Douglas Sirk is best known for his melodramas produced at Universal Studios following WWII. These films, when first released, were dismissed as sentimental reimagining’s of “real life”, whose stylization and flamboyant artifice were so far removed from “reality” that they could not be considered art in the classic sense. Once Sirk resigned from film production, as the French New Wave and the New German Cinema began to gain a foothold in the international cinemas, their critical reassessment of Douglas Sirk became popularized. However, to those unfamiliar with the practices of the Old Hollywood productions and their contextual significance, Sirk’s films present an interesting and sometimes insurmountable problem when it comes to accessing these films. The Baroque visual style and dramatic tone of Sirk’s films stand in such harsh contrast with the popular realism of today that they appear kitsch to the untrained eye.
The place Sirk enjoys as an American auteur in the popular history of film may seem misplaced if one is not familiar with the common themes in most all of Sirk’s American productions. Consider the visual style of Sirk’s later films Magnificent Obsession (1954) and Imitation Of Life (1959). In both films, Sirk repeatedly frames the faces of his heroines within the filmic frame, utilizing banisters and shadows in Imitation Of Life and almost exclusively the reflections in mirrors and sunglasses in Magnificent Obsession. Likewise, Sirk’s films often address a contemporary social issue, such as civil rights or woman’s rights. The sociopolitical role reversal in Magnificent Obsession, and the question of racial equality in Imitation Of Life are indicative of Sirk’s ability to manipulate the political ramifications and the power of a message in a film. These two separate facets of Sirk’s cinema exemplified above are enough to solidify Sirk’s position, though the strength of his legacy, derivative of his overall style, lies in the fantastical approach Sirk takes to his subjects.
One cannot deny that the melodrama of the scripts Sirk was selected to shoot are, in and of themselves, inherently artificial in their approach to recreating human experience. But scripts such as these were the norm in Hollywood, and often prompted a filmmaker to balance the artifice of the screenplay with either a gritty visual style or by directing the actors toward more natural behavior. Some directors thrived and even made an art out of these compromises, but it was Sirk who whole-heartedly embraced the plasticity of the screenplays, and chose to take a more operatic approach to his narrative filmmaking.
Superficially, the fruits of Sirk’s endeavors may come across as excessively sentimental today, but upon a closer analysis, one begins to perceive how calculated every shot and every move, by an actor or with a camera, truly is. If one revisits Maurice Scherer’s (better known today as film director Eric Rohmer) article from a 1949 issue of Les Temps modernes, “We No Longer Love The Cinema”, it becomes clear that Sirk embodies the type of filmmaking Scherer is advocating.
“We begin to envy the task that awaits the future filmmaker…,in orienting our attention, as in the earliest days of the silent film but doubtless more subtly, toward the acting of the actor, will construct the basis of his new language out of the rich conjunction of their words, their expressions, their gestures, and their movements.”
Scherer (Rohmer) was perhaps the first film critic to advocate artistry in the mainstream cinema that derived not from a representation of our shared reality, but in the act of creating a separate, highly stylized reality whose purpose is to emote the human experience. This was Sirk’s objective, which he carried out in all of his films at Universal Studios masterfully.
Therefore, when one watches a film by Douglas Sirk one cannot emphasis its correlation to reality, as we know it. Instead, one must pay close attention to the manner in which the film plays with our emotions, how it cues our reactions, coordinating the experiences of the film’s characters with our own. It was this device that prompted Rainer Werner Fassbinder to adapt his own cinematic style to incorporate Sirk’s mid-way into the seventies, and why filmmakers such as Todd Haynes still utilize these tactics today. It was in Sirk’s consistency and careful calculation that he was able to imbue so many of his films with the uncanny ability to manipulate the emotional response of his audience, that he was able to establish for himself a singular legacy in the history of Hollywood filmmaking.