Douglas Sirk and global film

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of a Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from: http://elcinedesolaris.blogspot.com/2014/08/en-rodaje-douglas-sirk-john-gavin-y.html)

Douglas Sirk on set with John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver during the shoot of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1957). (photo from: http://elcinedesolaris.blogspot.com/2014/08/en-rodaje-douglas-sirk-john-gavin-y.html)

Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).

In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday's book on Sirk.)

Dorothy Malone in a melodrama composition from Written on the Wind. (This is the image that appears on the 1971 edition of Halliday’s book on Sirk.)

Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.

Advertisements

One comment

  1. Sam Broadhead (@Samheadart)

    Reading against the grain of the the film, I love the film still from Written on the Wind seen here. She may not have got her man but she holds in her hands a phallic symbol of patriarchal power. It offers the possibilities of change and innovation – what can she do with that empire that the male members of her family did not? She is the future even though she stands alone.
    Another key scene is when Molone dances in a wonderful red dress, oosing sensuality whilst her father collapses; a crisis due to her overtly sexual trangressions. The love story is not as interesting to me as the tensions between father and daughter, and how she eventually takes his place in the dynasty. Molone as sheer force of passion and desire outshines Bacal and Hudson in this particular film.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s