990 (122). A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958, Douglas Sirk)

Screened December 7 2009 on Masters of Cinema Region 2 DVD (thanks Gina) in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #994  IMDb Wiki

Douglas Sirk's penultimate feature, and one of his most personal, brings his entire Hollywood career into stark relief.  This adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of love in WWII Germany envisions a bombed-out wasteland that couldn't be further removed from the Technicolor gloss of affluent America seen in his most famous films. There are no vibrant pastels or lush interiors decorated with fine upholstery or shiny bric a brac; here, whether inside or outside, it's a seemingly monotonous ash gray or dirt brown. Whenever color arrives (usually a tree blossom or sprig of a leaf), it's a miracle.

This seems to invert the formula established in other Sirk films, where the abundance of attractive surfaces amounts to overcompensation for dissatisfied lives lurking underneath. Here, it's luxury that makes life worth living: the young lovers Ernst (John Gavin) and Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) bluff their way into a fancy meal in an officer's club, in a scene that defies gravity. What's even more fascinating is how that famous Sirkian irony is turned on its ear. In films like All That Heaven Allows or Imitation or Life, Sirk lays ironic subtext into the dialogue or the mise-en-scene, such that it verges on mocking the characters' myopic pursuits of happiness (while priming hipster camp laughter). Here the script is flipped: cynicism and irony wrought by wartime cruelty are the fashion, a way for soldiers and civilians alike to numb themselves from the inhumanity that engulfs them. It's against this convention that the lovers fight, hanging on to a flickering sense of hope and earnestness (Gavin, a bit wooden, doesn't quite carry it off, but Pulver more than compensates - it's easy to see why Godard was smitten by her in his famous review of the film, as her doe-eyed litheness make her a prototype for Anna Karina).

What Sirk keeps consistent between this film and the American-set melodramas is his fixation with the fragility of what makes life worth living in a world of suffocating convention. Wealth and poverty prove to be equally dehumanizing.  What matters are the frail bonds between people, enabled by fleeting moments of fantasy fulfillment. This isn't tied to any overt political or social agenda. Quite the opposite, there's a startling, paradoxical acceptance of the status quo as a fundamentally inescapable condition: it's ground that gives birth to its own acts of defiance - these moments of transcendent beauty - and it's the ground that smothers them out.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of A Time to Love and a Time to Die among They Shoot Pictures Don't They's 1000 Greatest Films:

Antonio Jose Navarro, El Mundo (1995) Enrique Alberich, Dirigido Por (1992) Ian Cameron, Sight & Sound (1972) Jose Maria Prado, Nickel Odeon (1994) David Thomson, Have You Seen...? A Personal Introduction to 1000 Films (2008) Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films (2004) Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: War (1993)


For more than two hours, this somber drama, taken from a novel by Erich Maria Remarque and put on display at the Mayfair and Little Carnegie yesterday, goes through a labored explanation of how a young Nazi soldier, home on leave, makes love to and marries a nubile maiden amid the exploding clutter of a German city in 1944. Then, after getting the new wife settled with a nice old lady and also with child, it takes the young husband back to the front in Russia. And there it gets him ironically killed.

That's all there is in this long picture—just an account of how two youngsters fall in love, despite air raids, food rationing, gauleiters and the fact that they don't know where or how their parents are. No theme is solidly stated, no philosophical comment is implied—other than the obvious one of General Sherman, and that's what nice Germans went through in World War II.

This again is a fault of this picture—it simply does not ring true. It has an air of studied contrivance and artificiality. Lilo Pulver, for instance, is winsome as the German girl, but she acts, under Douglas Sirk's direction, with the airs and manners of a well-fed ingénue. Except for a trace of German-accent, you'd never dream she's been near a bombed German city in World War II.

- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, July 10, 1958

...Next to Le Plaisir [Pleasure, Max Ophuls, 195s], this is the greatest title in all cinema, sound or silent, and also to say that I heartily congratulate Universal-International on having changed the title of Erich Maria Remarque's novel, which was called A Time to Live and a Time to Die [Zeit zu leben und Zeit zu sterben, 1954]. In so doing, those dear old universal and international bandits have in effect set Douglas down in a circus which Boris Barnet would have been prodigiously happy to film, because it is ten times more battle-scarred and beautiful than Brooks's: in other words, by replacing the world 'live' by 'love', they implicitly posed their director the question - an admirable starting point for the script - 'Should one live to love, or love to live?'...

