Rainer Werner Fassbinder “Six Films by Douglas Sirk”
translated by Thomas Elsaesser
‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script’ for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made À Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate— films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore’. America is really something else.
Douglas Sirk had a grandmother, she wrote poems and had black hair. In those days Douglas was still called Detlef and lived in Denmark. As it happened the Nordic countries around 1910 produced their own films, specialising particularly in big human dramas. And so little Detlef and his poetry-writing grandmother went to the tiny Danish cinema and cried their eyes out, over and over again, at the tragic death of Asta Nielsen and many other beautiful ladies with pale, pale make-up. They could only go secretly, because Detlef Sierck was supposed to be brought up in the German tradition, have a proper classical education, and so one day his love for Asta Nielsen gave way to a love for Clytemnestra. He worked in the theatre in Germany: in Bremen, Chemnitz, Hamburg, Leipzig; he was an educated man who was also cultured. He counted Max Brod among his friends, got to know Kafka and so on. He seemed to be embarking on a career which could have led to the directorship of the Munich Residenztheater. But no, in 1937, having made a few films in Germany for UFA, Detlef Sierck emigrated to America, became Douglas Sirk and made films which, among people of his sort of background in Germany, would merely raise a smile.
ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS
So it happens that you can meet a man in Lugano, in Switzerland, who is so alert, and so intelligent—unlike anyone else I have ever met, who can say, with a hardly perceptible, happy smile ‘sometimes I really loved the things I did—very much’. What he loved, for example, was All That Heaven Allows (1956). Jane Wyman is a rich widow, Rock Hudson prunes trees for her. In Jane’s garden a love tree is in flower, which only flowers where love is, and so, out of Jane’s and Rock’s chance meeting grows the love of their lives. But Rock is fifteen years younger than Jane and Jane is completely integrated into the social life of her small American town. Rock is a primitive and Jane has something to lose: her friends, her status which she owes to her late husband, her children. At the beginning Rock is in love with Nature, Jane at first doesn’t love anything because she has everything.
It’s a pretty abysmal start for the love of one’s life. She, he and the world they live in. Basically that’s how it seems. She has a motherly touch, she looks as though she might be able to soften at the right moment: we can understand what Rock sees in her. He is a tree trunk. He is quite right to want to be inside her. The world around is evil. The women all talk too much. There are no men in the film apart from Rock, in that respect arm chairs and glasses are more important. After seeing this film small town America is the last place in the world I would want to go. What it amounts to is that somewhere along the line Jane tells Rock that she is going to leave him, because of her idiotic children and so on. Rock doesn’t protest too much, he still has Nature, after all. And there Jane sits on Christmas Eve, her children are going to leave her anyway and they’ve brought her a television set for Christmas. It’s too much. It tells you something about the world and what it does to you. Later on, Jane goes back to Rock because she has headaches, which is what happens to us all if we don’t fuck once in a while. But now she’s back there’s still no happy ending. If anyone has made their love life that complicated for themselves they won’t be able to live happily afterwards.
This is the kind of thing Douglas Sirk makes movies about. People can’t live alone, but they can’t live together either. This is why his movies are so desperate. All That Heaven Allows opens with a long shot of the small town. The titles appear across it. Which looks very sad. It is followed by a crane shot down to Jane’s house, a friend is just arriving, bringing back some crockery she has borrowed. Really sad! A tracking shot follows the two women and there, in the background, stands Rock Hudson, blurred, in the way an extra usually stands around in a Hollywood film. And as her friend has no time to have a cup of coffee with Jane, Jane has her coffee with the extra. Still only close-ups of Jane Wyman, even at this stage. Rock has no real significance as yet. Once he has, he gets his close-ups too. It’s simple and beautiful.
And everybody sees the point.
Douglas Sirk’s films are descriptive. Very few close-ups. Even in shot-countershot the other person doesn’t appear fully in the frame. The spectator’s intense feeling is not a result of identification, but of montage and music. This is why we come out of these movies feeling somewhat dissatisfied. What we have seen is something of other people. And if there’s anything there which concerns you personally, you are at liberty to acknowledge it or to take its meaning with a laugh. Jane’s children are something else. There’s an old guy to whom they are superior in every way, in youth, in knowledge and so on, and they think he would make an ideal match for their mother. Then there’s Rock, who is not much older than they are, better looking, and not that stupid either. But they react to him with terror. It’s fantastic. Jane’s son offers them both. Rock and the old guy, a cocktail. Both eulogise the cocktail. In one case, when it’s the old guy, the children beam with delight. But when it’s Rock, the tension in the room is ready to explode. The same shot both times. The way Sirk handles actors is too much. If you look at Fritz Lang’s later films which he made at that time, in which incapacity is everywhere in evidence, you can surely see what Sirk is all about. Women think in Sirk’s films. Something which has never struck me with other directors. None of them. Usually women are always reacting, doing what women are supposed to do, but in Sirk they think. It’s something that has to be seen. It’s great to see women think. It gives one hope. Honestly.
