By Gemunden, Gerd | Film Criticism, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview


Gemunden, Gerd, Film Criticism

Talking about his lack of roots and his confused sense of Heimat after many years of living outside of Germany, Douglas Sirk stated in 1971: "Sometimes, thinking about myself, it seems to me I am looking at one of those goddam split characters out of my pictures" (Halliday, 1997, 156). The split character is indeed at the core of many Sirk films which are filled with people trying to reconcile romantic passion or sexual desire with societal obligations and the boundaries imposed by class, race, and gender. In There's Always Tomorrow we watch a husband tom between an oppressive family and a love from his youth; in All That Heaven Allows a widow is unable to break from societal etiquette to follow her heart; in Imitation of Life an actress struggles to reconcile her artistic ambitions with her duties as a mother, while a young black woman inflicts grief on her mother when trying to pass as white. While the endings of many Sirk films suggest reconciliation (such as Astred's return to her native soil in La Habanera or Naomi Murdoch's return to husband and family after many years in All I Desire), their visual style and mise-en-scene have been read to undercut purported closure and studio-imposed happy endings.

If one looks at Sirk criticism of the last decades it appears that there is not so much a split Sirk but multiple Sirks. In the late 1950s, emerging European filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard adopted Sirk as a role model for their own auteurist attempts at filmmaking, celebrating Written on the Wind and A Time to Love and a Time to Die for their directorial vision and style. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cahiers du cinema and British and US critics associated with the journal Screen forwarded the image of Sirk as a modernist director who imposed a clear and continuous handwriting through his handling of style, lighting and decor, distanciation of an almost Brechtian sort, often implying a Marxist critique of capitalist America. Since then, Sirk has claimed a central position in film criticism with scholarship reflecting main trends in film theory including structuralism, feminism and gender studies, queer theory, performance studies, and studies in star discourse (cf. Klinger, Feil, Butler, and Ascheid's contribution in this volume)

The single most influential book for Sirk criticism and instrumental for the renaissance of his films was undoubtedly Jon Halliday's extensive interview, Sirk on Sirk, first published in 1971 and reissued in an extended form in 1997. This autobiographical account has set the tone for much of the criticism to follow, often leading to interpretations of films according to the director's own instructions and accepting at face value many of Sirk's statements without bothering to check facts. It could even be argued that Halliday prompted Sirk to represent himself as the sophisticated auteur which Halliday wanted to see in him by having Sirk read prior to the interview Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema (which praises Sirk's "formal excellence and visual wit" [109]) and Peter Wollen's Signs and Meanings in the Cinema. Given the powerful and still lasting influence of Halliday's book, it is worthwhile to provide a critical sketch of Sirk's biography in order to illuminate some of the less-publicized aspects of Sirk's long career as well as to clarify some of the perpetuating myths Sirk himself never bothered to dispel. This survey will allow us to then present a critical discussion of Sirk scholarship and to outline the scope and arguments of the essays united in this volume.

From Detlef Sierck to Douglas Sirk, or, What's in a Name Change?

In 1941, after two years in Hollywood without directing a film, Detlef Sierck changed his name to Douglas Sirk. As Sirk explained to Halliday, this was done at his agent's suggestion. While such an Americanization was standard for many foreigners trying to assimilate in Hollywood, Sirk's name change may have had not only professional reasons but may also have been an effort to escape the hostility of the exile community, which largely regarded Sirk with suspicion because of his seven features made in Nazi Germany and his late emigration. …

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