Before talking of form, let us speakof Liselotte Pulver's. Everyone scorns it. But I like it. You think she's skinny; but after all it is wartime, and the subject of the film is not: 'Off with your pullover, Lise.' For my part I have never found a German girl in the crumbling Third Reich so credible as I did in watching this young Swiss start nervously at each camera movement. I will go further. I have never found wartime Germany so credible as in watching this American film made in peacetime. Even more than Aldrick in Attack [1956], Sirk can make things seem so close that we can touch them, that we can smell them. The face of a corpse frozen in the rime on the Russian front, bottles of wine, a brand-new apartment in a ruined city: one believes in them as though they had been filmed by a newsreel Camelflex instead of with a huge CinemaScope apparatus controlled by what one must call the hand of a master.

It is fashionable today to say that the wide screen is all window-dressing. Personally, my answer to all those Rene's who haven't got idees claires is a polite: 'My eye!'. One need only have seen the last two Sirk films to be finally convinced that CinemaScope adds as much again to the normal format. One should add here that our old filmmaker has regained his young legs and beats the young at their own game, panning happily all round, tracking back or forwards likewise. And the astonishingly beautiful thing about these camera movements, which tear away like racing-cars and where the blurring is masked by the speed with which they are executed, is that they give the impression of having been done by hand instead of with a crane, rather as if the mercurial brushwork of a Fragonard were the work of a complex machine. Conclusion: those who have not seen or loved Liselotte Pulver running along the bank of the Rhine or Danube or something, suddenly bending to pass under a barrier, then straightening up hop! with a thrust of the haunches - those who have not seen Douglas Sirk's big Mitchell camera bend at the same moment, then hop! straighten up with the same supple movement of the thighs, well, they haven't seen anything, or else they don't know beauty when they see it.

- Jean-Luc Godard, Cahiers du Cinema, 1959. Translated by Tom Milne and Craig Keller. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.


[W]e slightly changed [the original title of Remarque's source novel A Time to Live and a Time to Die] for the non-German distribution into A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I was so insistent on this, for I felt it had to be a love story, mainly. The denunciation of Nazidom would have to take second place to the love story. You see, this picture was made in 1957. Hitler's empire of a thousand years was history. Furthermore, I thought 'die' balanced 'love' very well. And going back to my idea of a title being a kind of prologue, it announces the theme of the picture. The terrible incongruity of killing and young love. I was enchanted to see that in Cahiers Godard did get the point, and made the title almost the base for his excellent and unusual review [...] What was interesting to me was a landscape of ruins and the two lovers. But again, a strange kind of love story, a love conditioned. Two people are not allowed to have their love. The murderous breath of circumstances prevents them. They are hounded from ruin to ruin. The lovers have nowhere to go for their love. Do you remember the scene in the hold restaurant? The lovers are imitating the joyful life of a lost past. There is a moment of happiness. Seemingly. There is food. There are friendly lamps. There is light. Their love has restored the world. Bang! It is destroyed. I was striving for this relationship between their love and the ruins. I hope it came off: the portrayal of this young and desperate love. Not just a boy and girl story, but two lovers in extreme circumstances."

- Douglas Sirk, in Jon Halliday's Sirk on Sirk, pp. 141, 144. Printed in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet

"Life is the most melodramatic story of all," said Sirk. In 1929 in Germany he had divorced his first wife and married a Jew, a fact which the first wife used after Hitler won power to get a court order barring Sirk from contact with their son, then eight, whom she was turning into a Nazi and the top child star in German cinema: Claus Detlef Sierck. Sirk was able to see his son only in movies, sometimes as a Hitler Youth. And when he fled Germany, Sirk had to leave his son behind. Toward the end of the war Claus was drafted, sent to the Russian front, and reported missing in action. After the war Sirk came back to Germany, and searched in vain for traces of the son he had left behind. He asked interviewers not to publish these events during his lifetime. But he made a movie, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, that was autobiographical - about a boy who is sent to Russia and forced to commit atrocities, who meets a wonderful girl during a leave, then is quickly killed in Russia after a daring act of mercy. What more could such a father hope for such a dead son than that he had had the experience of a love like this before dying?

- Tag Gallagher, in Masters of Cinema DVD booklet.