Then, in Sirk, people are always placed in rooms already heavily marked by their social situation. The rooms are incredibly exact. In Jane’s house there is only one way in which one could possibly move. Only certain kinds of sentences could come to mind when wanting to say something, certain gestures when wanting to express something. When Jane goes to another house, to Rock’s, for instance, would she be able to change? That would be grounds for hope. Or, on the other hand, she may well be so hung-up and stereotyped already that in Rock’s house she will miss the style of life she is used to and which has become her own. That’s why the happy ending is not one. Jane fits into her own home better than she fits into Rock’s.
WRITTEN ON THE WIND
Written on the Wind (1957) is the story of a super-rich family. Robert Stack is the son, who was never as good, in any way, as his friend, Rock Hudson. Robert Stack knows how to spend his money: he flies aeroplanes, drinks, lays girls; Rock Hudson is his constant companion. But they are not happy. There’s no love in their lives. Then they meet Lauren Bacall. Naturally she is different from all other women. She’s straightforward, works for her living, is practical, she’s tender and understanding. And yet she chooses the bad guy, Robert, although the good guy, Rock, would suit her much better. Rock has to work for his living too, is practical, understanding and bighearted, like her. She picks the one with whom things can’t possibly work out in the long run. When Lauren Bacall meets Robert Stack’s father for the first time she asks him to give Robert another chance. It’s disgusting the way the kind lady kicks the good guy in the balls to set things up for the bad guy. Yes indeed, everything is bound to go wrong. Let’s hope so. Dorothy Malone, the sister, is the only one who is in love with the right person, i.e. Rock Hudson, and she stands by her love which is ridiculous, of course. It has to be ridiculous when everyone else thinks their surrogate actions are the real thing, it is quite clear that everything she does, she does because she can’t have the real thing.
Lauren Bacall is a surrogate for Robert Stack because he must know he will never be able to love her, and vice versa. And the father has an oil derrick in his hand which looks like a surrogate cock. And when Dorothy Malone at the end, sole surviving member of the family, has this cock in her hand it is at least as wretched as the television set which Jane Wyman gets for Christmas. Which is a surrogate for the fuck her children begrudge her just as Dorothy Malone’s oil empire is a surrogate for Rock Hudson. I hope she won’t make it and will go mad like Marianne Koch in Interlude. For Douglas Sirk, madness is a sign of hope, I think.
Rock Hudson in Written on the Wind is all in all the most pig-headed bastard in the world. How can he possibly not feel something of the longing Dorothy Malone has for him? She offers herself, goes after guys who look vaguely like him so as to make him understand. And all he can say is ‘I could never satisfy you’. God knows, he could. While Dorothy is dancing in her room, dancing the dance of a corpse—maybe that’s the moment her madness begins—her father dies. He dies because he is guilty. He has always fostered the belief in his real children that Rock Hudson was better than them, until in the end he really was. Because he could never do what he wanted himself and he had always thought Rock’s father, who had never made any money and could go hunting whenever he wanted to go hunting, was better than he was.
The children are just poor, dumb pigeons. Probably he understands his guilt and it kills him. In any case, the spectator understands it. His death isn’t terrible. Because Robert doesn’t love Lauren he wants a child by her. Or because Robert has had no chance to achieve anything, he wants at least to father a child. But his efforts reveal a fatal weakness. Robert starts drinking again. Now it becomes clear that Lauren Bacall is no use to her husband. Instead of drinking with him, understanding something of his pain, she becomes nobler and purer than ever, she makes us feel more and more sick and we can see more and more clearly how well she would get on with Rock Hudson, who also makes us feel sick and is also noble. People who are brought up to be useful, with their heads full of manipulated dreams, are always screwed up. If Lauren Bacall had lived with Robert Stack, instead of living next to him, through him, and for him then he might have believed that the child she is expecting is really his. He wouldn’t have had to suffer. But, as it is, the child belongs more to Rock in actual fact, although he never slept with Lauren.
