A River Runs Through It

Tony Pipolo on “Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk” at FSLC

Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows, 1955, 35 mm, color, sound, 89 minutes.

FOR THOSE STILL IMMUNE to the glories of Douglas Sirk’s cinema, the twenty-five-film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (most in 35 mm) is a rare opportunity to see what they’ve been missing. Included are four films from the 1930s that he made in Germany as Detlef Sierck, but also such rarities as Mystery Submarine (1950), The First Legion (1951, one of his loveliest, most underrated films), and Take Me to Town and Meet Me at the Fair (both 1953). Among cinephiles and film historians, Sirk’s reputation has soared since the 1960s, when the Dictionnaire du Cinéma declared him the “most neglected director in the whole of American cinema.” The same voices in the ’50s that mocked his unabashed embrace of melodrama (like complaining that opera plots are unrealistic) applauded the bludgeoning style and rhetoric of such diatribes as High Noon (1952), The Defiant Ones (1958), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Marty (1955).

Sirk’s visual music eluded his critics even as it transcended Hollywood conventions, deepening the melodrama’s cultural and psychological dimensions by hyperbolizing its very mechanics. At their best, his films move beyond naturalism toward what Godard lovingly called “delirium”—where raw, even pathological emotions find their stylistic match. No longer at the “far side of paradise” where the late Andrew Sarris placed him in The American Cinema (1968), Sirk is unquestionably one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. His late masterpieces—Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959) are not only triumphs of composition and light, but powerful refutations of American idealism, a shade or two less dark but no less perversely bewitching than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).

Sirk not only survived his critics; he also emerged unscathed from efforts by academics in the ’80s to view his work through the dubious filters of fashionable theories—deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and radical feminism—thereby “justifying” his excesses as a form of Brechtian estrangement. As contemporaries, Sirk was certainly cognizant of Brecht’s theories. But to suggest that the unflinching pathos of his movies is compatible with Brechtian detachment is folly. If there is a “distance” in Sirk’s style, it’s one he shares with fellow émigrés Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak, who, having fled the horrors of Nazism, observed the naïveté of American society with bemused concern.

Sirk came to Hollywood with a formidable pedigree, after honing his skills in structure and scenic design in classical theater throughout the ’20s. Having adapted, staged, or directed Sophocles, Molière, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, Strindberg, Shaw, Pirandello, Wilde, and Ibsen, among others, he brought, without the least condescension, a gravitas and cathartic weight to the melodrama. Even his “happy” endings are suffused with unfulfilled longing. In There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), middle-class domesticity triumphs over midlife escapism; All That Heaven Allows (1955) confirms that star-crossed lovers can only find peace in the giddily fantastic Waldenesque world etched in the final image.

Douglas Sirk, La Habanera, 1937, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes.

Sirk had explored the dangerous lure of a natural paradise in La Habanera (1937), his last German film: Astree, the Swedish heroine, jumps ship in a sensually depicted Puerto Rico and falls into the arms of the dashing Don Pedro, only to endure a hellish marriage for the next ten years and wage battle for custody of their son. Contention between husband and wife is reflected in the shadowy bars that fragment the mise-en-scène. When Astree leaves after her husband dies of the fever that descends on this paradise, her gaze backward lingers until the camera pans out to sea, reversing the move it made in the opening shot. The camera’s omniscient role, not unlike its fatalistic point of view in German cinema in the ’20s, along with the film’s lighting, narrative structure, and the schism between yearning and reality, would become the hallmarks of Sirk’s style in Hollywood, where it would be enhanced by his brilliant use of color.

His first American movie, Hitler’s Madman (1943), is an indictment of Nazi ideology. Depicting the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, as punishment for the assassination of its Commandant, the film is somewhat crude but reminds us what drove Sirk (whose wife was Jewish) and his fellow émigrés out of Germany. Collectively, they brought a weltanschauung that darkened the tenor of Hollywood cinema and virtually invented film noir, the quintessential genre of the ’40s. While Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1947) and Lured (1946) have a noir-like air, the genre was more successfully tackled by Wilder, Preminger, and Siodmak. And though Sirk had a talent for comedy, the musical, the western, war films, and period pieces, melodrama proved the most pliable form with which to expose and critique (with boundless compassion, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder noted with envy) the flabby underbelly of America’s cultural mores and social straitjackets. When, following stints at United Artists and Columbia, he went to Universal-International in 1950, these preoccupations intensified—for, as he told Jon Halliday (in Sirk on Sirk, 1972), he was granted freer reign over production details and final cut than anyone else on the lot—especially after his Magnificent Obsession (1954) became the biggest box-office hit in the studio’s history.