Sirk's motives for returning to Berlin seem as scrambled as those for his flight 21 years earlier. The Russian Front setting of Remarque's source novel clearly had a personal significance, as Klaus Detlef Sierck (the son who had acted in several pro-Party pictures) had been killed in the Ukraine in 1944. However, it was never entirely certain whether Orin Jannings's screenplay was a plea for the victors to understand the suffering endured by the vanquished during the last days of the conflict or whether the killing of the Good German by a vengeful Communist guerilla was intended to be Cold War propaganda.

Regardless of its objectives, this touching study of the brevity of happiness was hailed as a masterpiece by Jean-Luc Godard in an effusive Cahiers du Cinéma review that launched the Sirkian cult that still attracts copious devotees. However, German audiences deeply resented a fugitive recreating their misery, while the film was banned in both Israel and the Soviet Union. It was somewhat fitting, therefore, that when Sirk quit the States in 1959, he settled in Switzerland - which had, of course, remained neutral during the war.

- David Parkinson, Film in Focus


A masterpiece of mise-en-scene (1958) by Douglas Sirk, transforming an Erich Maria Remarque melodrama into a haunting story of the search for beauty in a dead world. John Gavin and Lilo Pulver are lovers who meet among the ruins of a bombed-out German town during World War II. Despite their efforts to make contact, happiness hovers just beyond their reach in Sirk's metaphysically charged CinemaScope images. A stunning triumph of form, of the sort possible only in Hollywood. 132 min.

Dave KehrThe Chicago Reader

Under the opening credits of Sirk's penultimate masterpiece, set during World War II and filmed on location in Germany, the camera rests on the branches of a tree, its blossom forced early by the heat of a nearby bomb blast. It is the perfect symbol for the love between John Gavin's German soldier on leave and a barely remembered childhood friend, Lilo Pulver: a love forced by the everyday facts of war. This superb adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel rests on a painful symmetry between the scenes at the Russian front and the central section in the half-ruined home town, and on a typically tough-minded acknowledgment of the irony that the doomed romance exists not in spite of the war, but because of it.

Time Out

In a way, the lack of a well-structured plot is a minor quibble, as the attraction of A Time to Love isn't in its story, it's in the fusion of the melodramatic with the nihilistic. The film is full of grimly beautiful imagery. Early on in the film Ernst's regiment makes its way through a frozen village, and discover a withered hand reaching out from beneath the snow. An argument occurs about whether or not the dead soldier the hand belongs to is a casualty of the November or January campaign that is almost blackly humorous. As the soldiers dig him out, a young private remarks that the corpse appears to be crying, to which Ernest responds 'His eyeballs were frozen. They're thawing now.' This kind of darkness pervades the film, particularly in these early moments with the frontline troops, who are represented as wearily cynical of the ongoing campaign…

The visual layout of A Time to Love and a Time to Die is much like Sirk's previous melodramas. Shards of light slice through frames, wrenching the characters away from each other; scenes are colour-coded to the emotions of the characters and tone of the world (here, mainly dull grey, brown and white); small camera movements track and nag the characters. Its emotive, heightened, passionate – the score swells and climaxes, the cinemascope photography is brilliantly vivid; the frames are filled with material detail. Its part of what makes Sirk's films so seductive – they are beautiful to look at, almost distractingly so. What is particularly interesting – and impressive – about this film is the way this aesthetic plan is mapped onto wartime Germany. Costumes and props look authentically worn, the characters are all suitably bedraggled (with the exception of the star couple). There is a lot of location shooting, amongst bombed out buildings and piles of rubble and muddy battlefields, but Sirk still manages to maintain his highly composed, painterly look. The emotional desolation of the characters bleeds into the landscape, and vice versa: the realism of those bombsites is harnessed into the melodramatic project.

Adam WilsonDVD Outsider

Remarque was a solid but second-rate writer who tended to recycle his own material; he turns up in Sirk’s movie as a forbidding-looking Professor who does a bit of preaching about God and responsibility in one heavy-handed scene toward the end. There are lots of sand traps like that in this script, but Sirk is a past master of handling the most dubious writing and acting and still somehow making it conform to his overall vision (surely he was made to handle the heavily seasoned works of a major writer like Thomas Mann, but Remarque will do in a pinch). There are echoes of Frank Borzage’s Remarque-inspired Three Comrades (1938) in the enclosing love story between Gavin and Pulver, but Sirk replaces Borzage’s warmth with his own stern detachment. He draws a charming performance from the German-born Pulver, and he tries his best with the pretty but very remote Gavin; these lovers are always ducking into cellars during air raids and either losing or stealing bottles of liquor, leaping from ruin to ruin until time, if not love, runs out.

