Sirk, Douglas: Productiviy, Creativity, Impact

Douglas Sirk (Hans Detlef Sierck) was born in Germany on April 26, 1897.

He joined Ufa (Universum Film AG) in 1934, and started a successful career with short films and musical comedies. His exotic melodramas Zu neuen Ufern and La Habanera made a star of the Nazi cinema out of Swedish singer Zarah Leander.

He left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish (second) wife, actress Hilde Jary.  In Europe, he worked on films in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Upon arrival in the U.S. he changed his German name.

By 1942 he was in Hollywood, directing the stridently anti-Nazi Hitler’s Madman for the exiled German Producer Seymour Nebenzal.

He made his name with a series of lavishly shot colorful melodramas at Universal-International Pictures from 1954 to 1959: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959).

It was at the pinnacle of his high-profile accomplishments as Universal’s most successful director that he left the United States and filmmaking.

He died in Lugano, Switzerland, on  January 14, 1987, with only a brief return behind the camera in Germany in the 1970s, teaching at the film school Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film in Munich.

Sirk’s melodramas of the 1950s, while highly commercially successful, were poorly received by reviewers. His films were considered unimportant (because they revolve around female and domestic issues), banal (because of their focus on larger-than-life feelings) and unrealistic (because of their conspicuous style).

Attitudes toward Sirk’s films changed drastically in the 1960s and 1970s as his work was re-examined by French and British critics. “This is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”—Jean-Luc Godard in a review of Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

From around 1970 there was a considerable interest among academic film scholars for Sirk’s work – especially his American melodramas. Often centering on the formerly criticized style, his films were now seen as masterpieces of irony.

The plots of the films were no longer taken at face value, and the analyses instead found that the films really criticized American society underneath the banal surface plot. The criticism of the 1970s and early 1980s was dominated by an ideological take on Sirk’s work, gradually changing from being Marxist-inspired in the early 1970s to being focused on gender and sexuality in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sirk’s reputation was also helped by a widespread nostalgia for old-fashioned Hollywood films in the 1970s.[1] His work is now widely considered to show excellent control of the visuals, extending from lighting and framing to costumes and sets that are saturated with symbolism and shot through with subtle barbs of irony.

Sirk’s films have also been praised and quoted in films by directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is partly based on All That Heaven Allows).

Later on, Quentin TarantinoTodd HaynesPedro AlmodóvarWong Kar-waiJohn Waters and Lars von Trier paid homage to his work.

Almodóvar’s vibrant use of color in 1988’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown recalls the cinematography of Sirk’s films of the 1950s,

Haynes’ Far From Heaven was a conscious attempt to replicate a typical Sirk melodrama – in particular All That Heaven Allows – but with a more obviously ironic take on the material.

Tarantino paid homage to Sirk and his melodramatic style in Pulp Fiction, when character Vincent Vega, at a 1950s-themed restaurant, orders the “Douglas Sirk steak” cooked “bloody as hell.”

Aki Kaurismäki paid homage as well in his silent film Juha to Sirk, the villain’s sport car is named “Sierck”.

 

Filmography

April, April! (1935)

T’ was 1 April (1936) co-director (Dutch language version of April, April)

Das Mädchen vom Morrhoof (1935)

Stützen der Gesellschaft (1935)

Schlußakkord (1936)

Das Hofkonzert (1936)

La Chanson du souvenir (1936) co-director (French language version of Das Hofkonzert)

Zu neuen Ufern (1937)

La Habanera (1937)

Accord Final (1938) (uncredited)

Boefje (1939)

Hitler’s Madman (1943)

Summer Storm (1944)

A Scandal in Paris (1946)

Lured (1947)

Sleep, My Love (1948)

Shockproof (1949)

Slightly French (1949)

Mystery Submarine (1950)

The First Legion (1951)

The Lady Pays Off (1951)

Thunder on the Hill (1951)

Week-End With Father (1951)

No Room for the Groom (1952)

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952)

Meet Me at the Fair (1953)

Take Me To Town (1953)

All I Desire (1953)

Taza, Son of Cochise (1954)

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Sign of the Pagan (1954)

Captain Lightfoot (1955)

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

Written on the Wind (1956)

Battle Hymn (1957)

Interlude (1957)

The Tarnished Angels (1957)

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958

Imitation of Life (1959)