In This Article Douglas Sirk

  • Introduction
  • Career Overviews and Appreciations
  • Interviews

Cinema and Media Studies Douglas Sirk
by
Will Scheibel
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0242

Introduction

The reputation of German director Douglas Sirk (1897–1987) rests on Hollywood films he made in the mid- to late 1950s that have since been canonized among the quintessential examples of film melodrama, both domestic (All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, Imitation of Life) and romantic (Magnificent Obsession, The Tarnished Angels). While his most famous films were box-office hits at the time of their release, reviewers dismissed them for their sentimentality and heightened emotionalism, appeals to popular tastes, and implausible plots and emphasis on glossy spectacle that defied the privileged standards of social realism. Critics rediscovered Sirk’s films in the 1970s following the influence of Cahiers du Cinéma and the journal’s director-based approach to film appreciation during the postwar years, la politique des auteurs, and an academic interest in melodrama as a “progressive” genre that could expose and critique the ideology of the culture that produced it. As a result of this shift in taste politics and reading strategies, aided by the publication of Jon Halliday’s interview Sirk on Sirk in 1971, Sirk gained prominence as the auteur of melodrama par excellence, credited with subversively manipulating studio-assigned material through irony and parody, Brechtian distanciation, and modernist aesthetics of excess and self-reflexivity that could be found in the stylized artifice of his mise en scène. A legion of filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodóvar, and Todd Haynes have cited Sirk’s films as a source of inspiration for their own screen practices of melodrama. Other films Sirk directed such as Summer Storm, A Scandal in Paris, All I Desire, There’s Always Tomorrow, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die have contributed to his association with Hollywood’s mid-century melodramas about doomed but passionate lovers and the ennui of bourgeois families, yet he also worked in action/adventures, suspense thrillers, musicals, and comedies. Further, he had a successful career in Germany under the name Detlef Sierck, first directing for the stage during the Weimar period and later for the film production company UFA (formerly Universum Film AG, now UFA GmbH), where he was responsible for turning Swedish singer Zarah Leander into a movie star. Sirk is best remembered for his collaborations with star Rock Hudson and producer Ross Hunter at Universal-International, which tend to dominate critical attention in the bibliographic entries that follow, practically dotting the routes of the historical developments in cinema studies as a contemporary discipline.

Career Overviews and Appreciations

Sirk’s films and biography continue to enthuse critics to write overviews of his career and appreciations of his cinematic corpus, often auteurist in orientation, recalling the cinephile journalism between Paris and New York representative of Cahiers du Cinéma and Andrew Sarris, respectively. Sarris 1996 first gave Sirk serious critical recognition (albeit qualified) in the United States with an entry in the 1968 book The American Cinema, which adapted la politique des auteurs at Cahiers as “the auteur theory.” Screenwriter George Zuckerman and producer Albert Zugsmith tell stories about working with Sirk on Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, which are documented in Stern and Morris 2005 and included in the Bright Lights Film Journal special issue on Sirk in 1977. Pulling from his own interview with Sirk in 1977, Harvey 2002 gives special attention to Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life in his survey of Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas. Ryan 2013 and Ryan 2015 turn to Sirk’s lesser acknowledged historical adventures and comedies, respectively, while Gallagher 2005 spans Sirk’s canonical melodramas with a reinterpretation of his ironic effects and affects. From a more transnational, audience-centered perspective, Fujiwara observes the reception of Sirk’s Hollywood melodramas at the 2008 Pia Film Festival retrospective in Tokyo. Scholars beginning research on Sirk could find no more general and accessible starting point than Ryan 2004.

  • Fujiwara, Chris. “Tears without Laughter: Deciphering Audience Responses to Douglas Sirk, in the U.S. and Japan.” Moving Image Source, 18 August 2008.

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    Fujiwara contrasts the “respectful admiration” Sirk’s films received from Japanese audiences at the 2008 Pia Film Festival retrospective in Tokyo with the “four types of laughter” they often provoke from contemporary US audiences.

  • Gallagher, Tag. “White Melodrama: Douglas Sirk.” Senses of Cinema 36 (July 2005).

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    Bucking the traditional interpretation of Sirk’s melodramas, Gallagher reads them as moving moral parables in which irony anneals rather than subverts the community, affirming the power of will either to destroy or vitalize one’s life. Originally published in Film Comment 34 (1998): 16–27.

  • Harvey, James. “The Moviemakers.” In Movie Love in the Fifties. By James Harvey, 333–428. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2002.

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    Framed by a biographical and career retrospective of Sirk (based on Harvey 1978, cited under Interviews), this final section of Harvey’s book on 1950s Hollywood is dedicated to Sirk’s melodramas, with chapters on Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life, Sirk’s stylistic and thematic preoccupations, and his direction under producer Ross Hunter.

  • Ryan, Tom. “Douglas Sirk.” Senses of Cinema 30 (February 2004).

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    A useful overview of Sirk’s biography, his critical reception and rediscovery in the 1970s, and the ironic tensions between his character’s views of the world and our perceptions of them. Includes a filmography, bibliography, and web resources.

  • Ryan, Tom. “Sirk, Hollywood, and Genre.” Senses of Cinema 66 (March 2013).

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    While Sirk’s reputation rests on his family and romantic melodramas of 1950s, Ryan aims to expand critical attention to Sirk’s Hollywood career by accounting for neglected Universal genre films starring Rock Hudson (Taza, Son of Cochise; Captain Lightfoot; Battle Hymn) and how they also fit within his auteurist vision.

  • Ryan, Tom. “The Bleakness of the Happy Ending: Sirk’s Uncomfortable Comedies.” Senses of Cinema 74 (February 2015).

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    Barely any substantial critical attention has been awarded to Sirk’s Hollywood comedies: Slightly French, The Lady Pays Off, Week-End with Father, and No Room for the Groom. Ryan opines that these films are not especially funny, but they produce “uncomfortable laughter” and their “happy endings” ring false.

  • Sarris, Andrew. “Douglas Sirk.” In The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968. By Andrew Sarris, 109–110. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1996.

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    A reprint of Sarris’s 1968 book, a landmark text in film theory and criticism, this assessment of Sirk’s authorship defends his visual style as personal and distinct from Universal’s output in the 1950s, but Sarris categorizes Sirk below his “pantheon” of great auteurs, ranking him in his second category as “the far side of paradise.”

  • Stern, Michael, and Gary Morris. “Zuckerman and Zugsmith on Sirk.” Special Issue: Douglas Sirk Issue. Edited by Michael Stern. Bright Lights Film Journal 48 (May 2005).

    E-mail Citation »

    Screenwriter George Zuckerman and producer Albert Zugsmith share memories with Stern and Morris, respectively, describing Sirk’s work with them on Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels.

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