Sirk said he liked the irony of the ending, but it comes across as a cheap attempt to copy the famous last shot of the film version of All Quiet on the Western Front, with a love letter substituted for a butterfly. Miklós Rózsca provides a stormy score that fits the forties time period, and the film has some amusing casting: A young Klaus Kinski has a film-halting bit as a Gestapo agent, and Dorothea Wieck, who played the sensual lesbian schoolteacher in the Weimar-era classic Mädchen in Uniform (1931) turns up briefly. The scenes depicting Gavin’s despicable Nazi school-hood friend are strangely handled, mainly because Sirk seems more interested in ridiculing the vulgarity of fascist cultural taste than in any more sweeping moral denunciation. This isn’t one of Sirk’s best films, but it is most likely one of his most personal. He was separated from his son by his first wife, who had wholeheartedly joined the Nazi party, and this lost son later died on the Russian front. In the last scenes of the movie, Sirk shows us several blond-haired boys ready to go off to war, and you don’t have to know his history to be moved by their forgone fate, or the artist who could use a small part of his own personal pain as a fully justified grace note in this, his penultimate Hollywood production.

Dan CallahanThe House Next Door

Like the rough trilogy of films based on James Hilton's novels (Lost Horizon, Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Random Harvest), A Time To Love And A Time To Die is suffused with the inter-war desire to escape time - an escape that Sirk equates with his own characteristically intoxicating cinematography, with the result that Sgt Ernest Graeber's (John Gavin) search for his parents during the two-week long furlough that relieves him from the black-and-white monotony of the Russian Front is effectively the search for Technicolour; or, alternatively, the desire to immerse himself in a fantastic distance from the ravages of war that becomes continuous with cinema itself, as evinced in one of its surrogates - a wedding night in which his new wife, Elizabeth (Lilo Pulver) throws glasses against a wall because she "saw it done in a movie once", as well as the final, glassy screen, which beautifully combines his reflection with a confirmation that this intoxication is still just out of reach. As a result, all its surrogates - 'no such places', culminating with a suburban kitchen that has miraculously escaped desecration - fall short of the lurid aestheticism expected of Sirk by this stage - with the possible exception of the violent, periodic incursions of fire, whether literally or as an object of conversation, which tend to suggest that Technicolor can now only exist as an index of sheer horror - as if his irrealistic proclivities were so strong as to only admit of being indefinitely and tortuously postponed, rather than categorically excised.

Billy StevensonA Film Canon


Maybe it's the use of Eastman Colour stock rather than Technicolor, but at first sight A Time to Love... seems less stylised in its look than the other two (which were studio/backlot productions shot in “flat” widescreen). That's not to say it doesn't avoid a certain glossiness in its presentation: but then stomach-churning realism was not on the agenda (for reasons of censorship amongst other things). That doesn't preclude a hard edge to this film: romantic it may be, soft-headed no. That's also not to deny that the film is very well directed: whole books have been written about Sirkian aesthetics and mise-en-scène, which is beyond the scope of this review. The final image is reminiscent of that in All Quiet on the Western Front and just as powerful.

- Gary Couzens, DVD Times

After making a series of vibrant melodramas in the United States (such as “All That Heaven Allows”), Douglas Sirk returned to his native Germany to shoot the bitter Second World War story “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (1958), based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque. A Wehrmacht private (John Gavin)—a good German, disgusted by Nazi atrocities—returns from the Russian front to his bombed-out town, falls in love with the daughter (Lilo Pulver) of a German dissident, and mixes with both committed Nazis and resisters. The romance has its longueurs, but both the battle and the home-front scenes, in which traces of beauty and friendship struggle against an overpowering sense of loss, are unusually well sustained and bitterly intelligent. Remarque himself appears as an anti-Nazi teacher who tells the hero that if he doesn’t return to the front his family will be threatened. Remarque knew what he was talking about: his sister was executed by the Nazis in 1943 as revenge against the writer, who was living in the United States.