Dorothy does something bad, she sets her brother against Lauren and Rock. All the same, I love her as I rarely love anyone in the cinema, as a spectator I follow with Douglas Sirk the traces of human despair. In Written on the Wind the good, the ‘normal’, the ‘beautiful’ are always utterly revolting; the evil, the weak, the dissolute arouse one’s compassion. Even for the manipulators of the good.
And then again, the house in which it all takes place. Governed, so to speak, by one huge staircase. And mirrors. And endless flowers. And gold. And coldness. A house such as one would build if one had a lot of money. A house with all the props that go with having real money, and in which one cannot feel at ease. It is like the Oktoberfest, where everything is colourful and in movement, and you feel as alone as everyone. Human emotions have to blossom in the strangest ways in the house Douglas Sirk had built for the Hadleys. Sirk’s lighting is always as unnatural as possible. Shadows where there shouldn’t be any make feelings plausible which one would rather have left unacknowledged. In the same way the camera angles in Written on the Wind are almost always tilted, mostly from below, so that the strange things in the story happen on the screen, not just in the spectator’s head. Douglas Sirk’s films liberate your head.
Interlude (1957) is a film which is hard to get into. To begin with everything seems false. The film takes place in Munich, which we know is not like that at all. Munich in Interlude is made up of monumental show pieces: Kónigsplatz, Nymphenburg, Herkulessaal. After a while we can see the point: this is Munich as it might look to an American. June Allyson comes to Munich to experience Europe. What she experiences is a great love, the love of her life. He is Rossano Brazzi, who plays a Karajan-like conductor. June Allyson is slightly atypical of Sirk’s characters. She seems to be too naturalistic, too healthy. Too much in bloom. Although she’s sick enough by the end. Rossano Brazzi is a conductor through and through, right down to the softest, tenderest whispers of love. The way he moves is a feat of direction: always like a cockerel, always putting on a show for others even when he seriously means what he says. Brazzi plays his part the way that Wedekind’s Musik ought to be played.
Brazzi has a wife, Marianne Koch. And if one wants to understand Douglas Sirk’s view of the world, this character is crucial. Marianne Koch is in love with Rossano Brazzi. He married her, she was always happy when she was with him, and her love for him destroyed her. She went mad. All Sirkian characters chase an ideal, a longing. The one character who got everything she wanted was destroyed by it.
Does this mean that in our society people are only accepted if they are always chasing something, like the dog with its tongue hanging out? Just as long as they stick to the rules which allow them to remain useful. After seeing Douglas Sirk’s films I am more convinced than ever that love is the best, most insidious, most effective instrument of social repression. June Allyson takes a lesser love back to the States with her. But they will not be happy together either. She will always be dreaming of her conductor and he will always be seeing signs of her dissatisfied longings. They will absorb themselves all the more in their work, which will naturally now be exploited in turn. Right.
THE TARNISHED ANGELS
The Tarnished Angels (1958) is the only black and white Sirk I have been able to see. It is the film in which he had most freedom. An incredibly pessimistic film. It is based on a story by Faulkner which unfortunately I do not know. Apparently Sirk has profaned it which becomes it well.
The film, like La Strada, shows a dying profession, only not in such an awfully pretentious way. Robert Stack has been a pilot in the First World War. He had never wanted to do anything but fly, which is why he now takes part in air-shows circling round pylons. Dorothy Malone is his wife; she demonstrates parachute jumping. They can barely make a living. Robert is brave but he knows nothing about machines, so he has a mechanic, Jiggs, the third one of their team, who is in love with Dorothy. Robert and Dorothy have a son, who Rock Hudson meets when he is being teased by the other fliers: ‘Who’s your old man today kid? Jiggs or . . . .’ Rock Hudson is a journalist who wants to write a fantastic piece about these gypsies of the air who have crankcase oil in their veins instead of blood. It happens that the Shumanns have nowhere to stay so Rock Hudson invites them to his place. During the night Dorothy and Rock get to know each other. We get the feeling that these two would have a lot to say to each other. Rock loses his job, one of the fliers crashes in the race, Dorothy is supposed to prostitute herself for a plane as Robert’s has broken down. Rock and Dorothy haven’t got that much to say to each other after all, Jiggs repairs a broken down plane, Robert goes up in it and is killed.
