Douglas Sirk: 1900-1987

By Jacobowitz, Florence | CineAction, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

Douglas Sirk: 1900-1987


Jacobowitz, Florence, CineAction


The year 2000 marks the centenary of Douglas Sirk, and given the theme of this issue on exiles and emigres, it seems appropriate to acknowledge and celebrate Sirk's contributions to the cinema. Like a number of major directors -- Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Otto Preminger, Max Ophuls, to tame a few--Sirk's career is rooted in the European modernist movements of the 1920s. German Expressionism in particular was a seminal influence in its emphasis on how style expresses an internal subjectivity, the importance of tone and mood, the placement of character motivation within a broader determined context. Sirk arrived in America in 1938, with a solid career behind him. He had studied with Erwin Panofsky, trained in the theatre and directed numerous plays both classical and contemporary before moving into the German film industry in 1934. His cosmopolitan background, experience with circumventing Nazi censorship while at Ufa and his gravitation toward melodrama as a means of veiling direct social criticism, served him well later in Hollywood.

Sirk's work in the German theatre and his left-leaning politics exposed him to the theories and plays of politicized artists like Bertolt Brecht. The influence of Brecht and his concept of epic theatre is apparent in Sirk's American films, particularly in the notion that mass entertainment can didactically reveal the social conditions which determine human behaviour. Sirk's Hollywood films can be seen as a form of epic cinema: they simultaneously entertain and critically observe Eisenhower America, and they foreground style as commentary.

Sirk's reputation as a major filmmaker began with the Cahiers du Cinema New Wave critics--especially Godard's writings were perceptive and impassioned; in the 1970s, the British school of film theory and criticism exemplified in Screen magazine continued to draw attention to the director's work. Screen concentrated on Sirk's identity as a politicized artist who transcended the pervasive capitalist-bourgeois ideology which they argued was intrinsic to Hollywood realism. Jon Halliday's authoritative interview book, Sirk on Sirk, first published through the BFI in 1972, demonstrated Sirk's identity as an articulate leftist intellectual who understood and appreciated film and its usage as a mass medium. Sirk's articulate responses to Halliday's questions about his goals as a politically motivated filmmaker evidence the director's intentionality to make films which would disrupt and disturb the contemporary audience. Coming soon after the publication of Sirk on Sirk, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's tribute to Sirk as an acknowledged influence sealed the director's cachet with film critics in North America.

While Sirk's political insights and ability to use the Hollywood cinema as a medium to produce critical art are certainly remarkable, so was his keen understanding of the mechanics of the industry, especially in terms of star and genre. Unlike a number of European emigre directors who found the working conditions of the factory-like system of Hollywood oppressive, Sirk was able to acclimatize and use it intelligently to serve his needs. At Universal International studio, he was fortunate to work with two producers, Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith, who gave him the opportunity to explore his aesthetic and political interests. …

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