Sirk and the Culture Industry: Zu Neuen Ufern and the First Legion

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Douglas Sirk's melodramatic universe is saturated with references to organized religion. While films such as The First Legion (1950) or Battle Hymn (1956) directly engage with the delicate role of religious institutions in a secularized world, other films are marked and often literally framed by religious signs and symbols. Church towers, for example, figure prominently in the opening shots of both All I Desire (1953) and All that Heaven Allows (1954). They set and survey the stage on which small-town America regulates desire and molds conformity. In films such as Zu neuen Ufern/To New Shores (1937) and Imitation of Life (1959), on the other hand, ecclesiastical spectacles draw to a close desire that seems to dissipate in every direction. Religious sights and sounds in these two films provide anchors to those lost in the storms of their own passion and excess. "I see religion as a very important part of bourgeois society," Sirk explained in an interview with Jon Halliday. "It is a pillar of this society, if a broken pillar. The marble is showing quite a bit of decay. If you want to make pictures about this society, I think it is an ingredient of a bygone charm--charm in the original sense of the word: sorcery" (Halliday, 1997, 95). Organized religion may have lost its hegemonic role in sanctifying norms and providing metaphysical securities. Its symbolic vocabulary, however, seems to speak even to a fully disenchanted age. Sirk resorts to the charm of religious signs in his melodramas to bind together images, narratives, and passions, to construe fictional worlds in which an overabundance of meaning may underscore or even counteract the profane disintegration of bourgeois society. Melodrama, in the hands of Sirk, reinvents the sacred in the hope of redeeming religion from its institutional decay. It rearticulates the former charm of religion as style and affective appeal. The priest's bygone sorcery reemerges as the magic of the film director who understands how to stir the imagination and captivate our emotions.

All significant concepts of Sirk's art of melodrama may be seen as secularized theological concepts. The omnipotent God becomes the omnipotent fate that rules over the lives of Sirk's protagonists; the miracle in theology becomes the random turn of narrative development, the moment of exception that drives the itineraries of Sirk's most striking characters. Sirk's films thus not only evidence but seem to anticipate and dwell upon Peter Brooks's influential definition of melodrama as an expressive form for a post-sacred era, a repository of fragmentary and desacralized relics of sacred myths. Sirk's melodramas fit comfortably within the bounds of what Brooks calls the moral occult. They traverse and expose an era "in which polarization and hyperdramatization of forces in conflict represent a need to locate and make evident, legible, and operative those large choices of ways of being which we hold to be of overwhelming importance even though we cannot derive them from any transcendental system of belief" (Brooks viii). In the absence of a normative and numinous center of things, Sirk's melodramas hope to rediscover ethical imperatives that may operate as society's post-traditional glue. They seek to reclaim through Manichean intensification and aesthetic stylization what religious belief systems no longer uniformly authorize. Even not believing in God, as Sirk continued his line of reasoning in the interview with Halliday, may thus in a way be seen as a religious act today (Halliday, 1997, 95).

Sirk's many references to religion bring into focus the theological legacy of the melodramatic mode; they reveal the status of melodrama as a paradoxical source of transcendence in a post-sacred world, the popular's inquisitive urge toward a reauratization of modern existence. But the symbolic inventory of religion in Sirk's melodramatic imagination serves far more complex purposes than merely the reinvention of a post-metaphysical sacred. …