The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions

Tom Ryan,
The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions
University Press of Mississippi, 2019
Online ISBN: 9781496822406
Print ISBN:  9781496817983
HB: $99
Pb: $30
(Review copy supplied by University Press of Mississippi)

Douglas Sirk is a filmmaker who is widely acknowledged and celebrated for his influential 1950s melodramas All that Heaven Allows (1955), Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957) and Imitation of Life (1959). In the history of cinema, these films have been referenced and remade by filmmakers such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1973 and by Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven in 2002, but the influence of Sirk’s magisterial melodramas can also be seen in filmmakers as diverse as Pedro Almodóvar, David Lynch, Guillermo del Toro, Luca Guadagnino and John Waters who have, in their own very individual ways, experimented with the form of melodrama and referenced Sirk as an important influence on their own screen practice.

However, Sirk made more than a handful of melodramas. His work as a filmmaker extended to a period of over 25 years. He, in fact, made 39 features and 7 shorts and his work as a creative artist also included theatre and painting, art forms which inform and complicate his aesthetic strategies. Tom Ryan’s book The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions is the first comprehensive overview of all of Sirk’s films, situating the important 1950s melodramas in the wider context of the artist’s overall career. This includes Sirk’s early work in Germany, when he was known as Detlef Seirck, and also a significant number of films in many different genres including comedies, adventure films, crime thrillers and war films.

Ryan’s book is structured chronologically with comprehensive introductions to each of Sirk’s feature films, from his very first film April April! (1935) to his last Imitation of Life (1959), including production histories and information about source material, creative collaborators and critical reception. The book also provides an excellent introduction to the German films that, until recently, have been difficult to see, as well as films Sirk worked uncredited on such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Strange Woman (1946) and Jerry Hopper’s Never Say Goodbye (1956), plus additional chapters thematically grouping films together with detailed and insightful analyses.

Ryan positions his study in a history of Sirkian criticism, providing an overview of the critical engagement with Sirk’s work which has been varied and inconsistent but has included influential analyses by filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as well as film scholars such as Thomas Elsaesser, Laura Mulvey, Paul Willemen and Victoria L. Evans to name just a few.

Ryan’s insightful analysis begins with an observation from Sirk on his approach to cinematic storytelling:

“Your characters have to remain innocent of what your picture is after.”  (Douglas Sirk, 1971) (p. 3)

Which is then expanded into the strong claim that Sirk is one of cinema’s great ironists:

“Douglas Sirk was one of the twentieth-century cinema’s great ironists. And perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the films he made in Europe and America is the rigor with which they create a gulf between how his characters see themselves and our view of them. (Ryan, p.3)

Responding to debates about whether Sirk’s films offer critiques of the worlds that they create, Ryan notes that some revisionist critics have been unable to deal with the ways in which “Sirk’s use of irony inflects and complicates the meanings of his work.” (p. 36) At the same time he identifies Thomas Elsaesser as someone who compared Sirk’s “sophisticated irony” with the “cerebral tone of mockery and self-mockery” present in the work of Orson Welles (p. 60). And Ryan also references filmmaker Alison Anders’ interesting observation that Sirk’s work was not fully appreciated in the US because “Americans don’t like irony” (p. 254). But it is Ryan’s critical attention to the form of Sirk’s films that most insightfully and poetically demonstrates how Sirk’s use of irony and ‘ironic distance’ informed his cinematic storytelling.

One of the compelling aspects to Ryan’s book is his attention to Sirk’s complex, layered and sometimes baroque mise en scène. Ryan notes that he uses the term mise en scène synonymously with the notion of the dispositif, referencing the work of Adrian Martin who argues that every work of art “has its own broad dispostif – arising from a mix of aesthetic properties and social-historical conditions”. (p.269) Ryan’s analysis adopts Martin’s definition and he examines Sirk’s aesthetic strategies in the context of the wider social-historical conditions in which Sirk was working.

Ryan also provides a number of excellent close readings of Sirk’s formal and narrative mise en scène strategies. Early in the book Ryan notes that “forces of repression are signaled through Sirk’s imagery” (p. 4) and he goes on to argue that “ his work, mise en scène is as crucial to meaning as narrative form.” (p. 4) This exploration of mise en scène and its importance to the meaning in Sirk’s films builds throughout the book where recurring motifs are shown to function visually, metaphorically and symbolically. For example, cyclical narratives are shown to be visually represented through circular motifs such as “carousels, merry-go-rounds, and other rotating objects”. (p. 4) In Written on the Wind the cyclical narrative is structured through a flashback and Ryan’s detailed and evocative descriptions of the opening scene and Dorothy Malone’s dance take us inside Sirk’s visual world and the emotional distances between the characters. There is also a chapter titled ‘Sirk and John M. Stahl: Adaptations and Remakes’ in which Ryan considers the original novels, Stahl adaptations and Sirk’s remakes in order to get closer to Sirk’s working methods and artistry in a comparison of Magnificent Obsession (1954), Imitation of life (1959) and Interlude (1957).

Another compelling aspect to Ryan’s analysis of Sirk can be found in the way he locates the theatrical as a thematic and formal element in the films that can be traced back to Sirk’s work in theatre production in Germany where he directed versions of Molière, Shakespeare and Ibsen, to name just a few. Ryan identifies in Sirk’s staging and direction of performances that he is “persistently drawing attention to the theatricality of his characters’ lives”. (p. 161) He speculates that it was the actor George Sanders’ “air of theatricality” that drew Sirk to him. This is a continuing thread through the discussions of all of the films. For example, Ryan describes Summer Storm (1944) as a film in which the character of Olga “regards her life as a stage” and is described as having “theatrical ways” (p.68), Mystery Submarine (1950) as a film in which the “sense of life as an ongoing theatrical performance” (p. 94) is evident, and The Tarnished Angels (1957) as a film about “life as theatre”. (p.241)

Ryan’s passion, fascination and obsession with Sirk’s cinema has a long history. His book is a significant work of scholarship and it is the culmination of many decades of research. What makes this study even more important, compelling and personal can be found in the fact that Ryan interviewed Sirk on a number of occasions and these unpublished interviews inform these analyses in multiple ways. Ryan describes these ‘interviews’ in the following way:

My ‘interviews’ with Sirk were more like conversations. He asked almost as many questions of me as I did of him. Along with his published responses to others over the years, his comments appear here to indicate his thoughts about his work and life. As my disagreements with him indicate, they are not intended in any sense to provide a final word on the subject. (p. 13)

Ryan’s conversations and analysis introduce us to a complex, erudite, intellectual artist who worked in theatre and cinema, studied art history and literature, spent several years on a chicken farm in the US before he got an opportunity to direct films for Hollywood studios, and who thoughtfully reflects on his artistic process.

The Films of Douglas Sirk: Exquisite Ironies and Magnificent Obsessions provides not only a comprehensive insight into Sirk’s entire filmmaking career, Ryan’s scholarship also fuels a desire to seek out the films we might not have seen and to share his passion for Sirk’s cinema. So it was wonderful to see Melbourne’s magnificent Cinematheque present a curated season of Sirk films ‘Life’s Parade at Your Fingertips: Douglas Sirk’ this year, and to see Tom Ryan introducing this season.

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →