglas Sirk and myself, the relationship couldn’t be finer. He’s one of the two finest directors in the world, the other being Orson Welles. There’s nothing bad I could say about Douglas. He was the quintessence of elegance, an artiste, a gentleman, a master of camera placement. Douglas and 1 never had an argument. He was a very sensitive man, a private man. We became good friends socially as well as practicing our art. He never tore down our initial planning in our attack on (film) properties. He did nothing but add to things.
I precut my pictures. Sirk was an absolute willing doll in conforming to anything that made dramatic sense. There was no improvisation, none whatsoever on the part of the actor in these films. There were conferences, meetings, quasi-rehearsals. Improvisation was unnecessary.
Sirk worked very closely with the cameraman, placing the shots himself. In this respect he was similar to Orson Welles. Metty was an excellent cameraman. He detached himself into the background somewhat. We had a sensational operator on those films.
- Albert Zugsmith, Screenwriter, “Albert Zugsmith on Sirk”
Intellectualism came very late to America. That’s why Americans are so proud of it. I found very few real intellectuals in America. But there are so many pseudo-intellectuals. They carry their Freud or their Marx around in front of them on a platter, and say, “Hello, I’m so-and-so, have you heard of Karl Marx?” Yes, thank you. This kind of pseudo-intellect is worse than the man who lives by instinct. You can’t talk to the American intellectual.
But I was one of the few who stayed. Brecht, Mann, they all left. There is no tradition in the United States. In anything. It was different in New York, which was highly Europeanized. But California was a mixture of Mexicans, early settlers, people who had been in the Pacific during World War II or Korea. It was open. Your wife could go to the supermarket in her bathing suit. When we came, there was no industry at all. Just blue skies, no smog. Of course, after the war, the picture changed completely. But before, everything was movies. And you have no idea how this shaped your life. The movie stars were a strange aristocracy. If Lana Turner walked down the street to buy dark underwear, Hedda Hopper would tell all about it. It was so primitive, and at the same time it was so pleasant. We liked America in spite of everything. Europe was so old, so burdened with guilt complexes. California was a center for mass art. Europe to an artist after the war was not at all interesting. I had become a complete foreigner in Germany. And there, in Hollywood, was an industry for a new art. America, after Magnificent Obsession, was for me an opportunity.
- Douglas Sirk, interviewed by Michael Stern
Sirk’s films often featured Rock Hudson, one of Universal’s few box office draws, as a leading man, and Hudson has always been a target. For years, he was made fun of for what was considered his wooden acting. Now, he’s a loaded figure for his once covert, now exposed, homosexuality; a school of critics “reads” his gayness into his performances to the point where it supposedly supercedes the films.
Another group of critics, interested in feminist issues, interests itself in the “reception” of Sirk’s films, in their political context, etc, etc.
In the process, poor Sirk and his movies get lost all over again. The shame of this is that he was a major talent who made great films, one of cinema’s great visual stylists, a bracingly sardonic ironist, a leftist who got away working in the Hollywood system (not to mention under the Nazis), and that rare thing, an artist who was also an intellectual. He had a substantial and superb body of work before he landed at Universal and his style and thematic preoccupations were well set from an early point in his career.
It is an ironic key to Sirk’s popular acclaim now that exactly the same stars whose presence seemed to confirm his films as being “programmers” and “women’s pictures” have ultimately added a deeper dimension to his works. By using popular stars of the 1930s through 1950s—stars who often peopled lightweight comedies and unregenerate melodramas, Sirk revealed another dimension of American society. His films often present situations in which the so-called “happy endings” of earlier films are played out to their ultimate (and often more realistic) outcomes by familiar faces. For example, in There’s Always Tomorrow , Clifford and his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) might very well have been the prototypes for the main characters of a typical 1930s comedy in which “boy gets girl” in the last reel. Yet, in looking at them after almost 20 years of marriage, their lives are shallow. The happy ending of a youthful love has not sustained itself. Similarly, in All That Heaven Allows , the attractive middle-aged widow of a “wonderful man” has few things in life to make her happy. Whereas she was once a supposedly happy housewife, the loving spouse of a pillar of the community, her own identity has been suppressed to the point that his death means social ostracism. These two examples epitomize the cynicism of Sirk’s view of what was traditionally perceived as the American dream. Most of Sirk’s films depict families in which a house, cars, and affluence are present, but in which sexual and emotional fulfillment are not. Many of Sirk’s films end on a decidedly unhappy note; the ones that do end optimistically for the main characters are those in which traditions are shattered and the strict societal standards of the time are rejected.
