Follow by Email

Monday, 26 June 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on the Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All That Sirk Was Allowed - Part 13 - The Critical Backlash

Editor’s Note: This is the thirteenth part of a planned sixteen part series about the German and American master director Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck). The previous parts were published on 

22 April 2017  (Introduction)
27 April 2017  (Notes on the Weimar and Nazi years)  
2nd May 2017 (The American independent years, 1943-51)
7th May 2017 (Sirk at Universal 1951-53)
14 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, 1953-57)
16 May 2017 (Sirk at Universal, The Last Films, 1958-59)
17 May 2017 (Klaus Detlef Sierck, 1925-1944)
22 May 2017 (Critical Recognition, the Turning)
30 May 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part One)
4 June 2017 (Sirk Auteur, Part Two)
12 June 2017 (Drama/melodrama/tragedy)
18 June 2017 (Post Sirk:Mass Camp; Genre and the Women's Film)

Click on the dates to access the earlier posts. 

To come shortly: The Legacy (14), Sources (15), An Afterword: The American Family on Screen (16).


Bruce is a long time cinephile, scholar and writer on cinema across a broad range of subjects. The study being posted in parts is among the longest and most detailed ever devoted to the work of Douglas Sirk. In the following text films in Italics are regarded as key films in the director’s career. References to authors of other critical studies will be listed in a bibliography which will conclude the essay.  

                            *********************** 
Douglas Sirk
In 1971 Sirk stated to Jon Halliday: “Sometimes thinking of myself, it seems to me that I am looking at one of those goddam split characters out of my pictures.” In quoting this, Gerd Gemunden in his introduction to the special Sirk issue of Film Criticism in 1999, concluded that “if one looks at Sirk criticism of the last decades it appears that there is not so much a split Sirk but multiple Sirks.” Halliday's book-length interview set the tone of much that was to follow “often leading to interpretations of the films according to the director's own instructions and accepting at face value many of Sirk's statements without bothering to check facts.” It can be argued that Halliday prompted Sirk to assume the stance of a sophisticated auteur and was all too eager to promote him as a man of of the Left. The early readings of Sirk in Britain and America sought to extend the Halliday counter-position for him in reclamation from the critics who either ignored or dismissed him and the public who embraced his melodramas “for the wrong reasons.” While auteurist and structuralist critics emphasised continuities between Sierck and Sirk over ruptures, those who promoted his cause as a political auteur or subversive modernist either ignored his Ufa films or relegated them to apprenticeship status. (Klinger 8) Whatever their complexion most critics (some exceptions have been noted above) largely ignored the early independently produced Sirk films in America. Gemunden notes that the majority of German critics identified Sirk with the genre in which he was most successful – melodrama - which they generally dismissed as trash. Gemundsen also notes that at least two of Sirk's harshest critics were later among the supporters of Fassbinder.

Zarah Leander (front)
“Since in Germany the shadows of Nazi cinema loom larger,” Gemunden suggests, “celebrations of Sirk always sounded echoes of Sierck.”  Some German critics saw Sirk's work – both German and American - as 'tainted', that Sierck was no Weimar director. Fritz Gottler suggested the need for a dialogue between the various Sirks reflected in research of the 80s and 90s emphasising the historical context of production and reception of individual films detailing some continuities but also many differences between Sierck and Sirk complicating the image of subversive auteurist capable of imposing a critique of society. In an essay seemingly written as a provocative response to the British and American “discovery” of his work, Prof. Gertrud Koch also maintains “that Sirk's work must be historicised if its complexities are to be fully appreciated.”   However Koch then goes on to assert that Sirk was an opportunistic director whose films represent an ideology that is compatible with both Nazi Germany and the conservative climate of the Eisenhower era. She contends that he discovered that, blinded by melodramatic content, the typical viewer missed the social critique. But in her attack on Sirk, Koch goes much further. In contrast to the Screen critics, she reads Sirk's ambiguity of style negatively, reiterating the continuity between Sierck and Sirk in what she calls his system of double articulation.  Koch further argues that Sirk's American melodramas are simply a continuation of the supposed “Nazi aesthetics” of his Ufa films in a cinema providing Goebbels's culture industry with a much desired cult of stardom, claiming “the fascination and horror” in the ambiguous duplicity of “an authoritarian and evil gaze – with Sirk the sadist, a direct descendant of Sierck der Sadist.” Here Koch is using particularly provocative terminology in what she sees as Sirk's portrayal of women (epitomised by Zarah Leander's stardom especially in  Zu neuen Ufern)  and in strong rebuttal of Fassbinder's claim for “the tenderness and love for all human beings” he found in Sirk's films.                                            

