Nationality: German/American. Born: Claus Detlev Sierk in Skagen, Denmark, 26 April 1900. Education: Studied law, philosophy, and art history in Copenhagen, Munich, Jena, and Hamburg until 1922. Career: Dramaturg for Deutsches Schauspiele, Hamburg, 1921; director for Chemnitz "Kleinez Theater," 1922; artistic director, Bremen Schauspielhaus, 1923–29; director of Altes Theater, Leipzig, 1929–36; directed first film, as Detlef Sierck, for UFA, 1935; head of Leipzig drama school, 1936; left Germany, worked on scripts in Austria and France (notably Renoir's Partie de campagne, 1937); signed for Warners in Hollywood, 1939, but inactive, 1940–41; contract as writer for Columbia, 1942; director for Universal, from 1950; returned to Europe, 1959; active in theatre in Munich and Hamburg, 1960s. Died: Of cancer, in Lugano, Switzerland, 14 January 1987.
Films as Director:
(as Detlef Sierck)
It Was een April (Dutch version); April, April (German version); Das Madchen vom Moorhof; Stutzen derGesellschaft
Schlussakkord (Final Accord) (+ co-sc); Das Hofkonzert (+ co-sc); La Chanson du souvenir (Song of Remembrance) (co-d) (French version of Das Hofkonzert)
Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, Paramatta, Bagne defemmes) (+ co-sc); La Habanera
Boefje (+ co-sc)
(as Douglas Sirk)
Summer Storm (+ co-sc)
A Scandal in Paris
Sleep My Love
Slightly French; Shockproof
The First Legion (+ co-pr); Thunder on the Hill; The LadyPays Off; Weekend with Father
No Room for the Groom; Has Anybody Seen My Gal?; MeetMe at the Fair; Take Me to Town
All I Desire; Taza, Son of Cochise
Magnificent Obsession; Sign of the Pagan; Captain Lightfoot
All That Heaven Allows ; There's Always Tomorrow
Never Say Goodbye (Hopper) (d uncredited, completed film); Written on the Wind
Battle Hymn; Interlude; The Tarnished Angels
A Time to Love and a Time to Die
Imitation of Life
(for Munich Film School)
Talk to Me like the Rain
Bourbon Street Blues
Liebling der Matrosen (Hinrich) (co-sc as Detlef Sierck)
Dreiklang (Hinrich) (story as Detlef Sierck)
Accordfinal (Bay) (supervision, uncredited); Sehnsucht nachAfrika (Zoch) (role)
My Life for Zarah Leander (Blackwood) (doc) (role)
By SIRK: book—
By SIRK: articles—
Interview with Serge Daney and Jean-Louis Noames, in Cahiers duCinéma (Paris), April 1967.
"Douglas Sirk," with interview with D. Rabourdin and others, in Cinéma (Paris), October 1978.
Interview with M. Henry and Y. Tobin in Positif (Paris), September 1982.
On SIRK: books—
Halliday, Jon, Sirk on Sirk, New York, 1972.
Edinburgh Film Festival 1972: Douglas Sirk, Edinburgh, 1972.
Bourget, Jean-Loup, Douglas Sirk, Paris, 1984.
Gledhill, Christine, editor, Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies inMelodrama and the Woman's Film, London, 1987.
Laüfer, Elisabeth, Skeptiker des Lichts: Douglas Sirk und seineFilme, Frankfurt, 1987.
Sirk in Germany, Goethe Institute, London, 1988.
Mulvey, Laura, Visual and Other Pleasures, London, 1989.
Klinger, Barbara, Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, andthe Films of Douglas Sirk, Bloomington, Indiana, 1994.
On SIRK: articles—
Comolli, Jean-Louis, "L'Aveugle et le miroir, ou l'impossible cinema de Douglas Sirk," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), April 1967.
"Sirk Issue" of Screen (London), Summer 1971.
Bourget, E., and J. L. Bourget, "Sur Douglas Sirk," in Positif (Paris), April and September 1972.
Willemen, P., "Toward an Analysis of the Sirkian System," in Screen (London), Winter 1972/73.
"Fassbinder on Sirk," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1975.
McCourt, J., "Douglas Sirk: Melo Maestro," in Film Comment (New York), November/December 1975.
Stern, M., "Patterns of Power and Potency, Repression and Violence," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Fall 1976.
Degenfelder, P., "Sirk's The Tarnished Angels: 'Pylon' Recreated," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Summer 1977.
Mulvey, Laura, "Notes on Sirk and Melodrama," in Movie (London), Winter 1977/78.