Nothing but defeats. This film is nothing but an accumulation of defeats. Dorothy is in love with Robert, Robert is in love with flying, Jiggs is in love with Robert too, or is it Dorothy and Rock? Rock is not in love with Dorothy and Dorothy is not in love with Rock. When the film makes one believe for a moment that they are, it’s a lie at best, just as the two of them think for a couple of seconds, maybe . . . ? Then towards the end Robert tells Dorothy that after this race he’ll give up flying. Of course that’s exactly when he is killed. It would be inconceivable that Robert could really be involved with Dorothy rather than with death.
The camera is always on the move in the film; just like the people it moves round, it pretends that something is actually happening. In fact everything is so completely finished that everyone might as well give up and get themselves buried. The tracking shots in the film, the crane shots, the pans! Douglas Sirk looks at these corpses with such tenderness and radiance that we start to think that something must be at fault if these people are so screwed up and, nevertheless, so nice. The fault lies with fear and loneliness. I have rarely felt fear and loneliness so much as in this film. The audience sits in the cinema like the Shumanns’ son in the roundabout: we can see what’s happening, we want to rush forward and help, but, thinking it over, what can a small boy do against a crashing aeroplane? They are all to blame for Robert’s death.
This is why Dorothy Malone is so hysterical afterwards. Because she knew. And Rock Hudson, who wanted a scoop. As soon as he gets it he starts shouting at his colleagues. And Jiggs, who shouldn’t have repaired the plane, sits asking ‘Where is everybody?’. Too bad he never noticed before that there never really was anybody. What these movies are about is the way people kid themselves. And why you have to kid yourself. Dorothy first saw Robert in a picture, a poster of him as a daring pilot, and she fell in love with him. Of course Robert was nothing like his picture. What can you do? Kid yourself. There you are. We tell ourselves, and we want to tell her, that she’s under no compulsion to carry on, that her love for Robert isn’t really love. What would be the point? Loneliness is easier to bear if you keep your illusions. There you are. I think the film shows that this isn’t so. Sirk has made a film in which there is continuous action, in which something is always happening, and the camera is in motion all the time, and we understand a lot about loneliness and how it makes us lie. And how wrong it is that we should lie, and how dumb.
A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE
A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958). John Gavin is on leave in Berlin from the Eastern Front in 1945. His parents’ house has been bombed. He runs into Liselotte Pulver whom he had known when they were children. And as they are both desperate and alone they begin to fall in love. The film is rightly called A Time to Love and a Time to Die. The time is wartime. Quite clearly a time to die. And in Douglas Sirk where death is, and bombs and cold and tears, there love can grow. Liselotte Pulver has planted some parsley outside her window, the only living thing among the rubble. It’s clear from the start that John Gavin will be killed in the end. And somehow it really all has nothing to do with war. A film about war would have to look different It’s about a state of being. War as a condition and breeding ground for love. If the same people, Liselotte Pulver and John Gavin met, say, in 1971, they would smile at each other, say how are you, what a coincidence and that would be it. In 1945 it could become a great love. It’s quite true. Love isn’t where the problem’s at. The problems are all happening on the outside. Inside two people can be tender to each other.
An ordinary love and unexceptional people for the first time in Douglas Sirk. They watch what’s happening around them with wide startled eyes. Everything is incomprehensible to them, the bombs, the Gestapo, the lunacy. In a situation like that love is the least complicated thing of all, the only thing you can understand. And you cling to it. But I wouldn’t like to think about what would have happened to them if John had survived the war. The war and its horrors are only the decor. No one can make a film about war, as such. About how wars come about, what they do to people, what they leave behind, could well be important. The film is not pacifist, as there is not a second which lets us think: if it were not for this lousy war everything would be so wonderful or something. Remarque’s novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die is pacifist. Remarque is saying that if it weren’t for the war this would be eternal love. Sirk is saying if it weren’t for the war this would not be love at all.
IMITATION OF LIFE
Imitation of Life (1959) is Douglas Sirk’s last film. A great, crazy movie about life and about death. And about America. The first great moment: Annie tells Lana Turner that Sarah Jane is her daughter. Annie is black and Sarah Jane is almost white. Lana Turner hesitates, then understands, hesitates again and then quickly pretends that it is the most natural thing in the world that a black woman should have a white daughter. But nothing is natural. Ever. Not in the whole film. And yet they are all trying desperately to make their thoughts and desires their own. It’s not because white is a prettier colour than black that Sarah Jane wants to pass for white, but because life is better when you’re white. Lana Turner doesn’t want to be an actress because she enjoys it, but because if you’re successful you get a better deal in this world. And Annie doesn’t want a spectacular funeral because she’d get anything out of it, she’s dead by then, but because she wants to give herself value in the eyes of the world retrospectively, which she was denied during her lifetime. None of the protagonists come to see that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from social reality or are manipulated by it. I know of no other film in which this fact is formulated with such precision and with such desperation. At one point, towards the end of the film, Annie tells Lana Turner that she has a lot of friends. Lana is baffled.
