Tagged: Douglas Sirk

Sirk #5: Battle Hymn (US 1957)

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Battle Hymn is the film that probably puzzles Sirk fans more than any other. It’s a biopic of an unusual American military hero who was also a minister for an Ohio church. Though the film’s script doesn’t follow the story of Colonel Dean Hess with absolute fidelity, Hess was constantly on set and was able to veto the casting of Robert Mitchum (thought unsuitable because of his reputation – for smoking dope?) in this part-biopic. This presence reportedly drove Sirk to distraction because it prevented him going further in departing from the script.

Hess joined the USAAF after Pearl Harbour and, in a ground attack role in Germany, accidentally bombed an orphanage killing 37 children. The film suggests that the terrible memory of this incident caused Hess to return to active service in 1950 in order to train pilots for the Republic of Korea (i.e. the South Korean) airforce. The training took place close to the front line and Hess then became involved in rescuing several hundred Korean orphans/refugees caught up in the fighting. Later Hess used the proceeds from his successful autobiographical book and its film adaptation (both were released in 1957) to build a new orphanage in South Korea.

Battle Hymn is a Technicolor/CinemaScope epic starring Rock Hudson in the lead role as Hess. Drenched in a soupy score to enhance the religiosity of many scenes, Battle Hymn is as resolutely conventional as its plotline implies. It even begins with a propagandist throwback – an introduction to the film by the Air Force General commanding during the Korean War. Sirk had nothing to do with this and claimed that he had never seen it. But why did he agree to direct the film?

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Production still of Rock Hudson with Korean orphans flown to the US for the shoot.

Sirk’s testimony in Jon Halliday’s interviews with him is quite revealing about his complex relationship with Hollywood. First he says that he liked working with children and that he was attracted to the idea of working with the Korean children (which he concedes might be because of their ‘foreigness’. Linked to this is his interest in Korean and Japanese culture. It is this which initially gets him interested in the story when he meets a Korean military attaché and then the notorious Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose wife turned out to be Austrian (and who enjoyed speaking German with the director). Although the film appears to have been shot in Arizona, Sirk did get out to Korea and Japan and Hess himself flew Sirk over North Korea at one point. This combination of children/Korean culture/German culture and flying was very attractive to Sirk. Unfortunately, the film also came with ‘front office’ interest, a sizeable budget and Rock Hudson (by now a major star). Sirk could see in the script the possibility of exploring yet again a complex character – a man with religious beliefs who could invest his energy in the seemingly opposite pursuits of killing the enemy and saving the children. Sirk wanted to emphasise this by finding a visual/dramatic expression of this split personality. He toyed with the idea of making Hess a drinker but the real Hess fought against this and his presence on set was enough to force Sirk to abandon the idea. Sirk also suggests that Rock Hudson should not have played the role. Instead it should have gone to an actor like Robert Stack who could represent this ‘duality’ more convincingly. It seems a little pat to suggest that only a few months after completing Written on the Wind and not long before The Tarnished Angels, Sirk would contemplate repeating the Hudson-Stack pairing in some way, but that might be the case. There are also two moments/two aspects of the script which intriguingly look forward to future Sirk projects – and two of his best films.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

James Edwards as Lt. Maples during the sequence when he is given the wrong target.

‘Hess’ is a German name and the character explains to his church deacon that his bombing of the orphanage in Germany was even more painful because of his grandmother’s memories of the area. This is yet another twist to the back story of this complex character (who is known to his old buddies from 1944-5 as ‘Killer Hess’). A year after making Battle Hymn, Sirk would go to Germany to make a film based on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die (the title being slightly changed). In 1959, Sirk’s last Hollywood film was Imitation of Life and Sirk had long had a fascination with what he called the ‘race question’. In Battle Hymn he cast (I’m assuming he had some say in the matter) James Edwards, one of the pioneering Black actors in Hollywood in the 1950s, as Lt. Maples, one of the American pilots selected to help train the Koreans. This was a major coup for Hollywood (though it didn’t signal a breakthrough in better roles for Black actors). As recent films like Red Tails (2012) have depicted, the American Air Forces were segregated in the Second World War. Segregation in US Armed Forces didn’t end until an order from Harry Truman was issued in 1948, so the action in Korea in 1950 was barely into the new era. Battle Hymn emphasises Edwards’ role as Lt. Maples with two incidents. First, he is ordered to attack a target that later turns out to be a truck full of children – finding himself responsible for children’s deaths just as Hess had done in Germany. Later, when he has volunteered to help to look after the children on the base, he sings what was then known as a ‘negro spiritual’ song to them, ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. To Sirk’s credit, the film at least includes the Maples character in the central narrative.