- Patricia King Hanson, Film Reference.com
The quartet of sexual dysfunction in Written on the Wind allows two oppositions: for the “good” couple, Hudson’s stubborn reserve and Lauren Bacall’s naive trust; for the “bad,” Stack’s impotence and Malone’s nymphomania. Sirk never resolves the conflicts, nor does he even seem to hold out hope for the possibility of common ground.
This ability to embrace the complexity of his characters is the main reason these films are better than the ’50s critics who dismissed them first thought, and even better than some of Sirk’s most fervent contemporary admirers would have you believe. Again and again, Sirk employs the mechanics of melodrama to explore people too fearful, selfish, deluded, or self-loathing to truly appreciate what should be melodrama’s ultimate reward: the love given them. Happiness is just out of reach, tantalizingly beyond the omnipresent mirrors and window panes. Sometimes his characters see this; sometimes they don’t. Thus, these supremely artificial films are quite accurate reflections (not just imitations) of how nearly all of us behave in life. Scorn or laugh at them, and you’re only admitting that you refuse to see how well Sirk has described you.
- Bruce Reid, The Stranger
The term “subversive” gets bandied about too easily when talking about Sirk. He indeed snuck in sly comments on middle class malaise, discrimination, racism, ageism, class distinction and the gap between the ideals of the American dream and romantic love and the realities of 1950s America into his soapy, sudsy melodramas. But that kind of subversion was lurking all through the cinema of the 1950s, in the works of Sam Fullerand John Ford and Nicholas Ray, in the westerns and the women’s pictures and the crime films we’ve since collectively recognized as film noir. The most subversive thing one could say about Sirk and company was not that his message was politically daring, but that he snuck it into pictures without the flashing lights and self-conscious commentary of the more obviously socially conscious dramas of the time.
Sirk never denies the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality of these films, he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses. It’s oddly appropriate that Sirk’s popular hits were critically snubbed on their release. That’s not to say that middle class crowds and sobbing housewives saw through the glossy surfaces to see the Brechtian engagements with middle class malaise and the crumbling ideals of the American dream underneath. But they understood his films in ways that critics, looking for Meaning (with a capitol M) in “important,” high-minded dramas, completely missed at the time. Sirk’s films are all about surfaces and social masks, and his style – impeccable compositions, portentous angles, gaudy color, and performances that ping pong between simmering repression and overwrought emotional turbulence – tell the real stories in these pulp fictions.
- Sean Axmaker, GreenCine
As is well known, Sirk worked as a successful theatre director in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. He acknowledges, however, that he did make a decisive break with the theatre when he began to understand and explore the possibilities of cinematic language. By the time he came to direct Schlussakkord/Final Accord in 1936, he claims that making films was not merely a matter of transferring theatre to cinema, but rather required qualities that contrasted markedly with those of the theatre. ‘I realized I had to make a complete break with my theatrical past’, he admitted. ‘I had realized that the cinema and the theatre were two completely different media’. The distinction between the two forms became crucial for him: ‘I began to understand that the camera is the main thing here, because there is emotion in the motion pictures. Motion is emotion, in a way it can never be in the theatre’ (Halliday, pp. 43-44). Once again, Sirk seems to be emphasizing that with cinema he was in some way turning his back on the theatre, the key distinction being that cinema could present emotion in ways that it could not in the theatre.
But even if the cinema has the ability to exhibit close moments of genuine emotion – of authenticity – then even this is no guarantee of resolution or reconciliation: Sirk is certainly not proposing any kind of triumph of cinema over theatre. In Imitation of Life Lora does indeed make a move from theatre into film acting, but if the world of the theatre is deemed inauthentic then her entry into the world of film offers no instantaneous authenticity. Even at the end of the film, when Annie is on her deathbed, Lora’s startled cry reeks of inauthenticity (Sirk considers this one of the high ironic points of the film) (Halliday, p. 153). Lora’s inability to distinguish real life from its imitations continues unabated.
Ultimately, however, to understand what Imitation of Life is trying to do audiences have to trust in its distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, between its evocations of real life and its manifestations of life’s imitations. The evocations of real life rely on emotional manipulation – the emotion of motion pictures. It is only by way of these moments of intense emotional involvement that the moments of authenticity in the film can be distinguished from those of pretence. And it is the moments of pretence, of escaping into falsifying theatres of one form or another, that Sirk is holding up for criticism. Finally, that is what is produced by Sirkian ‘ironic distanciation’: an acknowledgment of the inauthentic imitation of life.
- Richard Rushton, “Douglas Sirk’s Theatres of Imitation.” Screening the Past
Mike Grost analyzes three early Sirk films: Hitler’s Madman; Sleep, My Love; and Shockproof
Glenn Kenny reviews Summer Storm on DVD