Family & Companions
Best known for his Hollywood melodramas of the 1950s, Douglas Sirk first achieved success in post-WWI Germany, as a theater director. Under the name Claus Detlef Sierck, he directed for the stage from 1922 to 1937, emphasizing the work of such classic playwrights as Moliere, Ibsen, Shaw and Shakespeare. In 1934 he was hired by UFA, which released his first feature film, "'T was een April/It Was in April," in 1935. Despite his great success, Sirk left Germany in 1937 because of his opposition to the policies of the Third Reich. After a brief stay in France and Holland, where he worked on several scripts and produced two films, Sirk was invited to America to remake "Zu Neuen Ufern/To New Shores" (1937), one of his most successful German films featuring the great star Zarah Leander.
In Hollywood, after several years of aborted projects, Sirk directed his first American feature, "Hitler's Madman" (1943). His early work in Hollywood remains largely undistinguished, although Sirk devotees insist that, like his later, more important films, it contains ironic critiques of American culture. "Lured" (1947) and "Sleep, My Love" (1948) stand out in this period as atypical but competent thrillers.
Sirk's great period was during his association with Universal-International studios, beginning in 1951 and continuing until his retirement from filmmaking in 1959, and particularly with producers Albert Zugsmith and Ross Hunter. The series of melodramas he made for Universal struck a responsive chord with audiences; among the best-remembered are "Magnificent Obsession" (1954), "All That Heaven Allows" (1956), "Written on the Wind" (1956), "A Time to Love and a Time to Die" (1958) and "Imitation of Life" (1959). During its release, "Imitation of Life" became Universal's most commercially successful picture. Yet it also proved to be Sirk's last film: either because of ill health, a distaste for American culture or both, Sirk retired from filmmaking and returned to Europe, living in Switzerland and Germany until his death.
Largely considered merely a director of competent melodramas by critics in North America, Sirk's career was redefined by British criticism in the early 1970s. He became the subject of essays in theoretical film journals such as "Screen" and was given a retrospective at the 1972 Edinburgh Film Festival, along with an accompanying critical anthology. Such Sirk remarks as, "The angles are a director's thoughts. The lighting is his philosophy" endeared him to a new generation of film critics viewing Sirk as a socially conscious artist who criticized Eisenhower America from within mainstream filmmaking.
Sirk's style hinges on a highly developed sense of irony, employing subtle parody, cliche and stylization. At one time Sirk was seen as a filmmaker who simply employed conventional Hollywood rhetoric, but his style is now regarded as a form of Brechtian distancing that drew the viewer's attention to the methods and purposes of Hollywood illusionism. The world of Sirk's melodramas is extremely lavish and artificial, the colors of walls, cars, costumes and flowers harmonizing into a constructed aesthetic unity, providing a comment on the oppressive world of the American bourgeoisie. The false lake, a studio interior in "Written on the Wind," for example, is presented as "obviously" false, an editorial comment on the self-deceptive, romanticized imagination that Marylee Hadley (Dorothy Malone) brings to the past. Sirk is renowned for his thematic use of mirrors, shadows and glass, as in the opening shot of "Imitation of Life": behind the credits, chunks of glass, supposedly diamonds, slowly fill the frame from top to bottom, an ironic comment, like the film's very title, about the nature of its own appeal. Later, more obviously political filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder have been influenced by Sirk's American melodramas, which have been offered as models of ideological critique that may also pass as simple entertainment.
Director (Feature Film)
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Switched to film work after Nazi rise to power (films were less subject to Nazi scrutiny)
Debut as feature director
Immigrated to USA
Retired; returned to Germany