The other notable aspect of Battle Hymn is its focus on the rescue of the children. This chimes with a cycle of similar post-war films in several countries, including The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (UK 1958) in which Ingrid Bergman played a British woman missionary escorting 100 children to safety in China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. The rescue mixes with the biopic narrative to create a Hollywood storyline but the popularity of the film (to the relief of Universal no doubt) also depended on the aerial sequences which are well handled by Sirk and his crew.

Sirk #4: All I Desire (US 1953)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Naomi (Barbara Stanwyck) returns to her home after years away, surprising her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) and delighting her daughter Lily (Lori Nelson)

Despite access to Technicolor for appropriate genre films, Douglas Sirk found that he was back to Black & White for this costume melodrama starring Barbara Stanwyck. Presumably Babs was not considered a big enough draw to justify the extra production expense of colour, though Sirk certainly wanted it. This is a major indictment of the Hollywood studio system. Stanwyck was for me the leading actress of her generation, matched only by Bette Davis. Ten years earlier, some reports placed her as the best-paid woman in America. ‘Too old’ at 45, Stanwyck, as the great trouper she was, continued to work through the mid 1950s featuring in several interesting films before moving over to TV.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

A classic dissolve as Naomi the actress remembers the small town she left 10 years ago.

All I Desire is an adaptation of the novel Stopover by Carol Ryrie Brink. Stanwyck plays Naomi Murdoch, a woman at the start of the 20th century who has left her family and ‘run away’ to become an actress. Now she is stuck in a touring vaudeville troupe but her family believe that she has become a big star, touring Europe. She has kept up the charade. When her younger daughter Lily writes to her with the news that she is to appear as the lead in her school graduation play, Naomi decides to risk going home to meet the family again.

Brink was a writer of what we might now think of as Young Adult novels and the narrative of Stopover suggests a focus on the mother-daughter relationship. In Sirk’s hands this becomes a family melodrama, but one hampered by the ‘happy ending’ imposed by producer Ross Hunter as per Universal’s policy. Sirk was disappointed that the title was changed since he thought Stopover signalled a different kind of story. In his conversations with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) he says that Stanwyck’s character is in some ways a “‘pre-study’ of the ‘actress’ in Imitation of Life“. Stanwyck (admired by Sirk and many of Hollywood’s other leading directors) “had the unsentimental sadness of a broken life about her”.

Naomi arrives back in the small town of Riverdale, Wisconsin and finds a complacent middle-class family. Her husband Henry (Richard Carlson) is the high school principal and her three children seem to live separate lives. The youngest, Ted, still has the innocence of youth and loves his mother unconditionally, the eldest, Joyce, blames her mother for her father’s unhappiness and treats her coldly and Lily is all ego.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

Low key lighting as Naomi reads a poem at the after show party.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

The symbolism of melodrama. Naomi has found the key to the house – and to her past love? The same low key lighting persists.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter's boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Expression through composition. Naomi looks out, excited to see her daughter’s boyfriend come to take them riding. Joyce, the reproachful daughter looks on from the back of the room, separated from her mother by the window jamb.

Sirk is highly skilled in the way he manages his resources and marshals Universal’s crew to produce something always worth watching. The film is full of moments when the possibilities of the full-blown melodramas towards which he is heading can be glimpsed. The plot includes the darker side of Naomi’s sudden departure ten years earlier in the shape of the local gunshop owner played by Lyle Bettger whose re-appearance certainly disturbs the Stanwyck character. Sirk’s mise en scène and the camerawork by Carl Guthrie are heavily imbued with film noir flourishes which spread through the family scenes as well as those referring back to Naomi’s past. Sirk’s comment to Halliday was ” . . . a woman comes back with all her dreams, with her love – and she finds nothing but this rotten, decrepit, middle-class family”. I’m not sure these strong words are merited for the family we see in the film, but the mise en scène and camerawork do suggest what Sirk was thinking. If he’d got his own way Stopover might have become a great film. As it is we can just enjoy the craftmanship of Sirk and Stanwyck and look forward to There’s Always Tomorrow a few years later.

