Filmmaker Douglas Sirk honored at the 75th Locarno Film Festival

This year’s major retrospective at the Locarno International Film Festival is dedicated to the German filmmaker Douglas Sirk, the undisputed master of Hollywood melodrama, who died in Lugano 35 years ago. There are around forty films to discover until August 13th.

Did you say melodrama? Those “women’s films” with love stories that are as unbelievable as they are dripping and make the people in the huts cry? True, the genre is sometimes frowned upon. With Douglas Sirk (1897-1987), however, he was brought to his firmament.

He himself sometimes loathed the kitsch novels that Hollywood producers asked to adapt. But he knew how to draw masterpieces from it. From Magnificent Secret to Mirage of Life, from All Heaven Allows to Written on the Wind, his films are always moving and his characters still have a lot to tell us. The 75th Locarno Festival allows, until August 13th, to immerse yourself in his work, that is to say in about forty films rich, complex, often brilliant.

“Douglas Sirk describes all human relationships, all misunderstandings between individuals, whether racial, social, even religious,” explains Bernard Eisenschitz, who co-directed the retrospective at the Locarno Festival and is currently publishing the fascinating “Douglas Sirk, nee Detlef Sierck”. (Editions De l’oeil). For the critic and film historian, Sirk creates an unassuming “human comedy” of deep America that resembles Chekhov more than Balzac, and employs the predictable format of genre film. Sirk therefore respects the codes imposed by Columbia and then by Universal Studios, but he manages to find his way and find his own freedom.

“The 9th Symphony”, 1936, filmed in Germany for the UFA Studios. The first melodrama by Douglas Sirk, who was still called Detlef Sierck. [DR]

Mirror, my beautiful mirror

“From a broken family core, which is a classic motif in melodrama, its characters ask themselves big questions with a moral notion in the background. What should you do with your life? How do you find your place in a hostile world? in your own face – there are many mirrors in Sirk’s films. However, the filmmaker is cautious with moralizing messages: “He doesn’t judge, he puts himself in the place of the other.”

When a widow falls in love with her young gardener and those around her condemn her (Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in All Heaven Allows, 1955). When a mixed-race young girl pretends to be white because she is ashamed of her origins (Susan Kohner in “Mirage de la vie”, 1959). When a soldier on leave falls in love in devastated Germany (John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver in “The Time to Love and the Time to Die”, 1957) … Sirk addresses class consciousness, social upheaval, racism, war. He holds up the mirror to Eisenhower’s prosperous America.

His criticism is sometimes very political and virulent, “but never satire, rather irony,” specifies Bernard Eisenschitz. No real happy ending with Sirk. Its endings are bitter, often pessimistic.

>> Watch: the trailer for the film “All that heaven does” (1955) (in English)

A total art

Douglas Sirk is also a certain notion of grandeur and extravagance. “There is a symphony of colors in his Technicolor films that give them dramatic power. They have a pictorial, verbal, tonal and musical quality. But even a black and white film like “La Ronde de l’aube” (1958) works on shadows and lights and gives them rare nuances.

The filmmaker – born Detlef Sierck in 1897 to a Protestant family in Hamburg – comes from the theater, which Bernard Eisenschitz believes taught him both a love of detail and the need to find unity in his works. So he sees cinema as a total work of art.” But be careful, the label “master of melodrama”, no matter how justified it may be, refers to his Hollywood films of the 1950s. “It covered everything else.”

Douglas Sirk has Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (here in Douglas Sirk brought Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson together on screen several times (here in ‘The Magnificent Secret’, 1954). It was also Sirk who made Rock Hudson a star. [DR]

What we often forget is that when Detlef Sierck, now Douglas Sirk, came to the United States in 1937 fleeing Nazi Germany, he was already 40 years old and had a rich career behind him: he translated Shakespeare into German, he was Theater director, directed hundreds of plays, made successful films. He has a flair for spotting potential stars in actors. “From the beginning he had a creative mania. He could put on several plays a month in the theater and shoot two or three films a year in the cinema, all interesting, even remarkable,” explains Bernard Eisenschitz.

The great Locarno retrospective thus makes it possible to discover, for example, westerns or comedies (“April, April”, 1935, “So who has seen my beauty?”, 1951), a peplum (“Le Signe du païen”, 1954 ), a war film (“The Mysterious Submarine”, 1950) and of course other melodramas, such as “The 9th Symphony” (1936), shot for the German studio UFA, where the filmmaker and his co-screenwriter developed “no literary text, but a purely cinematic work, an editing in which the characters, the music and the spectacle overlap in the spectacle,” writes Bernard Eisenschitz.

Glory and Return

The festival will end on August 12th in Piazza Grande with the screening of “Mirage de la vie” (1959), his last opus, a poignant melodrama that tells how Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a young widow, is in apotheosis ends up raising her daughter alone, manages to become an actress. Her character is soon overshadowed by that of her black governess (Juanita Moore) and her multiracial daughter (Susan Kohner), who poses as white, disowns her mother and suffers the disastrous consequences. In whose name do you have to assume your identity in a society that discriminates against you, even destroys you? Sirk’s film resonates oddly with today’s minority debates.

>> To see: the trailer for the film “Mirage de la vie” by Douglas Sirk (1959)

“Mirage of Life” would be Sirk’s biggest hit and Universal’s biggest hit. But filming was difficult for Sirk. He no longer endorses the way films are made or the themes given to him, writes Bernard Eisenschitz. In nine years he made twenty films for the studio. He then decided to abruptly leave the United States to settle in Lugano, where he died in 1987.

A romantic life

The screenwriter is not close with a fracture. He decided to leave Germany when he realized that Nazism was firmly established and that he and his Jewish wife were suffering persecution from the Gestapo. Sirk knows that he can no longer work for the German UFA studios without compromising himself with the regime.

But he saw an inner grief which, according to Bernard Eisenshitz, explains this rather late departure, four years after Hitler came to power: Sirk’s ex-wife, whom he divorced in 1929, became a Nazi and prevented her from seeing their son, Klaus Detlef. She even made him a child actor paid for by the regime. So Sirk can see it… but only on the big screen. “At some point he had to choose between his son and exile. It is his personal tragedy.” Klaus Detlef will die on the Russian front.

When Douglas Sirk came to the United States, his prestigious German career did not help him. “Americans wrongly consider him a collaborator.” He will not shoot anything for three years, live on a farm and raise chickens. He will have to start all over again. With the brilliance we know.

Raphaële Bouchet/aq

The Locarno Festival runs until August 13th. The Douglas Sirk retrospective is taken over by the Cinémathèque suisse and the Cinémathèque française.

To read: “Douglas Sirk, née Detlef Sierck”, by Bernard Eisenschitz, ed. de L’œil.

This topic will be covered in the program “Vertigo” of August 4, 2022

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