Sirk's Early Exile Films: Boefje and Hitler's Madman

Article excerpt

The news of a massacre in the Czech village of Lidice on June 10th 1942 spread like wildfire around the world. This act of brutal reprisal on the 27th of May for the assassination of the so-called Reichsprotector of Bohemia and Moravia, Reinhard Heydrich, was accompanied by a laconic (and totally false) German government press release: "It has been established without a doubt in the course of the investigation of the murder of the SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich that the perpetrators found help and sustenance from the population of Lidice near Kladno ... the male inhabitants have been shot, the women deported to concentration camps, and the children placed in foster homes. The buildings of the village have been leveled and the name of the town wiped oft the map" (Brugel 200).

The news of the murder led to a world-wide uproar. Naturally, the German exile press took note. Paul Stefan wrote in the German Socialist weekly, Die neue Volkszeitung, that the genocide in Lidice marks "the pinnacle of Nazi crimes" (Stefan 3). Alexander Abusch commented in the KPD-friendly Freies Deutschland, "They wanted to eradicate for all times the name of Lidice. Instead, this unknown Bohemian village has become a world-famous symbol" (Abusch 1). Stern Park, a Chicago suburb, decided to rename itself Lidice.(1) Eleanor Roosevelt suggested in her weekly column, "My Day," that Lidice should become a topic for a novel (Lion's Roar). Both American writers and exiled German writers took her up on the offer. The following months saw the publication of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem, "The Murder of Lidice,"(2) the novel, Men in Black, by Owen Elford, and the non-fiction book, Lidice Lives Forever, by Nicholas G.Balint. German emigre writers published several novels on the subject, including Heinrich Mann's Lidice, Gustav Holm's This Was Lidice, and You Can 't Do That to Svoboda by John Pen, alias Hans Szekely, as well as the drama Lidice by Adolf Hofmeister. Lidice had indeed become a symbol of the limitless brutality of German Fascism.

While these events were occurring on the world stage, Detlef Sierck, alias Douglas Sirk, had been biding his time on a chicken farm in the San Fernando Valley, outside Los Angeles. Like several other prominent German film directors who had been forced into exile by the Nazis, including Max Ophuls, Frank Wysbar, Alfred Zeisler or Otto Preminger, Sirk was having trouble jump-starting his career in Hollywood, despite a proven track-record in German and European cinema. Sirk had spent six months in the writer's block at Warner Brothers, where he worked on an American remake of Zu neuen Ufern, having left Europe literally days before the beginning of World War II (Halliday 60). But the film was never made and his contract not renewed. In July 1942, Sirk signed an "emergency" contract with Columbia, but again, none of his scripts were produced. Clearly, there was saturation of the marketplace with over 250 directors and 800 scriptwriters, according to Leo Rosten, vying for work in Hollywood (Rosten 246, 286, 323). To make matters worse, only a small percentage of studio films were being produced by persons not under contract to one of the major studios. Sirk, like his German colleagues Reinhold Schunzel and Frank Wysbar, may have also suffered temporarily from the stigma of having directed films for Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry, of having left Germany too late, even though in interviews Sirk always emphasized that he had acquiesced to a film career in Nazi Germany only because he saw it as the only way of legally emigrating from Germany with his Jewish wife, Hilda.

On the other hand, Sirk's German films, for all their melodramatic excess, never failed to support and reaffirm the social order, and, as Eric Rentschler has convincingly demonstrated, contributed to the creation of normalcy in the Third Reich. The impression of normalcy in a time that was far from normal, given the elimination of all democratic rights, the smashing of trade unionism, and the use of murder and incarceration without due process as a political weapon, was in the interest of National Socialism. …