- David Denby, The New Yorker

It was the penultimate Hollywood movie of the great German stylist Douglas Sirk and, like all his American films, the reputation of this quietly authoritative, initially undervalued picture has steadily grown since the 1960s. John Gavin plays the central character, Remarque himself has a small role as a liberal schoolteacher and the unforgettable ending echoes All Quiet. The movie has a poignant subtext. Sirk's son, a beautiful child star raised as a Nazi by his first wife, died fighting on the Russian front. The film is accompanied by a booklet and three worthwhile documentaries.

- Philip French, The Guardian

Adapted from a novel by EM Remarque (who also wrote All Quiet on the Western Front), this is perhaps the bravest and most beautiful of war films. There are many movies that remind us War Is Hell but few with the courage to humanise the losing side. Sirk was always a more restrained director than his reputation as master of melodrama suggests; here he eschews easy sentiment and emotional bombast and his film is all the more heartbreaking for it. He does more than show the horror of war; he evokes its anguish.

- Movie Mail

On one hand A Time to Love and a Time to Die is a great film, gorgeously photographed and really well written but, on the other, it fails to convince because of the cast. John Gavin is about as American as you can get so doesn’t really pass as a German soldier and there are so many Americans in the cast (including Keenan Wynn – Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove) that they look like Americans in German uniforms, not German soldiers. Swiss actress Liselotte Pulver is a different matter, sounding German and putting in a fine performance.

- David Beckett, My Reviewer.com

The film's urgent anti-war message is best captured in the premature bloom of tree blossoms in the hometown, caused not by nature but by the bombings. As for the film's belief in humanity overcoming evil, the answer it comes up with is taken from the lips of Erich Maria Remarque: "Without doubt, there would be no need for faith." There is a strange universal beauty found in the unlikely Hollywood film about a WW11 German soldier as the hero. The beauty is in the empirical images of the fearful symmetry between the horrors at the Russian front and the hometown in partial ruins, and in the doomed romantics trying to overcome the world gone crazy around them.

- Dennis Schwartz, Ozus' World Movie Reviews

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 décor. 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 Love 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.

Bruno AndradeSigno do dragao

Douglas Sirk: An Annotated Webliography

IMDb Wiki

Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography by Tom Ryan

Biography on Turner Classic Movies

Douglas Sirk films ranked on They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films:

#199 - Written on the Wind (1956) #203 - Imitation of Life (1959) #281 - All that Heaven Allows (1955) #491 - There's Always Tomorrow (1956) #556 - The Tarnished Angels (1958) #994 - A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)


Google Books lists 10 titles either about or mentioning Douglas Sirk, including:

- Douglas Sirk, Michael Stern. 1979

- Shooting script for Imitation of Life, by Douglas Sirk and Lucy Fischer. Published 1991.

- Melodrama and Meaning: History and Culture and the films of Douglas Sirk, Barbara Klinger. 1994

- Sirk on Sirk: interviews with Jon Halliday. 1972

The following quotes are found on the TSPDT profile page for Sirk:

"Most of the projects assigned to him were unpromising in content and miniscule in budget. He was often forced to contend with ridiculous scripts, ranging in genre from thriller to maudlin soap operas. That he managed to overcome the handicap and end up with a good number of thoroughly enjoyable films is a tribute to his personal taste and the formal excellence of his visual style." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"Time, if nothing else, will vindicate Douglas Sirk as it has already vindicated Josef von Sternberg. Formal excellence and visual wit are seldom as appreciated at first glance as are the topical sensations of the hour... Any visual style can be mechanically reproduced, but without the linkage to a directorial personality, the effect is indeed mechanical. Sirk's taste is exquisite, and hence, inimitable. One big obstacle to an appreciation of his oeuvre is an inbred prejudice to what Raymond Durgnat has called the genre of the female weepies as opposed to the male weepies. - Andrew Sarris (The American Cinema, 1968)

"Though the erudite Sirk worked in the intellectually disreputable realm of the melodrama, his alertness to the injustices underlying the American Dream and his commitment to underdog characters made for heart-rending, thought-provoking cinema." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

"Stylish melodramas form the core of Sirk's reputation, but he lensed suspense films, costume dramas, comedies, and even Westerns with flair." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less." - Douglas Sirk

"If I can say one thing for my pictures, it is a certain craftsmanship. A thought which has gone into every angle. There is nothing there without an optical reason." - Douglas Sirk

More choice quotes from Sirk, found on BrainyQuote:

"I never regarded my pictures as very much to be proud of, except in this, the craft, the style."