Sirk #3: Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (US 1952)

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

Piper Laurie and Rock Hudson

This is the first title in Universal’s ‘Directed by Douglas Sirk’ box-set. After an unhappy time at Columbia, Sirk signed a seven-year contract at Universal and settled down to make a couple of pictures a year for the studio. He was generally happy at Universal but he understood that it was the smallest of the major studios (smaller than Columbia – Universal and Columbia were the ‘mini-majors’ during the studio period since they didn’t own any cinemas). Consequently, most of Sirk’s productions would be superior ‘B’ productions, going against trend in the early 1950s. This meant that the stars  to attract an ‘A’ budget were not available to Sirk and the use of colour was dependent on genre.

Has Anybody Seen My Gal? was Sirk’s fifth Universal picture, a family comedy with several musical numbers making it eligible for Technicolor under Universal’s policy. The film is significant because it teamed Sirk with a young Rock Hudson for the first time (it also features a brief appearance by James Dean). Hudson gets top billing in retrospect and the film also appears in a Rock Hudson box-set – but he has only a supporting role. The central focus is on the veteran actor Charles Coburn (already in his 70s) with whom Sirk had already worked (on Lured in 1947). Coburn plays an eccentric millionaire in the early 1920s who decides to bequeath his wealth to the family of the girl he loved, but didn’t marry fifty years earlier. He inveigles his way into the Blaisdell family home under an assumed name and literally ‘checks out’ the family. Satisfied that they have the makings of acceptable beneficiaries he attempts to test them by arranging for them to come into a large sum of money. This will reveal that there is a weak link in the family group leading to a crisis. Universal’s rules meant that there had to be a happy ending, but Sirk did manage to expose some of the flaws in American bourgeois society even if the ‘feelgood’ aura round the film militated against the satire.

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

Charles Coburn and Gigi Perreau

I enjoyed this film very much. Sirk whisks us through 89 minutes with hardly a pause for breath. Small-town New York state is presented in bright colours and the costumes of the women in the ‘flapper’ era add to the visual punch. Most of the ‘creatives’ on the crew were Universal regulars whose usual commissions ranged across Westerns and Abbott and Costello movies, but they all put in good shifts for Sirk. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a similar background but also more chances to work on bigger budget films. He would become part of Sirk’s team over several films. Henry Mancini is listed by IMDB as a ‘uncredited composer’.

The film’s title comes from the song and there are other well-known songs sung by the cast including ‘The Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob Bobbing Along’. Piper Laurie at the start of her career is very good as Millicent, the Blaisdell’s older daughter and the grand-daughter of the woman the millionaire loved as a young man. Truly vivacious, Piper Laurie immediately recalls the impact of seeing Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain for the first time. (Laurie followed Reynolds into cinemas just a few weeks later). Her younger sister in the family, played by 9 year-old Gigi Perreau, is the other standout player. She was an established child star of the period and gives a lively performance – taking Coburn’s character at face value. Sirk told Jon Halliday that he couldn’t remember much about the film – apart from meeting Rock Hudson. I think he should have been pleased to make such a fresh version of a rather formulaic story. He was helped by a sharp script by Joseph Hoffman from a story by Eleanor H. Porter (best known for the 1913 children’s novel, Pollyanna). If you want some heartwarming entertainment, this fits the bill.

Sirk #2: The Tarnished Angels (US 1957)

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This is a film I have wanted to watch for a long time. I think I once caught it on TV but abandoned the ‘pan and scan’ screening. I finally caught up with it via Masters of Cinema’s Blu-ray disc in its full Black & White CinemaScope glory. I was knocked out by what Douglas Sirk could achieve with limited resources and a small cast with four terrific leading players. The film was produced by Albert Zugsmith and written by George Zuckerman and the same pairing had been responsible for Sirk’s previous film Written on the Wind (US 1956). Three of the leads, Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Stack were all in the previous film and again gave everything for Sirk, alongside Jack Carson, who will for me always be remembered for his role in Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

