From the August 27, 1980 issue of The Soho News — only slightly tweaked almost three decades later. –J.R.
Douglas Sirk in Germany: Four Films
Museum of Modern Art, Aug. 15-18
It must have been in the late spring of 1959 — surrounded mainly be weeping matrons at a matinee of Imitation of Life in Florence, Alabama — that I first tangled with the considerable talents of major melodramatist Douglas Sirk. At the time, these were focused on the task of encouraging white middle-class segregationists and racists to weep bittersweet buckets over the sentimental death of an Aunt Jemima figure named Annie (Juanita Hall), a nas ole cullid lady (as those matrons would have put it) who — unlike her sexy and evil light-skinned, teenage daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) — knew her place, accepted her color as a necessary cross to bear, and then died of a broken heart when Sarah Jane rejected her.
Bearing in mind this particular praxis of Sirk’s last Hollywood film, I’ve always felt just a little querulous when armchair Marxists in London have patiently explained to me that Sirk was actually a Brechtian subversive back in the ’50s, boring from within — subtly and secretly criticizing our American values. Read more
From the Chicago Reader (April 1, 1995). — J.R.
My favorite Douglas Sirk film — made in Germany in 1936, when he was still known as Detlef Sierck — is a dazzlingly cinematic, fast-moving melodrama built around classical music; it’s alternately perverse, exalted, and delirious. Shuttling back and forth between New York and Berlin with an ease that suggests those cities were in closer proximity to each other in the 30s than they are today, the opening sequences present a destitute widow (Maria von Tasnady) recovering her will to live by listening to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on the radio, broadcast live from Germany, where the conductor (Willy Birgel) is coincidentally in the process of adopting her little boy. When she returns to Berlin she goes to work as the boy’s nanny, concealing the fact that she’s his mother, while the conductor’s less musically inclined wife (Lil Dagover) tries to break free from an astrologer-blackmailer who’s threatening to expose her adultery with him. There’s also a creepy and seemingly malevolent maid, a climactic trial, and several sequences involving music and duplicity that produce some astonishing visual candenzas and editing rhyme effects. (This is the film that inspired Sirk to note that camera angles are a director’s thoughts and lighting is his philosophy.) Read more