Charles Boyer, The First Legion
As already outlined, from the early 1970s a generation of Sirk scholars accessed the cultural status of Sirk's  German and American films through formal analysis revealing their 'true political significance' while largely removing them from the terms of their popular reception. By placing  two critical landmarks in Sirk's career, Zu neuen Ufern and The First Legion, against each other Lutz Koepnick believes that Sirk's attempt to clarify the boundaries of art and the location of culture in modern society in his films can be best understood by “rethinking Sirk's negotiation of the high and the low, of modernist sensibility and popular diversion.”

Zu Neuen Ufern
Halliday claimed Ufern as a masterpiece (see Part 2) and expressed surprise that such a film could be made in Germany in 1937. For German critics like Koepnick and Koch, Ufern, as a strangely ambivalent melodramatic force field, orchestrates what was at the top of Goebbels's cinematic agenda, namely the mutual absorption of  the high and the low culture, of artistic merit and popular appeal, which “illustrates the Nazis' hope to redefine and exploit mass culture as a political tool, a crucible of fantasy production powerful enough to permit a restricted revolt against Nazi ideology while at the same time breaking older bonds of solidarity and fragmenting the body politic into a multitude of pleasure-seeking monads.” This amounts to a form of 'repressive tolerance', part of a project “to establish an economic alternative to Hollywood by creating the illusion in that highly politicized society that certain spaces remained beyond control, beyond politics.” Sirk was required to effectively deliver for the Nazis the image of Zarah Leander, Ufa's new star, in what to Koch initially amounts to “a repulsive image of female sexuality, a sadistic impulse...only then to resort to ritual acts of cleansing, Sirk privileging a gaze that moves from aversion to purification (linking) this authoritarian logic to a conservative project of cultural criticism.”

Although set in England and Australia Ufern reveals Sirk's preoccupation with things American even prior to his exile. Koepnick sees it as “deeply enmeshed in the cultural vocabulary of Nazi Americanism,” finally the “collapsing of competing cultural practices into the vision of a unified, homogeneous culture, bearing testimony to how Nazi mass culture emulated what was considered American patterns of perception and identification.” Kopenick then asks the question: to what extent did Sirk transfer from a state-run to a capital-driven industrial culture his “eschatological visions,” i.e., his recognition, as a non-believer, of the important role of religion in the cultural unification of bourgeois society?

 As acknowledged above, Sirk explained to Halliday the importance of religion as “a pillar of bourgeois society even as organised religion may have lost its role in sanctifying norms and providing metaphysical securities... (while) its symbolic vocabulary seems to speak to a disenchanted age.”

 Sirk resorts to the charm of religious signs in his melodramas to bind together images, narratives and passions, to construe fictional worlds in which an overabundance of meaning may underscore or even counteract the profane disintegration of bourgeois society. Melodrama in the hands of Sirk reinvents the sacred in the hope of redeeming religion from its institutional decay...The priest's bygone sorcery reemerges as the magic of the film director who understands how to stir the imagination and captivate our emotions. (Koepnick)


The First Legion explicitly dwells on Sirk's continuous preoccupation with religion. Further to the discussion in part 3 above “in contrast to the final images in Zu neuen Ufern, The First Legion offers little doubt that such a mutual integration of high and low (some priests in the film hope to link their esoteric practice to the crowd outside) cannot result in anything but a false unity, in delusion rather than insight or redemption.” The projection as the film-within-the film of one of the priest's films shot in India, coincides with the first (fake) miracle. In Koepnick's reading : …these projected images fragment the assembled priests into “voyeuristic” individual beings (or what Koepnick refers to as “monads”) while reintegrating them as consumers in a new kind of imaginary community in which, unlike that in Ufern, the visual field of the mission in Sirk's mise en scène, remains inauthentic: incoherent, uncontained and disjointed. In Ufern Koepnick questions the authenticity of Sirk's strategy which he refers to as his “theological utopia of reconciliation” in an untrammelled  drive towards forms of collectivity in line with Goebbels's above mentioned cinematic agenda, namely “the  mutual absorption of the high and low.” In contrast to the mass spectacle of unification in Ufern Koepnick sees the second mracle in Legion delivering “a utopian image of individual redemption and reconciliation” while also demonstrating that the  achievement of this image is the result of “systematic acts of exclusion.” In the mise en scène of the second miracle Sirk seems to renounce Legion's fragmented visual logic where the “reassertion of authentic seeing” - the final montage in the enclosure of the chapel - carries the possible suggestion of “a new unified community,” while at the same time reminding the viewer of the condition of separation and exclusion that has previously prevailed.    