The Tarnished Angels was adapted from the 1935 William Faulkner novel Pylons. Set in the early 1930s in New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations, the plot concerns Hudson’s alcohol-fuelled newspaperman who sees a human interest story in the tragic trio of Stack, Malone and Carson and the ten year-old boy who rumour suggests might be the son of either man. Stack is ‘Captain’ Roger Shumann, the World War One ace married to Malone’s LaVerne and Carson is the mechanic Jiggs who has followed his captain after the war. Shumann earns a living flying planes kept in the air by Jiggs in what is effectively a circus act – taking part in dangerous races around three pylons on a makeshift airfield (which in this case is by the sea in the delta). LaVerne also performs a thrilling parachute and trapeze act. Hudson’s character, Burke Devlin, is inevitably attracted to LaVerne but doesn’t initially realise quite how volatile the relationships between the three characters are.  Setting what a melodrama in this milieu is picked up again in two later Hollywood films, John Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths (US 1969) with Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman and Deborah Kerr and George Roy Hill’s The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) with Robert Redford. (I’m sure there are other earlier titles as well – and other Depression era narratives with similar ingredients.)

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamps throwing light upwards.

One of the noir scenes with Rock Hudson, Dorothy Malone and advertising sponsor Robert Middleton. Note the classic table lamp throwing light upwards behind Middleton. The costume design emphasise the effect by dressing Malone in black and white. Similarly, in the outdoor flying scenes, the planes tend to be ‘white’ or ‘black’.

I think what surprised me most was just how ‘expressionist’ the film was and how much it resembled classic films noirs in several nighttime scenes. I note that producer Zugsmith went on next to put together Touch of Evil (US 1958), often quoted as the ‘final’ noir of the classic period. Sirk had one outdoor set of the airfield, several studio interiors of offices/hotel rooms/hangars/newspaper room and a restaurant and then some presumably stock footage of the Mardi Gras. The giant heads of the Carnival are a gift to expressionist mise en scène and Sirk also makes good use of the fairground rides on the airfield on which the boy Jack ‘flies’ a plane while his father is in the air. The cinematographer is Irving Glassberg, about whom I know little except that he seems to have mainly shot Westerns (including one for Anthony Mann). He was born in Warsaw so perhaps he had a Central European feel for noir. He previously shot Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955). He may not have credits for well-known noirs but his work on this film is excellent and is beautifully rendered on this MoC disc.

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

Dorothy Malone as LaVerne is the real star of the film

The visual qualities of the film are well-served by the casting. Stack is wonderfully stern, dark and brooding. I’m surprised that I don’t know that many others of his film titles – but as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables (US 1959-63) he was an essential part of my childhood TV viewing. Dorothy Malone is the revelation of the film. It’s a sensational performance in which her long hair, seemingly platinum blonde, is matched by a loose white dress for the parachute scenes. One of the extras on the disc reveals how uncomfortable the good Catholic girl from Texas felt about being ‘exposed’ in her costume. If she felt uncomfortable she doesn’t show it. She seems perfectly suited to Sirk’s 1950s films but after The Tarnished Angels, only Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (US 1959) offered her a memorable role. Rock Hudson is also very good, though he does seem rather larger and more powerful than the standard representation of the newspaperman (although he reveals the character’s vulnerabilities very well). I would also have to agree with one comment I read which suggested that Sirk’s usual control was usurped by the wordy script which gives Devlin/Hudson a rousing speech in the last few scenes of the film.

The other clever aspect of the script is to introduce Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia to the narrative. LaVerne is a country girl seduced by the excitement of Shumann’s appearance as the ‘barnstorming pilot’ when the air circus hits her Iowa farm country. Cather’s novel of 1918 was seen as introducing ‘Western’ lives to the literary world. The link between LaVerne and Devlin is made through the novel which she discovers in his room. The farm life promises something much more secure that LaVerne has abandoned to follow Roger (though agrarian life in the US would suffer greatly during the Depression).

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has 'no way out' in the noir melodrama

