Rather than masking malaise, Sirk’s exaggerations make it visible and palpable, with all the symptoms up on screen in glorious Technicolor: neurotic sexuality, class and racial inequality, pervasive alienation.
But as former Sunday Age film critic Tom Ryan reminds us in this invaluable study, these melodramas represent only one chapter of Sirk’s 25-year directing career — first in his birthplace of Germany (under his original Danish name, Detlef Sierck), and then in the US, where he emigrated soon after the outbreak of the Second World War.
Over the years, Sirk made comedies, musicals, thrillers, adaptations of Ibsen and Chekhov: the track record of a working director pursuing his own interests where possible but willing to adapt himself to whatever project came to hand.
All this is detailed in The Films of Douglas Sirk, the fullest account of its subject’s career to date, drawing on material that includes Ryan’s own previously unpublished interviews with Sirk (who returned to Europe in the early 1960s, remaining largely inactive as a filmmaker until his death in 1987).
Sirk criticism is not known for straightforwardness and common sense, but Ryan remedies these absences as he moves through the career one film at a time — summarising the plots, commenting on points of style, supplying background detail, identifying continuities and discontinuities, and finding something positive to say in almost every case.
Not that the book fails to confront the more difficult issues that its subject raises. Despite earlier pockets of critical enthusiasm, Sirk’s reputation as a significant artist only started to take off in the 1970s, fuelled by the advocacy of New German Cinema provocateur Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who employed comparable melodramatic techniques for his own purposes.
Ever since, there has been disagreement about what Sirk was really up to in the 1950s, particularly his famous ‘‘irony’’. Was he consciously mocking the ‘‘trashy’’ material he was called on to tackle, particularly in his collaborations with producer Ross Hunter?
A cultured man by any standard, Sirk appeared to endorse this viewpoint in some of his later public statements. But the question persists: how far was he simply telling his interviewers what they wanted to hear? Ryan, to a degree, has it both ways — and argues that Sirk did too, as a filmmaker who ‘‘invites us to care about his characters as if they’re real people, but … also spends much of his time reminding us that they’re not.’’
But on the whole, the Sirk who emerges here (and who Ryan clearly prefers) is a relatively sincere, humanist figure. In this context, it’s noteworthy that Ryan has taken the trouble to go back to the once-popular novels and stories that supplied the basis for many of Sirk’s Hollywood films — arguing that these are honourable works in their own right, not mere kitsch to be transfigured by the director’s art.
This is fair enough, though it doesn’t alter the fact that a number of Sirk’s films endure as classics while their sources don’t. Regrettably, less attention is given to Sirk’s way of collaborating with his screenwriters — a harder matter to research, though an equally crucial one.
But if this is not precisely a ‘‘definitive’’ study, that is to Ryan’s credit: his aim, which he accomplishes, is to expand our sense of Sirk, not to impose conclusions that would block further lines of inquiry. ‘‘What Sirk leaves us with is a happy enough ending under the circumstances,’’ he writes of the 1945 A Scandal In Paris, ‘‘but one in which appearances are all and reality becomes a never-ending puzzle. Which sounds about right to me.’’
Jake Wilson is a film critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.