"If I can say one thing for my pictures, it is a certain craftsmanship. A thought which has gone into every angle. There is nothing there without an optical reason."

"So slowly in my mind formed the idea of melodrama, a form I found to perfection in American pictures. They were naive, they were that something completely different. They were completely Art-less."

"Your characters have to remain innocent of what your picture is after."

"Your camera is the best critic there is. Critics never see as much as the camera does. It is more perceptive than the human eye."


‘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 A 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.

- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The New Left Review, 1975

The career of Douglas Sirk (1900-1987) is a case study in contradictions. A European intellectual who translated Shakespeare and directed Ibsen, he gained his greatest fame making allegedly schlocky movies for one of the sleazier American movie studios. Once a peer of Weill and Brecht, he later hung out with the likes of gay producer Ross Hunter and exploitationer Albert Zugsmith. In the ‘30s his actors were Europe’s finest; in the ‘50s he worked with Rock Hudson and John Gavin. Sirk’s American melodramas were adored by audiences of the time and made reams of money for Universal, where he was a contract director. But mainstream critics of the time (and later) dismissed them as camp or kitsch or both, an opinion based less on their actual achievement than on their overwhelmingly negative associations -- Universal’s reputation as a cheesy studio, melodramatic plots based on the quasi-literate work of hacks like Lloyd C. Douglas and Fannie Hurst, and movie stars like Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman who were considered more icons than actors.

Of course, it didn’t help that Sirk worked often in one of the more disreputable corners of cinema, the women’s picture. This genre has never had the hip cachet of, say, film noir or even the western, and so his films are rarely revived outside museums and film societies. (They are easily available on video and on cable TV stations like AMC, however.) Fortunately, European critics and filmmakers, including Godard and Fassbinder, were part of the rescue team, pointing out to those who cared to listen the glories in this overripe, quite individual cinema.

- Gary Morris, Images Journal

In the early 70s people laughed at me for writing lovingly about Douglas Sirk's "ridiculous" films. Rainer Werner Fassbinder lauded his fellow director's outrageousness, however, and a few years later, as Fassbinder's reputation grew and gay and camp sensibilities became more respectable, Sirk's melodramatic depictions of mainstream culture were also better received — though often for superficial reasons. Sure, his colors are alluring, and his exaggerations have a certain bleak humor. But ultimately Sirk wasn't in it for the laughs: he was a fatalist, someone who once said that "happiness exists, if only by virtue of the fact that it can be destroyed." This emigre, who lived most of his life in Germany, located his general despair in the American materialism of his day, in our reliance on objects to fill the voids where once there were souls.

Throughout Sirk's films, compositions fall into fragments. Cuts seem to split the space; camera movements alienate rather than connect. Often this is accomplished with great subtlety: inside the drugstore, the shadows of passersby can be seen on the sidewalk, rhythmic disruptions that rob the characters of their power. In a similar scene in All That Heaven Allows (1955), the occasion is happier — dancing after a dinner party in a warmly lit interior — but a skylight shows leaves in silhouette blowing ominously across the roof. Later in the film, in which a well-off widow (Jane Wyman) is ostracized for an affair with her much younger gardener (Rock Hudson), she's seen from outside the house, standing alone at her window observing Christmas carolers. The camera moves in to engage us in her isolation, but it draws so close to the window that, as we become more aware of the glass, the space seems to fracture, leaving her profoundly distanced, even "walled up" — the term one character uses to describe widows. Though All That Heaven Allows has a happy ending, it's undercut by the gardener's ongoing redecoration of his home to make it more suburban.