Roger Shumann (Robert Stack) has ‘no way out’ in the noir melodrama

But what’s the narrative really about? (Spoilers coming!) Sirk was certainly interested in flying and he’d tried to adapt Faulkner’s novel when he was at Ufa in the 1930s. For the Stack character, flying is not only exciting but also provides both a means of escape and possibly a means of displacement for his love for Laverne. The central moment of the narrative is when Roger searches for a replacement plane after a crash. He needs a new plane for the big race but the only one available needs an overhaul and it belongs to Matt Ord (Roger Middleton) the big-time sponsor. For Roger to fly requires Jiggs to work all night on the plane’s engine – but only if LaVerne can ‘persuade’ Ord to let Roger have the aircraft. Roger in effect ‘uses’ both of the people who love and respect him. This is a melodrama and we know what will happen. It is Sirk’s brilliance that makes the ensuing drama so compulsively watchable. In his interviews with Jon Halliday (Sirk on Sirk, faber & faber 1997) Sirk discusses the concept of échec which he argues means more than simply ‘failure’ and conveys the sense of being ‘blocked’ with no way out. Sirk’s characters can’t be ‘redeemed’ with a happy ending. Roger can only attempt to ‘save’ LaVerne and Jack by taking away what they most want – his love. Poor old Jiggs seems to be discarded completely. The irony is, too, that the ostensible star of the film, Rock Hudson, is in effect only the narrator (whose interventions move the story forward) – the real protagonists are Roger and LaVerne. From my perspective it seems like Dorothy Malone’s film and she emerges as the noir melodrama survivor.

The Tarnished Angels runs a little over 90 minutes and the Blu-ray is packed with extras, all worth exploring. It looks wonderful in Black & White ‘Scope, the perfect format for this melodrama. I’m tempted now to go back to other Sirk B & W melos.

Sirk #1: Captain Lightfoot (US 1955)

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Captain Lightfoot is a Hollywood film adapted from a story by the prolific W. R. Burnett. It is mainly interesting as an example of the genre films with A list casts and budgets released by the studios at the time when they were trying to assert film’s dominance in the face of television’s rapid rise. The two important ingredients were the location of the story – a ‘runaway’ production in Ireland – and the combination of Ross Hunter as producer, Douglas Sirk as director and his protegé Rock Hudson as leading man.

The film was shot completely on location – in County Louth and in various country houses around the country. Sirk, quoted in Jon Halliday’s Sirk on Sirk (1997), remembered how much he loved Ireland and enjoyed the shoot despite some of the production difficulties. The story refers to attempts by Irish villagers to create a revolutionary ‘Society’ in 1815. Hotheaded local Michael Martin (Hudson) falls foul of the British and is hunted by dragoons before being rescued by a clergyman (Jeff Morrow) who turns out to be the notorious highwayman Captain Thunderbolt in disguise. Thunderbolt is the main funder of the rebels, stealing from the British in various ways, including the operation of an aristocratic gaming house in Dublin. Martin is soon inducted as Thunderbolt’s second in command and given the title ‘Lightfoot’. Lightfoot will cause various problems when he falls for Thunderbolt’s impetuous beautiful daughter (Barbara Rush).

Shot in Technicolor and early CinemaScope (2.55:1 with separate 4-track mag stereo) this is a vibrant and colourful action adventure with appropriate romance and historical/political elements. Sirk remembered that he and his cinematographer (Irving Glassberg) were required to work on early ‘Scope films in such a way that the film would work on both Scope and Academy ratio cinema screens. At this time many cinemas were still in the process of converting to widescreen – the same requirement would be made in the 1970s when most films expected to find their audience on 4:3 TV sets. Sirk also had to contend with Irish rain for many outdoor shots but he discovered an appropriate lens and he and Glassberg produced very fine outdoor action sequences. He also discovered that Rock Hudson was equipped for screen comedy to go with his dashing good looks and boyish charm.

The film offers good light entertainment and enjoyable performances. Films that see Irish resistance to British colonialism always went down well in parts of North America and I was amused to see a fist fight reminiscent of John Ford’s The Quiet Man made in the West of Ireland a few years earlier. Overall, however, I was most impressed with the confident staging and direction of actors from Douglas Sirk who was by 1955 established at Universal with Hunter’s backing and access to stars. Hudson’s performance here comes between two of his performances in Sirk’s melodramas – Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). The relationship between Morrow and Hudson was taken as the basis for the Michael Cimino film Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (US 1974) with Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.

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.

Second Thoughts on Elena (Russia 2011)

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Petzold's Yella and Zvyangintsev's Elena - women on the move in New Europe.

Petzold’s Yella (above) and Zvyangintsev’s Elena (top) – women on the move in the New Europe.

[This is a second posting on Elena, the third film by Andrey Zvyagintsev. The original posting is here. The film was screened on a day school focusing on Zvyagintsev’s films and his potential status as a ‘film artist’.]

