From Detlef Sierck to Douglas Sirk

By Koch, Gertrud | Film Criticism, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

From Detlef Sierck to Douglas Sirk


Koch, Gertrud, Film Criticism


(Translated by Gerd Gemunden)

The writing of film history, and historiography in general, has to contend with the problems of how historical eras can be established and with the consequences of such periodizations for the interpretation of historical objects. The historical context in which films are analyzed plays an important role in determining our approach to certain films and in initially motivating our interest in them. If we consider the historical periods during which Detlef Sierck/Douglas Sirk produced his filmic oeuvre, as well as the periods during which this oeuvre has been most widely discussed, then our chances of stepping into all kinds of traps that these eras of film history have set for us are high.

If we read Sirk's films through the lens of a cinema des auteurs, things become even more complex because the author's subjectivity and individual biography present another historical configuration that demands attention. Reconstructing the history of Sirk's reception until its renaissance in the early 1970s, we find that this renaissance was a by-product of the politique des auteurs, stubbornly championed by the Nouvelle Vague. It was precisely Jean-Luc Godard's review ora Time to Love and a Time to Die in a 1959 issue of Cahiers du cinema that elevated Sirk into the Pantheon of authors, right next to the French national saint Jean-Honor Fragonard. The cultural and political strategy that informed the critic Godard was to compare films with the choice essentials of French bourgeois culture in order to provoke the French bourgeoisie; thus Mizoguchi shows traits of Proust (1972, 71),(1) Max Ophul's Caught is "Stendhal revised by Marivaux" (1972, 72), and Sirk becomes a technical successor of Fragonard's drawings (1971, 98). Regarding the form of Lieselotte Pulver, Godard writes "Nobody seems to like it but me" (1971, 97), a statement which can also be seen to refer to popular cinema in general: "It must be obvious that I am going to review the latest Douglas Sirk in wildly enthusiastic terms, just because I was thrilled by it" (1971, 95). This apodictic tone, however, is undermined by the ironic self-representation of the author. Yet Godard's plea for unconditional love, the authoritarian gesture of dogmatic judgment, would produce strange consequences. His attempt to render Sirk in a modernist light and present him as a surreal objet trouve will be rewritten thirty years later as authoritarian affirmation. Whereas Godard wrote in his review, "I never believed so much that I was in Germany in war time as I did when watching (...) an American film made in peace time" (1971, 98), a Sirk apologist of the late 1980s in the Federal Republic of Germany turns this statement into a national profession of faith: "Godard writes that he never believed as much in Germany as when watching this American film made during peace time" (Laufer 167). A telling slippage--where Godard is talking about a filmic representation of the theme "Germany during war," Elizabeth Laufer reads this as an affirmation of Germany itself. This slippage is surprising since Godard's review is not at all enigmatic but rather follows the established pattern of the young representatives of the politique des auteurs who were scolded by Andre Bazin, then the Nestor of French film criticism and theory, for their tendency to exaggerate: "The striving towards effect and style (...) sometimes leads to excesses that can be easily attacked" (9).

Francois Truffaut is enthusiastic about Sirk as well; he invents a new biography for Sirk which separates him from his Nazi features: "Sirk is no newcomer. A Dane, born at the turn of the century in Skagen, he was a theater director in Berlin and he made films in Germany, Spain, Australia before reaching Hollywood" (149). Not unlike Godard, Truffaut asserts a comparison with Balzac and claims that Sirk provides authentic expression because "we live in the age of plastics" (149). Not without pride, Truffaut notes: "All these hues are vivid and frank, varnished and lacquered to such a degree that a painter would scream" (149). …

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