Annie has friends? The two women had been living together under one roof for ten years by then, and Lana knows nothing about Annie. No wonder Lana Turner is surprised. Lana Turner is also surprised when her daughter accuses her of always having left her alone, and when Sarah Jane starts being stroppy to the white goddess, when she has problems and wants to be taken seriously, even then Lana Turner can only show surprise. And she’s surprised when Annie dies. How could she simply lie down and die? It’s not fair, suddenly to find yourself confronted with reality quite out of the blue. All Lana can do is be surprised throughout the second part of the film. The result is that she wants to play dramatic parts in future. Pain, death, tears—one can surely make something out of that. This is where Lana Turner’s problem becomes the problem of the film-maker. Lana is an actress, possibly even a good one. We are never quite sure on this point. At first Lana has to earn a living for herself and her daughter. Or is it that she wants to make a career for herself? The death of her husband doesn’t seem to have affected her that much. All she knows about him is that he was a good director. I think Lana wants to carve out a career for herself. Money is of secondary interest to her, success comes first. John Gavin is third in line. John is in love with Lana; for her sake, in order to support her, he has abandoned his artistic ambitions and got a job as a photographer in an advertising agency. Lana cannot understand how someone could give up their ambition for love.
John is also rather dumb, he confronts Lana with a choice, either marriage or career. Lana thinks this is fantastic and dramatic and opts for her career. Things are like this throughout the film. They are always making plans for happiness, for tenderness, and then the phone rings, a new part and Lana revives. The woman is a hopeless case. So is John Gavin. He should have caught on pretty soon that it won’t work. But he pins his life on that woman all the same. For all of us it’s the things that won’t work that keep our interest. Lana Turner’s daughter then falls in love with John, she is exactly what John would like Lana to be—but she’s not Lana. This is understandable. Only Sandra Dee doesn’t understand. It could be that when one is in love one doesn’t understand too well. Annie, too, loves her daughter and doesn’t understand her at all. Once, when Sarah Jane is still a child, it is raining and Annie takes her an umbrella at school. Sarah Jane has pretended at school that she is white. The truth comes out when her mother shows up at the school with the umbrella. Sarah Jane will never forget. And when Annie, shortly before her death wants to see Sarah Jane for the last time, her love still prevents her from understanding. It seems to her to be a sin that Sarah Jane should want to be taken for white. The most terrible thing about this scene is that the more Sarah Jane is mean and cruel the more her mother is poor and pathetic. But in actual fact, exactly the reverse is true. It is the mother who is brutal, wanting to possess her child because she loves her. And Sarah Jane defends herself against her mother’s terrorism, against the terrorism of the world. The cruelty is that we can understand them both, both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult. Then they all come together again at Annie’s funeral, and behave for a few minutes as though everything was all right. It’s this ‘as though’ that lets them carry on with the same old crap, underneath they have an inkling of what they are really after, but they soon forget it again.
Imitation of Life starts as a film about the Lana Turner character and turns quite imperceptibly into a film about Annie, the black woman. The film-maker has turned away from the problem that concerns him, the aspect of the subject which deals with his own work, and has looked for the imitation of life in Annie’s fate, where he has found something far more cruel than he would have either in Lana Turner’s case or in his own. Even less of a chance. Even more despair.
I have tried to write about six films by Douglas Sirk and I discovered the difficulty of writing about films which are concerned with life and are not literature. I have left out a lot which might have been more important. I haven’t said enough about the lighting: how careful it is, how it helps Sirk to change the stories he had to tell. Only Joseph Von Sternberg is a match for him at lighting. And I haven’t said enough about the interiors Douglas Sirk had constructed. How incredibly exact they are. And I haven’t gone into the importance of flowers and mirrors and what they signify in the stories Sirk tells us. I haven’t emphasised enough that Sirk is a director who gets maximum results out of actors. That in Sirk’s films even zombies like Marianne Koch and Liselotte Pulver come across as real human beings, in whom we can and want to believe. And then I have seen far too few of Sirk’s films. I would like to have seen them all, all thirty-nine of them. Perhaps I would have got further with myself, my life and my friends. I have seen six films by Douglas Sirk. Among them were the most beautiful in the world.