Sirk’s stylistic virtuosity did not make him any less a director of actors. Many gave their best performances under his baton. George Sanders was born for his role as the elegant crook François Vidocq in A Scandal in Paris (1945). Middle-class motherhood as domestic trap—a fixture of the melodrama—is explored with great range and subtlety through Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, and Lana Turner. Rock Hudson, Universal’s biggest male star in the ’50s, made eight movies with Sirk, though Sirk saw immediately that he was incapable of the internal “split” that made characters interesting, and which finds its visual correlative in the mirrors and shadows that often divide his frames. Within this aesthetic, Hudson was the immovable object, the uncomplicated hero—perfect as Captain Lightfoot (1954), less so in Battle Hymn (1956)—against which Sirk would play off characters in deep conflict. An exception is the moment in All That Heaven Allows when Ron (Hudson) demands that Cary (Jane Wyman) choose between him and her selfish children. When she walks out, his genuine shock is registered by the only shot in the film that enshrouds him in shadows.

Douglas Sirk, Written on the Wind, 1956, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes.

The split in Imitation of Life allows Sirk to explore racism in American society through the self-hatred of the Susan Kohner character, but its dynamic is most unnervingly demonstrated in Written on the Wind, the hothouse atmosphere of which is far more corrosive than its source novel (in which tobacco, not oil, is the source of the family’s wealth, and a less neurotic Ann Charlotte—Dorothy Malone’s character—actually wins the object of her desire!). Sirk’s treatment of the Hadleys is not just an overripe indictment of American capitalism and the dysfunctional spawn of the wealthy. Less appreciated, if not ignored, are his psychological astuteness and nonjudgmental treatment. Lang, Preminger, and Wilder also excoriated the falseness of the American dream, but without Sirk’s charity and sympathy for human failings. In this sense, the film may well be the pinnacle of his lifelong interest in illness and disease. Rooted in German culture of the ’20s, this tendency to see the problems of people and society in pathological terms no doubt owed much to Freud, whom Sirk read in German and whose popularity and influence was at its height during the decades of Sirk’s Hollywood career.

No surprise then that the film’s leads, Hudson and Lauren Bacall, are reduced to mere foils, against which the Hadley scions, played by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, act out their self-destructive pathologies. Sirk grounded the emotions generated by the material not only in the pain and suffering of unadmirable characters, but with keen awareness of the ego deficits that ruled them. In clinical terms, Malone and Stack do not so much act as act out their neuroses and insecurities. A pair of open wounds oozing noxious self-loathing, they literally sprawl through and poison every scene. Yet, consistent with the fragility of the insecure narcissist, they can turn on a dime when easily hurt, reduced to the pleading posture of the unloved child. We see it when Kyle, told he may be sterile, falls into instant despair, and when Mary Lee, riding high with a lame scheme to blackmail Mitch into marrying her, shrivels into girlish shame when he reminds her how far they’ve come from “the river,” the pastoral haven of their youth.

At once achingly beautiful and Hollywood at its most baroque, the film epitomizes all that is grand, idiosyncratic, and moving in Sirk, even as it flagrantly plays into the hands of those who dismiss it as kitsch. Viewers laugh at the shot of Malone clutching the metal oil rig—a phallic symbol if ever there was one. I now take it as Sirk’s jab at those who can’t see the heartbreak beyond it, whose focus on camp blinds them to both the object’s cold, hollow impotence and the woman who has lost everything—father, brother, the one man she couldn’t have, and any ability to free herself of self-disgust. With that cruel blow Sirk dares us to smile at the obligatory “happy ending.”

The idyllic “river” we see in a flashback of Mary Lee’s, and where Kyle asks to go just before he dies, had significance for Sirk as well. He told Halliday in 1972 that he aspired early on to make a series of films about middle-class America, with its losses and disillusionments. It’s hard not to see how personal this ambition was, a vision that reflected his own separation from his homeland and his inability, upon his return to Germany in the ’60s, to feel comfortable there ever again. Split between countries and languages, he no doubt at times also longed for the river.

“Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk” runs December 23–January 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.