Thursday 27 April 2017

The Cinema of Douglas Sirk - All That Sirk was Allowed – Part 2 - Bruce Hodsdon's notes on the Weimar and Nazi years - First listing of Sirk in America

Sirk in Germany: Weimar theatre and Nazi cinema 
Born in Germany in 1897 of Danish parents Douglas Sirk (Detlef Sierck) received a classical education in Copenhagen and studied law, philosophy and the history of art in Germany after World War I. He became a theatre director in 1922 when in his mid-twenties, directing audacious modern plays  by leftist authors including Brecht, Georg Kaiser and Friedrich Wolf  but also plays by their political adversaries and plays by Shakespeare (in his own translations), Sophocles, Strindberg, Ibsen, Shaw and Goethe. After taking up a position in Leipzig Sierck encountered a more difficult political atmosphere with Nazi brown shirts outside the theatre and in the audience for the premiere of an opera by Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser which was cancelled after the Nazis won the national elections in March 1933. He began to direct a repertoire dictated by the Nazis. In 1934 with his choice and direction of modernist plays increasingly attracting unfavourable attention, Sierck joined Ufa, Germany's largest film company, the film industry being less rigidly controlled than the theatre.

From 1935-37 Sierck directed eight features including Stutzen der Gesellschaft/Pillars Of Society (1935) based on an Ibsen play which is regarded as one of the best literary adaptations of the period in Germany. Schlussakkord/Final Chord (1936) is a melodrama Sirk regarded as important because it was the first film in which he fully engaged with cinema in realising that “motion is emotion,” casting off his literary and theatrical background in writing the screenplay and directing with stylish bravura, returning to his early impressions of cinema as a child. It includes a wealth of musical material including large sections of a concert performance of Beethoven's Ninth and won the prize for best musical film at the Venice Biennale. Zu neuen Ufern/To New Shores and La Habanera (1937) established the Swedish actress Zarah Leander as Germany's new star to replace Garbo and Dietrich. Set in Australia with an anti-colonial theme, Ufern has been described by Jon Halliday as “stylistically one of the most extraordinary films ever – not just in the combination of music, songs and dialogue in the tradition of Brecht and Weill but in the assemblage of contrasts, of light, of class, of geography”.  It was received with great acclaim at its premiere in Berlin.

Both films, surprisingly tough politically, were shot in an 'exotic' style comparable to that of Josef von Sternberg. Like Ufern, La Habanera is a melodrama with music integrated into the narrative, set in Puerto Rico (but filmed in Spain) with an anti-capitalist theme. Sierck was not allowed to make Pylon or The Shooting Party at Ufa because they were considered too pessimistic, not what was wanted. He subsequently made both into films in America. Nevertheless Sirk said that he “learned a lot at Ufa” and always concerned himself fully with the technical aspects of the craft so that he “rarely looked through the camera” and he could tell the cameraman exactly what lens he wanted to use because he could judge exactly the distance and adjustment for movement (interview with Michael Stern).  See also Critical Backlash – Part 10 for further discussion of Sierck and Nazi cinema.

Zu neuen Ufern
Sierck's first wife, Lydia Brinken, became a Nazi. They were divorced and Sierck lost access to his son whom he never saw again except on the screen – Klaus-Detlef Sierck became Germany's leading child actor and a member of the Hitler Youth. When Ufa came directly under state ownership in 1937 the atmosphere became increasingly repressive and Sierck left Germany in December 1938 and joined his wife, Jewish actress Hildegarde Jary, who had left earlier. He began a long search for work, initially with limited success in France and Holland, ultimately arriving in Hollywood at the end of 1939 on an invitation from Warner Bros.  The studio soon terminated his contract and for a time Sierck and his wife ran a chicken farm they established in the San Fernando Valley and later an alfalfa farm. Sierk was acquainted with the Hollywood colony of German exiles including Thomas Mann, Max Reinhardt, Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch but disliked their almost obsessive contempt for most things American, preferring the company of “ordinary Americans” who treated the Siercks with “simple creative generosity.” There was also suspicion in the exile community because of the eight features he made in Nazi Germany and of his late emigration. See also Critical Backlash – Part 10.

La Habanera

 Sirk in America ((key films in italics))                                                                                 
'The independent years 1943-50: 6 indie features plus 2 features assigned under contract at Columbia
Assignments at Universal  1951-2: 7 features
The Universal years 1953-9 with Ross Hunter and Albert Zugsmith: 14 features (10 produced by RH, 2 by AZ)
The 'European' films: Summer Storm, A Scandal in Paris, Lured, A Time to Love and a Time to Die
Religious themes: The First Legion, Thunder on the Hill, Sign of the Pagan, Battle Hymn
The 'uncomfortable comedies' at Universal:  The Lady Pays Off, Weekend with Father, No Room for the Groom
Americana: Meet Me at the Fair, Take Me to Town,
The 'melodramas': All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, There's Always Tomorrow, Written on the Wind, Interlude, The Tarnished Angels, Imitation of Life

Other: Hitler's Madman, Sleep My Love, Slightly French, Shockproof, Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, Mystery Submarine, Taza Son of Cochise, Captain Lightfoot.

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