EVEN THE TITLES SEEM DRUNK ON their own grandeur: Magnificent Obsession. Written on the Wind. The Tarnished Angels. Imitation of Life. Movies can't possibly live up to such intoxicating names. Unless they're directed by the great Danish-German exile Douglas Sirk. These four have been restored to their original splendor and will play at the Nuart this week. I envy anyone who has yet to see them. Sirk's luxuriant adaptations of moralistic best-sellers by Lloyd C. Douglas and Fannie Hurst have long since transcended the circumstances of their production to emerge as the work of the greatest Technicolor Expressionist of the late studio era, surpassing even Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray. Of his contemporaries, perhaps only Alfred Hitchcock was working at a comparable level of stylistic richness and visual complexity.
Sirk was probably the most intellectually formidable, culturally sophisticated and artistically gifted director ever to function successfully within the Hollywood studio system. A contemporary and intimate of Brecht, an early attendant of Einstein's university lectures and a translator of Shakespeare's sonnets, he had been interwar Germany's most important stage director after Max Reinhardt. When, in the mid-'30s, he started making movies at Berlin's gigantic UFA Studios -- where the political pressures on a leftist with a Jewish wife were milder than in the theater -- his ravishing visual style was already fully formed. It's bewildering, therefore, to picture this aristocrat of the Weimar stage and screen in an office at Universal Studios sometime during the fat Eisenhower years (he arrived in America in 1937), as producer Ross Hunter points at the script they're assessing and cries, "Douglas, at this exact moment I want 500 handkerchiefs to come out."
Throughout the '50s, Sirk repeatedly filled cinemas with the rustle of starchy linen and the muffling of housewives' tears, and for years the standard perception of him was of a giant ghettoized within the confines of the genre then patronizingly called the "women's picture," toiling on overripe, ludicrous material several stories beneath his considerable talents. A more complex assessment argues that Sirk self-consciously pushed every element of his mise en scène -- every lighting cue and camera movement, every nuance of acting, and every tone in the Technicolor palette -- to the point where his style became avowedly self-satirizing, thus producing an objective, partly surreptitious critique both of the material itself and of the soulless era in which it was produced.
Each of these perceptions is essentially correct, but in some indefinable way they miss the point utterly. Both suggest that one must view Sirk's work through various compensating lenses, be they Brechtian, Marxist or merely ironic, in order to understand it fully. Implicit in both views is the consoling delusion that Sirk was somehow enslaved by the philistines at Universal, that he was forced to work on airheaded weepies without redeeming social merit, and that he had to smuggle in all those subversive elements that characterize his best work. In short, that Sirk was never able to speak clearly and directly in his own voice.
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Which is bullshit. Seldom has an artist in Hollywood expressed himself more fluidly or ecstatically than Sirk. His camera moves more smoothly and serenely than even that of Max Ophüls. His colors are as moodily expressive as anything in Ray's greatest work (Bigger Than Life, say), and the performances he extracts from such undervalued actors as Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead and particularly his signature siren, Dorothy Malone, are as detailed and moving as anything in '50s cinema. There is no subterfuge whatsoever in his scathing critiques of the suburban bourgeoisie, the feckless rich and the spiritual desolation of Eisenhower America. His films don't acquiesce on the surface and dissent in the details: The critique is right up there on the screen -- particularly in Written on the Wind or All That Heaven Allows. And his romantic pessimism is stark and up-front: Fate spares no one, love defeats us all, innocence is slaughtered, the good die young and the bad die last. Sirk doesn't need us to adjust our heads in order to enjoy his movies. He can adjust them very well for us himself. When such a penetrating intelligence expresses itself with operatic lushness on a top-dollar budget, one's only choice is to surrender. Another good reason to bring your handkerchief.