Douglas Sirk

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Douglas Sirk
Born Hans Detlef Sierck
(1897-04-26)April 26, 1897
Hamburg, German Empire
Died January 14, 1987(1987-01-14) (aged 89)
Lugano, Ticino, Switzerland
Years active 1934–1979
Spouse(s) Hilde Jary (1899–1989)
Lydia Brinken (d. 1947)

Douglas Sirk (born Hans Detlef Sierck; April 26, 1897 – January 14, 1987) was a German film director best known for his work in Hollywood melodramas in the 1950s.

Life and work[edit]

After making a name for himself in German theater of the 1920s and early 1930s, Sirk joined Ufa (Universum Film AG) in 1934, and started a successful career with a number of short films and musical comedies. His exotic melodramas Zu neuen Ufern and La Habanera made a star of the Nazi cinema out of Swedish singer Zarah Leander. He left Germany in 1937 because of his political leanings and his Jewish (second) wife, actress Hilde Jary. Still in Europe he worked on films in Switzerland and the Netherlands. On arrival in the United States, he soon changed his given, German name to Douglas Sirk. By 1942 he was under contract to Columbia Pictures and directing the stridently anti-Nazi Hitler's Madman for the exiled German Producer Seymour Nebenzal.

Sirk briefly returned to Germany after the War ended, but returned to the U.S. and established his reputation with a series of lush, colorful melodramas for Universal-International Pictures from 1952 to 1959: Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959).

Despite the enormous success of Imitation of Life in 1959 (partially fueled by the scandal surrounding the murder of Lana Turner's boyfriend by her daughter), Sirk left the United States and retired from filmmaking. He died in Lugano, Switzerland, nearly thirty years later, with only a brief return behind the camera in Germany in the 1970s, teaching at the film school, Hochschule für Fernsehen und Film, in Munich.


Contemporary reception[edit]

Sirk's melodramas of the 1950s, while highly commercially successful, were generally very poorly received by reviewers. His films were considered unimportant (because they revolve around female and domestic issues), banal (because of their focus on larger-than-life feelings) and unrealistic (because of their conspicuous style).

Later reception[edit]

Attitudes toward Sirk's films changed drastically in the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s as his work was re-examined by French, American, and British critics. As Jean-Luc Godard wrote in his review of A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), "...I am going to write a madly enthusiastic review of Douglas Sirk's latest film, simply because it set my cheeks afire."[1]

From around 1970 there was a considerable interest among academic film scholars for Sirk's work - especially his American melodramas. Often centering on the formerly criticized style, his films were now seen as masterpieces of irony. The plots of the films were no longer taken at face value, and the analyses instead found that the films really criticized American society underneath the banal surface plot. The criticism of the 1970s and early 1980s was dominated by an ideological take on Sirk's work, gradually changing from being Marxist-inspired in the early 1970s to being focused on gender and sexuality in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sirk's reputation was also helped by a widespread nostalgia for old-fashioned Hollywood films in the 1970s.[2] His work is now widely considered to show excellent control of the visuals, extending from lighting and framing to costumes and sets that are saturated with symbolism and shot through with subtle barbs of irony. Film critic Roger Ebert has said, "To appreciate a film like Written on the Wind probably takes more sophistication than to understand one of Ingmar Bergman's masterpieces, because Bergman's themes are visible and underlined, while with Sirk the style conceals the message."[3]

In popular culture[edit]

Sirk's films have been quoted in films by directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder (whose Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is partly based on All That Heaven Allows) and, later, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Haynes, Pedro Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai, John Waters and Lars von Trier.

More specifically, Almodóvar's vibrant use of color in 1988's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown recalls the cinematography of Sirk's films of the 1950s, while Haynes' Far From Heaven was a conscious attempt to replicate a typical Sirk melodrama - in particular All That Heaven Allows - but with a more obviously ironic take on the material. Tarantino paid homage to Sirk and his melodramatic style in Pulp Fiction, when character Vincent Vega, at a '50s-themed restaurant, orders the "Douglas Sirk steak" cooked "bloody as hell." Aki Kaurismäki alluded to Sirk as well; in his silent film, Juha to Sirk, the villain's sport car is named "Sierck".



Feature films[edit]

Short films[edit]

  • Zwei Windhunde / Zwei Genies (1934)
  • Der eingebildete Kranke (1935)
  • 3 x Ehe (1935)
  • The Christian Brothers at Mont La Salle (1941)
  • Sprich zu mir wie der Regen (1975) co-director with group of film students
  • Sylvesternacht (1977) co-director with group of film students
  • Bourbon Street Blues (1979) co-director with group of film students

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Godard, Jean-Luc (1986). Godard on Godard: Critical Writings by Jean-Luc Godard. New York: Da Capo Press. 
  2. ^ Klinger, Barbara (1994). Melodrama and Meaning: history, culture, and the films of Douglas Sirk. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 
  3. ^ :: :: Great Movies :: Written on the Wind (xhtml)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]