- Fred Camper, The Chicago Reader, April 14 2006

In the instances of “subversion” most frequently cited – like the country club scene and the television-for-Christmas in All That Heaven Allows (1955) – the satire is closer to Jerry Lewis than to Lubitsch. And we had known since Adam ate the forbidden fruit and Christ was crucified that love can be repressive. A Sirk Champion like Thomas Elsaesser may gasp agog at Sirk's assaults on “bourgeois rationality, hypocrisy and the pressures to conform”, and Halliday may marvel that All That Heaven Allows' “swinging attack on petit bourgeois moralism” is actually “the history of the concealed disintegration [of] New England, the starting point of white, WASP America […], the home of Thoreau and Emerson”. But the same themes had been treated by The Scarlet Letter in the 1850s, in East Lynne during the rest of the century, in Way down East in the 1920s, and in a dozen John Ford movies. Casting stones at New England hypocrisy is as commonplace in America as apple pie (and, as a Philadelphian living in Boston can testify, equally refreshing). Indeed, all through the '50s, every other Hollywood movie seemed to be jabbing at the smugness and decay of our Eisenhower era – Rebel without a Cause, Picnic, Summer Place, Some Came Running, Peyton Place, Johnny Guitar, The Quiet Man … It was precisely of smugness and decay that JFK, already dazzling “the America people” in swimming trunks, was going to purify us.

We understood Sirk's melodramas because we felt them. In fact his movies work less as “texts” than as physical emotions. They need to be felt. Whereupon all will be clear. Sirk understood this because his fame and power had been achieved in the theatre; he had even published a German translation of Shakespeare's sonnets. But soon after he started making movies, he said, he realized movies do not work like words. He realized, “I needed something more Kino – I needed to go back to my early impressions of the cinema, to melodrama, back to those early [movie] days as a child in the Théâtre Royal in Hamburg, and recapture something of the atmosphere of those films, and of the happiness they gave me as a child.”

As are all the characters. Will can never be satisfied; pain is basic to it; life is masochism.

This is Sirk's master plot. All of his movies are about people whose Wills create hells. Or heavens. For melodrama is not just black, it's also white. Good usually triumphs over evil in Sirk's movies, and it is a grievous mistake (gleefully indulged in by Sirk's Champions) to think that Sirk's cheery parables like Magnificent Obsession are less straightforward than his dismal parables like Written on the Wind. Will need not destroy; it can vitalize, it can lust for good. Here Sirk improves on Schopenhauer, who saw cessation of pain only in cessation of desire.

- Tag Gallagher, Senses of Cinema

No other director has blended high, middle, and low sensibilities to such strange, exhilarating effect. In Written on the Wind (1957), Sirk's juxtaposition of Dorothy Malone's jutting breasts and buttocks with cars, gas pumps, and a roadside bar anticipates by almost a decade the iconography of lust in Russ Meyer's films, and it certainly competes with them in crude gusto. Yet Sirk is the director who read T.S. Eliot aloud to Rock Hudson and Robert Stack to get the actors into the spirit of The Tarnished Angels (1958) and who called on the shade of Euripides to guide him through the dramaturgical dilemmas of Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk is also sympathetically middlebrow in his approach to the candy-colored romance-paperback fantasies of Magnificent Obsession (1954).

- Chris Fujiwara, The Boston Phoenix

Fujiwara also has a fascinating comparision of American and Japanese audience reactions to Sirk films, published by the Moving Image Source.

Bright Lights Film Journal devoted its Winter 1977-1978 issue to Sirk, featuring eight articles, which are all now available online. Choice excerpts from some of the articles:

First and foremost, I admire his audacity in confronting his material directly, no matter how fanciful and improbable it may seem. In this he descends from the Germanic tradition of Murnau, Lang and Ophuls with its mystical feeling for the subjective impressions of the mind rendered as objective images. There is a distinctively Sirkian mood — reflective in its reflections, fatalistic, world-weary — which I recognize in most of his films.

Nonetheless, I would not rationalize his career as trash transcended or corn camped up. There is irony in the tension between his style and his basic material, but it is an irony that is neither condescending nor dialectical.

- Andrew Sarris, "Sarris on Sirk"

Jon Halliday's indispensable Sirk on Sirk has confirmed what Sirk's admirers and students had long suspected: that his films are not all equally "personal," and that he had a much freer hand with some of his projects than with others. Today most critics agree about the worth and importance of the more "personal" films. Foremost among these are Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, whose titles are considered by Sirk himself to be the most eloquent. To these should be added A Time to Love and a Time to Die, a film close to Sirk for obvious reasons (notably its German setting), and an early American film, Scandal in Paris, which is a masterpiece of ironical cinema. The "irony" here is not that described by Paul Willemen when demonstrating Sirk's distanciation from his material, but designates a general and explicit ambiguity, perceptible by the audience at large. Sirk soon felt that this technique was ill-suited to the American public, and, in this sense, Scandal in Paris can be regarded as "the most European" of his American films. The director's signature — the initials D.S. — is moreover clearly carved on a wall in the opening scene of the film. Thus the second category consists of films over which Sirk had less control and which he therefore had to "bend" (his own phrase) in order to try and subvert their explicit meaning. It includes Imitation of LifeInterludeAll That Heaven AllowsSign of the Pagan, and most certainly Magnificent Obsession. The distinction does not necessarily imply a difference in the quality of the films:Imitation of Life and All That Heaven Allows are recognized as essential components of the Sirkian oeuvre. Nevertheless, the feeling that "personal" should be equated with "creative" and therefore "better" remains strong, and it is a fact that even some of Sirk's devotees have trouble in accepting Magnificent Obsession.