Honickel, T., "Idol der Munchner Filmstudenten: Douglas Sirk wieder in der HFF," in Film und Ton (Munich), February 1979.
Bleys, J.P., "Quand Douglas Sirk s'appelait Detlef Sierck," in Cahiers de la Cinémathèque (Perpignan), no. 32, Spring 1981.
Pulleine, T., "Stahl into Sirk," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1981.
"Douglas Sirk Issue" of Positif (Paris), September 1982.
Feuer, Jane, "Melodrama, Serial Form and Television Today," in Screen (London), January/February 1984.
Bourget, J.L, "Vers de nouveaus rivages. Les débuts américains de Douglas Sirk," in Positif (Paris), July/August 1984.
Heung, Marina, "'What's the Matter with Sara Jane?': Daughters and Mothers in Imitation of Life," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), vol. 26, no. 3, 1987.
Obituary, in Variety (New York), 21 January 1987.
Bourget, J.L., "Rêverie; sur les sources scandinaves de Sirk," in Positif (Paris), September 1987.
Castellano, Alberto, "Douglas Sirk," in Castoro Cinema (Milan), no. 132, 1987.
Fesser, J., "Melodrama, Serienform und Fernsehen heute," in Frauenund Film (Frankfurt), no. 42, August 1987.
Petley, Julian, "Sirk in Germany," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1987/1988.
Hunter, Ross, "Magnificent Obsessions," in American Film (Los Angeles), April 1988.
Koch, G., "Von Detlef Sierck zu Douglas Sirk," in Frauen und Film (Frankfurt), no. 44–45, October 1988.
Klinger, Barbara, "Much Ado about Excess: Genre, Mise-en-Scène, and the Woman in Written on the Wind," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 11, no. 4, 1989.
Babington, B., and P. Evans, "All That Heaven Allowed," in Movie (Dumfriesshire), no. 34–35, Winter 1990.
Brandlmeier, T., "Kameramann bei: Herzog achternbusch Sirk," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), vol. 7, no. 7, July 1990.
Petro, P., "Imitations of White," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 9, January 1992.
Kennedy, H., "The melodramatists," in American Film (Marion, Ohio), vol. 17, no. 1, January-February 1992.
Metz, Walter, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), vol. 49, no. 1, Fall 1995.
Nazzaro, G. A., "Difficile impedire 'i voli pindarici della critica'," in Cineforum (Boldone), vol. 36, no. 353, April 1996.
Hake, Sabine, "The Melodramatic Imagination of Detlef Sierck: Final Chord and Its Resonances," in Screen (Glasgow), vol. 38, no. 2, Summer 1997.
Andrew, Geoff, "Sirk It and See," in Time Out (London), no. 1423, 26 November 1997.
* * *
Douglas Sirk's critical reputation has almost completely reversed from the time when he was a popular studio director at Universal in the 1950s. He was regarded by contemporary critics as a lightweight director of soap operas who showcased the talents of Universal name stars such as Rock Hudson and Lana Turner. His films often were labelled "women's pictures," with all of the pejorative connotations that term suggested. After his last film, Imitation of Life, Sirk retired to Germany, leaving behind a body of work that was seldom discussed, but which was frequently revived on television late shows.
Standard works of film criticism either totally ignored or briefly mentioned him with words such as "not a creative film maker" (quoted from his brief entry in Georges Sadoul's Dictionary of Film Makers). In the early 1970s, however, a few American critics began to re-evaluate his works. The most important innovators in Sirk criticism in this period were Jon Halliday, whose lengthy interview in book form, Sirk on Sirk, has become a standard work, and Andrew Sarris, whose program notes on the director's films were compiled into the booklet Douglas Sirk—The Complete American Period. From the time of these two works, it became more and more appropriate to speak of Sirk in terms of "genius" and "greatness." By 1979, Sirk was even honored by BBC Television with a "Sirk Season" during which his now loyal following was treated to a weekly installment from the Sirk oeuvre as it now fashionably could be called.
Critics today see Sirk's films as more than melodramas with glossy photography and upper-middle-class houses. The word "expressionist" is frequently used to describe his technique, an indication not only of the style of Sirk's work in the United States, but also his background in films within the framework of German expressionism in the 1920s and early 1930s.
Sirk, who was born in Denmark, but immigrated to Germany in the teens, began work in the theater, then switched to films in the mid-1930s. Known for his "leftist" leanings, Sirk left Germany with the rise of Nazism, and eventually came to the United States in the early 1940s.