The First Legion
In the second miracle the representation of Terry's vision in the chapel, at once both utopian and dystopian Koepnick suggests, does not involve a glossing over of the “social fragmentation and dialectical split of modern culture.” The First Legion “insists on the boundaries between high art and trash, aesthetic cultivation and mass culture.” Ufern, on the other hand “exposes to view in critical fashion the very mechanisms that make and mark stars; the film seeks to undo the dialectics of modern culture, renounce the split between high and low, and overcome what makes stars cultural commodities in the first place...The film tells a story of the division of modern culture into commodified spectacles of popular entertainment on the one hand and the highly exclusive aesthetic refinement and social representation on the other...over artistic expressivity as a step into a realm of inauthenticity.”
Zarah Leander in Parramatta Jail, Zu Neuen Ufern
Leander as Gloria Vane is presented in a variety of perspectives, from euphoria in London to suffering as a prisoner in Parramatta jail, as a pretext to suspend the overall narrative to supply a variety of intimate looks at the face and body of the star. In the  passage of the film from London to Sydney, Koepnick sees Sirk deploying melodrama's power to redeem the individual from the  excesses of both the popular and the elite, “melodramatic sensibilities as catalysts for acts of spiritual purification and elevation.” Unlike the ending in Ufern, The First Legion “resists any image of of social and cultural reconciliation; high and low remain locked in a melodramatic dialectic of good and evil, light and dark...The film's final montage sequence valorizes aesthetic self expression over mass cultural kitsch, the bliss of mimesis over the popular's reinvention, of aura as commodity and consumer choice.”

In perhaps the most searching critique of the cultural politics of Sirk's work on both sides of the Atlantic, Koepnick recognises The First Legion, made at a critical juncture in Sirk's life, as the seminal evocation of Sirk's recognition of his foray into a hybrid existence in implicitly not affirming  the philosopher of the Frankfurt School, Theodor Adorno's equation of Nazi Germany and the American culture industry as “uncanny soul brothers.” For Koepnick, Sirk's American productions in varying degrees “remind us to call into question critical models that compare national cultures or envisage cross-cultural transactions yet do little to challenge assumptions about national or cultural fixity.” Koepnick nevertheless finds it highly questionable that Sirk's later melodramas for Universal really lived up to the program spelled out, if somewhat ambiguously, in The First Legion. 

In “bringing Hollywood home in Zu neuen Ufern,” Koepnick speculates on “whether the film encodes a curious preview of coming attractions authored by a director on the brink of departing from Nazi Germany for America itself.”  In their vindication of Sirk, most critics saw the Universal (melo)dramas as both continuing and exceeding the critical aspirations of his films at Ufa and more significantly Sirk's key earlier films in America such as Scandal in Paris and The First Legion, thus failing to properly recognise the implications of his work holistically in what Koepnick refers to as “a site of cultural syncretism.” In these terms Sirk is the identifier and reconciler of cultural differences, rather than the European art director “smuggling his aesthetic refinement into the camp of the enemy.” While recognising the sophisticated strategies of form-centred critical formulation, as referred to above, Koepnick criticises the reliance of these critics on “highly conventional notions of cultural and national identity.” Koepnick further questions the image of Sirk “as an undercover artist simply dismantling American culture and identity.” To him “it is the remaining paradox, challenge, and scandal of Sirk's American work that it sought to examine propositions with the means of industrial culture itself, that it aspired to elevate mass culture to a laboratory of aesthetic reflection.” In linking extravagant mise en scène to the demands of 1950s consumer society Barbara Klinger (p.66-7) suggests that style may have been more to do with the “socially influenced industry demands to render (it) consumable” than to autonomous artistic decisions of the director.  It would seem necessary at this stage to at least concede a synthesis of these two demands in his style. In other words an element of syncretism (Sirk at once reconciling the demands of art and commerce through his mise en scène) is needed to explain both the aesthetic singularity and commercial success of the films at Universal.