The screening at Kala Sangam in Bradford brought out several interesting film comparisons. A brief warning – there are no direct SPOILERs here, but there is a discussion of scenes and the tone of the ending.  I completely agree with the reference to Christian Petzold in the original post on this film. I thought of his Ghost Trilogy several times and wondered whether the shared austerity of these two filmmakers reflects a desire to strip away ‘noise’ in the mise en scène so that they can ‘forensically’ examine what modern economics in the New Europe has done to its people. Interestingly, Petzold utilised landscapes in a similar way, for example in Yella, to create a commentary on economic power and class, both films seeming to represent the soullessness of the no-man’s-lands each female protagonist has to cross or inhabit.  Petzold’s film also alludes to a particularly German history of economic divide between East and West in his country which reinforces the need of his protagonist to move. (And movement also is a key feature of Ulrich Seidl’s economic migrants through the film frame in Import/Export (2007)). This moral emptiness is not confined to the poorer landscapes – Yella‘s boardrooms and Elena’s home with Vladimir both reverberate with the emotional coldness of minimalist chic. (A trope present in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Under dir die Stadt (2010)).

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman's Jeanne and Zvyagintsev's Elena.

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman’s Jeanne and Zvyagintsev’s Elena.

There were also resonances for me of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Both Zvyagintsev’s film and her’s present the rhythm of domestic routines undertaken by these women although different choices in mise en scène highlight each directors’ different aims. However, there are parallels in the representation of sexual relationships as comprising fundamentally economic transactions, more literally of course in Jeanne’s case. Elena, like Jeanne, is a gnomic figure. Never do we go behind her inexpressive face to be given a direct insight into her emotions and thoughts. This invests the narrative with greater power and realism – who knows exactly why they do things so why should our faces always show it? – and her pivotal action seems both spontaneous and a response to deeply-held feelings about her partnership with Vladimir. Elena seems to have held a particular understanding of the ‘deal’ that had been struck over the past ten years she has stayed with him on which he has lately appeared to renege. This is reinforced for me as Zvyagintsev seems to allude to this theme of transactions again through a short sequence foregrounding an office secretary during a visit made by some of the main characters. Whilst she is young, slim, blonde and conventionally beautiful – dressed in a professional outfit that accentuates her figure – her movement in making and bringing in teas and coffees is an exact echo of Elena’s daily movements around the flat earlier. Significantly, she closes the door on leaving the office – mimicking Elena’s exits from her husband’s bedroom. Her action – as part of her job as secretary – is domestic labour as part of economic work. It elegantly and lightly alludes to Elena’s work in her marriage. How much she is ‘owed’ for that work remains part of the moral debate handled in an fruitfully ambiguous way by the writer-director.

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Jane Wyman, the young widow, framed in the reflection of the TV screen in ‘All That Heaven Allows’ by Douglas Sirk

Allusion and symbol is a poetic technique and the use of visual symbols featured in today’s discussion about Zvyagintsev’s status as a film artist within Russian cinema. We might want to recall a more overtly expressionistic use of mirrors in Douglas Sirk’s posing of Cary (Jane Wyman) in front of her mirror in All that Heaven Allows (1955) as her romance with Rock Hudson’s Ron blossoms and then founders. Even more expressive is the construction of her reflection in the ghastly TV set her children buy for her to replace her young lover with a more appropriate ‘companion.’ Aspects of Elena’s love for her feckless and generally ungrateful son might recall aspects of these classic, Hollywood melodramatic plots. (An interesting analysis of mise en scène in Sirk and Fassbinder here).

Sirk was considered to be a master of ‘aporia’ – of creating a mood that was emotionally unresolved at the end of his films despite their conventional endings. Elena certainly strikes several notes of ambiguity – in our feelings towards all of the characters in what is both a narrative about very Russian concerns of class, power and money but one which still feels immediately empathic for a Western international audience. This narrative is filtered through the perspective of the female protagonist – quiet, unassuming (like Jeanne) her inner world is not opened up to us as it would be through Sirk’s expressionistic style. However, Elena exerts the greatest power in the narrative, driving it forward as the men stay inactive or relatively powerless. Still, we may be left wondering what her personal actions really mean for wider society and class mobility in modern Russia; the film’s ambiguity (or aporia) adding impact to its social commentary through (rather than despite) its irresolution. In other words, whilst the family story may be (temporarily) settled, the future for all feels rather uncertain.