Filmmaker Douglas Sirk honored at the 75th Locarno Film Festival

Filmmaker Douglas Sirk honored at the 75th Locarno Film Festival

The major retrospective of the Locarno International Film Festival is dedicated this year to German filmmaker Douglas Sirk, undisputed master of Hollywood melodrama, who died 35 years ago in Lugano. About forty films to discover until August 13th.

Did you say melodrama? These films “for women” with love stories as implausible as they are dripping, and which make people cry in the cottages? It’s true, the genre is sometimes frowned upon. However, with Douglas Sirk (1897-1987), he was brought to his firmament.

He himself sometimes despised the kitsch novels that Hollywood producers asked him 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 many things to tell us. The 75th Locarno Festival allows, until August 13, to immerse oneself in his work, that is to say about forty rich, complex, often brilliant films.

“Douglas Sirk describes all human relationships, all misunderstandings between individuals, whether racial, social or even religious”, explains Bernard Eisenschitz, who co-directed the retrospective at the Locarno festival and publishes these days the fascinating “Douglas Sirk , born Detlef Sierck” (Editions De l’œil). For the critic and film historian, Sirk creates a modest “human comedy” of deep America, more like Chekhov than Balzac, using the predictable format of the genre film. Sirk therefore respects the codes imposed by Columbia and then Universal studios, but he manages to make his way and finds his own freedom.

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

Mirror, my beautiful mirror

“From a broken family nucleus, which is a classic motif of melodrama, his characters ask themselves big questions with, in the background, a moral idea. What to do with his life? How to find his place in a hostile world How to look yourself in the face – there are a lot of mirrors in Sirk’s films. His characters seek to free themselves, to get rid of societal oppressions.” However, the filmmaker is wary of moralizing messages: “He does not 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 passes herself off as 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 a Germany in ruins (John Gavin and Liselotte Pulver in “The Time to Love and the Time to Die”, 1957)… Sirk tackles class consciousness, social upheaval, racism, war. He holds up a mirror to the flourishing America of Eisenhower.

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

>> To see: the trailer for the film “All that heaven allows” (1955) (in English)

A total art

Douglas Sirk is also a certain idea of ​​the sublime and flamboyance. “There is a symphony of colors in his Technicolor films which give them a dramatic force. They have a pictorial, verbal, sonic and musical quality. But a black and white film like “La Ronde de l’aube” (1958 ) also works on shadows and lights and brings rare nuances to them.

The filmmaker – born Detlef Sierck into a Protestant family in Hamburg in 1897 – comes from the theater, which taught him both attention to detail and the need to find unity in his works, believes Bernard Eisenschitz. Thus, he considers cinema as a total art.” But beware, the label of “master of melodrama”, however justified it may be, refers to his Hollywood films of the fifties. “It obscured everything else.”

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

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

The great retrospective of Locarno thus makes it possible to discover, for example, westerns or comedies (“April, April”, 1935, “Who therefore saw 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, with his co-screenwriter , develops “not a literary text, but a work of pure cinema, a cutting where the characters, the music and the spectacles in the spectacle intersect”, writes Bernard Eisenschitz.

Glory and Return

The Festival will end in apotheosis with the screening, on August 12 in the Piazza Grande, of “Mirage de la vie” (1959), his last opus, a poignant melodrama, which tells how Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), a young widow who raises her daughter alone, succeeds in becoming an actress. Her character is soon eclipsed by that of her black governess (Juanita Moore) and her mixed-race daughter (Susan Kohner), who passes herself off as white, disowns her mother and suffers the disastrous consequences. In the name of what must you assume your identity in a society that discriminates against you, even annihilates you? Sirk’s film strangely resonates with today’s debates on the issue of minorities.

>> 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 for Sirk, filming was difficult. He no longer supports the way films are made or the subjects 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 scenario writer is not with a rupture near. He resolved to leave Germany when he understood that Nazism was firmly established and that, with his Jewish wife, he suffered the persecutions of the Gestapo. Sirk knows that he will no longer be able to work for the German studios of the UFA without compromising himself with the regime.

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

As for Douglas Sirk, when he arrived in the United States, his prestigious German career was of no help to him. “Americans unfairly consider him a collaborator.” He will not shoot anything for three years, will live on a farm and raise chickens. He will have to start all over again. With the brilliance that we know.

Raphaële Bouchet/aq

The Locarno Festival takes place until August 13. The Douglas Sirk retrospective will be taken over by the Cinémathèque suisse and the Cinémathèque française.

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

This subject is covered in the “Vertigo” program of August 4, 2022

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