Linda Schulte-Sasse has attempted to rescue Sirk from what she calls “the backlash discourse” to again make him the cornerstone of a cinema of aesthetic resistance. She argues that Sirk's German and American films provide all viewers (and not just film critics) with “a reflexive space,” a textuality that interrupts processes of identification and absorption in the plot thus allowing the audience to create layers of meaning other than those carried by the narrative. She is careful to point out that this novel space is not one of agency (in the Brechtian sense) but merely allows the expression of a (utopian) desire. Gemunden in turn points out that this theorising of space as a formal but not a political category does not address the issue central to an understanding of Nazi cinema, namely how private expression of desire is determined by the public sphere. Ironically, Gemunden concludes, Schulte-Sasse's position on this lends support to backlash criticism.

In addition to his theorising on Hollywood melodrama Thomas Elsaesser also researched Sirk's German work in theatre and film and sees him as a cultural pragmatist who had not too much difficulty in coming to terms with Hollywood because it reminded him of the tradition of European popular theatre. Fritz Gottler, on the other hand, saw a certain naiveté in Sirk's attempt to position his work in a larger European tradition of popular theatre and called for “an end to all the talk of elegance and artifice, melodramas not being the haute cuisine of cinema but its fast food.” It does seem that while English and American critical engagements with Sirk from a post Cahiers/Halliday perspective were prescient of the post modern erasure of the  high art - low art distinction, the German backlash against Sirk from academic critics came with a Frankfurt School perspective.


Koch's attack on Sirk's integrity, referred to above, is contradicted by Julian Petley in his essay on Sirk's German films in which he sees the continuity between Sirk's Ufa and Universal melodramas in a quite different light. Before moving into film Sirk had established both his political integrity and “how purely formal elements can be used against the grain” on the stage culminating in 1933 with his production of Georg Kaiser's anti-Nazi parable Der Silbersee that outraged the SA - Nazi supporters tried to barrack it off the stage to the displeasure of the audience. The scandal prompted Sirk's departure from theatre to Ufa. Halliday comments that Sirk's films at Ufa showed what could still be made in Germany in 1937. This is at least partly explicable in terms of the genre - the trio of melodramas that Sirk directed in 1936-7. In a film like La Habanera,
La Habanera
Eric Rentschler suggests, subversive aesthetics were “an orchestrated and integral part of the Nazi film industry” demonstrating  that “excess, irony and distanciation can reaffirm rather than destabilise the status quo”(The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife) in a manner similar to much Hollywood melodrama.  In contrast to Sirk's German critics Petley sees this as a kind of “controlled transgression” through excess which is “inherently destabilising” of ideology. Melodrama he suggests is especially suited to displacement of structures of identification and heightened realism into unstable perceptual relations. In spite (or because of) the great success of Sirk's two 'woman's melos starring Zarah Leander, this would explain why, in the climate of extreme sexism and misogyny in the Third Reich, such melodrama tended to be marginalised in favour of more ideologically stable genres (nationalistic drama, romantic comedies, musicals and comedies). In classic Hollywood it was more a case of reconciling, hence stabilising, the actual economic and aesthetic processes of production with the social and cultural forces of reception.



End Note

1. In the context of Koepnick's analysis of Sirk's flexible responses to changing cultural and political agendas, we need to recognise, I think, that Goebbels was a cinephile with a quite sophisticated understanding of the power of cinema. He deployed (or had the intention to deploy) authoritarian power to manipulate high art and popular culture in what I've suggested was a sophisticated form of repressive tolerance.

1 comment:

  1. An outstanding contribution to the continuing debates on Sirk, Bruce. It raises enough issues to open up a rich vein of responses (and hopefully a gold mine for further debate)-Noel Bjorndahl.

    ReplyDelete