The first part of Sirk's American career was characterized by low-budget films which have faded into oblivion. His first well-known film was Sleep My Love, a variation on the Gaslight theme starring Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert. Soon he began directing films that starred several of the "hot" new Universal stars, among them Hudson and John Gavin, as well as many of the grandes dames of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Lana Turner, and Jane Wyman. Although today he is known primarily for his dramas, Sirk did make a few lighter pieces, among them Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, a musical comedy set in the 1920s, and remembered by movie buffs as one of the first James Dean movies.
Many critics consider Written on the Wind to be Sirk's best film. It was also the one which was best received upon its initial release. All of Sirk's movies deal with relationships which are complicated and often at a dead-end. In Written on the Wind, the film's central characters are unhappy despite their wealth and attractiveness. They have little to interest them and seek outlets for their repressed sexuality. One of the four main characters, Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack), has always lived in the shadow of his more virile friend Mitch Wayne (Rock Hudson). He hopes to forget his own feelings of inadequacy by drinking and carousing, but his activities only reinforce his problems. Sexuality, either in its manifestation or repression, is a strongly recurrent theme in all of Sirk's works, but perhaps no where is it more blatantly dramatized than in Written on the Wind, where sex is the core of everyone's problems. Mitch is the only truly potent figure in the film, and thus he is the pivotal figure. Hudson's role as Mitch is very similar to that of Ron Kirby in All That Heaven Allows. Ron and Mitch both exhibit a strong sense of sexuality that either attracts or repels the other characters and initiates their action.
Kyle's feelings of sexual inadequacy and jealousy of Mitch are interrelated; Mitch is the manly son Kyle's father always wanted and the virile lover his wife Lucy (Lauren Bacall) loves. Kyle admires Mitch, yet hates him at the same time. Similarly, Carey Scott in All That Heaven Allows desires the earthy gardener Ron, yet she is shocked at her own sexuality, an apparent rejection of the conventions of her staid upper-middle-class milieu. In There's Always Tomorrow, Clifford Groves (Fred MacMurray) is faced with a similar situation. He seeks sexual and psychological freedom from his stifling family with Norma Vail (Barbara Stanwyck), yet his responsibilities and sense of morality prevent him from finding the freedom he seeks.
It is an ironic key to Sirk's popular acclaim now that exactly the same stars whose presence seemed to confirm his films as being "programmers" and "women's pictures" have ultimately added a deeper dimension to his works. By using popular stars of the 1930s through 1950s—stars who often peopled lightweight comedies and unregenerate melodramas, Sirk revealed another dimension of American society. His films often present situations in which the so-called "happy endings" of earlier films are played out to their ultimate (and often more realistic) outcomes by familiar faces. For example, in There's Always Tomorrow, Clifford and his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) might very well have been the prototypes for the main characters of a typical 1930s comedy in which "boy gets girl" in the last reel. Yet, in looking at them after almost 20 years of marriage, their lives are shallow. The happy ending of a youthful love has not sustained itself. Similarly, in All That Heaven Allows, the attractive middle-aged widow of a "wonderful man" has few things in life to make her happy. Whereas she was once a supposedly happy housewife, the loving spouse of a pillar of the community, her own identity has been suppressed to the point that his death means social ostracism. These two examples epitomize the cynicism of Sirk's view of what was traditionally perceived as the American dream. Most of Sirk's films depict families in which a house, cars, and affluence are present, but in which sexual and emotional fulfillment are not. Many of Sirk's films end on a decidedly unhappy note; the ones that do end optimistically for the main characters are those in which traditions are shattered and the strict societal standards of the time are rejected.
—Patricia King Hanson
Douglas Sirk, 1900–87, German-American film director, b. Hamburg as Claus Detlef Sierck. A successful director in German theater and film, he fled the Nazi regime in 1937. Two years later he emigrated to the United States, Americanized his name, moved (1940) to Hollywood, and with fellow émigrés directed several anti-Nazi feature films, the first of which was Hitler's Madmen (1942). The extravagant melodramas for which Sirk is best known were made after he joined Universal studios in 1950. His breakthrough movie, Magnificent Obsession (1954), was followed by such others as All that Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), The Ternished Angels (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk's signature films, which generally portray the trials of upper-middle-class life in lush widescreen technicolor, were sometimes dismissed as conventional tearjerkers, but their exquisite visual quality, stylistic sophistication, psychosocial insights, and ironic undertones have made his films influential favorites among many later filmmakers and cinema enthusiasts.
See J. Halliday, ed, Sirk on Sirk (1972, rev. ed. 1997); studies by L. Fischer, ed. (1991) and B. Klinger (1994).