- Jean-Loup Bourget, "God Is Dead, or Through a Glass Darkly"

As far as Douglas Sirk and myself, the relationship couldn't be finer. He's one of the two finest directors in the world, the other being Orson Welles. There's nothing bad I could say about Douglas. He was the quintessence of elegance, an artiste, a gentleman, a master of camera placement. Douglas and 1 never had an argument. He was a very sensitive man, a private man. We became good friends socially as well as practicing our art. He never tore down our initial planning in our attack on (film) properties. He did nothing but add to things.

I precut my pictures. Sirk was an absolute willing doll in conforming to anything that made dramatic sense. There was no improvisation, none whatsoever on the part of the actor in these films. There were conferences, meetings, quasi-rehearsals. Improvisation was unnecessary.

Sirk worked very closely with the cameraman, placing the shots himself. In this respect he was similar to Orson Welles. Metty was an excellent cameraman. He detached himself into the background somewhat. We had a sensational operator on those films.

- Albert Zugsmith, Screenwriter, "Albert Zugsmith on Sirk"

Intellectualism came very late to America. That's why Americans are so proud of it. I found very few real intellectuals in America. But there are so many pseudo-intellectuals. They carry their Freud or their Marx around in front of them on a platter, and say, "Hello, I'm so-and-so, have you heard of Karl Marx?" Yes, thank you. This kind of pseudo-intellect is worse than the man who lives by instinct. You can't talk to the American intellectual.

But I was one of the few who stayed. Brecht, Mann, they all left. There is no tradition in the United States. In anything. It was different in New York, which was highly Europeanized. But California was a mixture of Mexicans, early settlers, people who had been in the Pacific during World War II or Korea. It was open. Your wife could go to the supermarket in her bathing suit. When we came, there was no industry at all. Just blue skies, no smog. Of course, after the war, the picture changed completely. But before, everything was movies. And you have no idea how this shaped your life. The movie stars were a strange aristocracy. If Lana Turner walked down the street to buy dark underwear, Hedda Hopper would tell all about it. It was so primitive, and at the same time it was so pleasant. We liked America in spite of everything. Europe was so old, so burdened with guilt complexes. California was a center for mass art. Europe to an artist after the war was not at all interesting. I had become a complete foreigner in Germany. And there, in Hollywood, was an industry for a new art. America, after Magnificent Obsession, was for me an opportunity.

- Douglas Sirk, interviewed by Michael Stern


Sirk’s films often featured Rock Hudson, one of Universal’s few box office draws, as a leading man, and Hudson has always been a target. For years, he was made fun of for what was considered his wooden acting. Now, he’s a loaded figure for his once covert, now exposed, homosexuality; a school of critics "reads" his gayness into his performances to the point where it supposedly supercedes the films.

Another group of critics, interested in feminist issues, interests itself in the "reception" of Sirk’s films, in their political context, etc, etc.

In the process, poor Sirk and his movies get lost all over again. The shame of this is that he was a major talent who made great films, one of cinema’s great visual stylists, a bracingly sardonic ironist, a leftist who got away working in the Hollywood system (not to mention under the Nazis), and that rare thing, an artist who was also an intellectual. He had a substantial and superb body of work before he landed at Universal and his style and thematic preoccupations were well set from an early point in his career.

- Henry Sheehan

It is an ironic key to Sirk's popular acclaim now that exactly the same stars whose presence seemed to confirm his films as being "programmers" and "women's pictures" have ultimately added a deeper dimension to his works. By using popular stars of the 1930s through 1950s—stars who often peopled lightweight comedies and unregenerate melodramas, Sirk revealed another dimension of American society. His films often present situations in which the so-called "happy endings" of earlier films are played out to their ultimate (and often more realistic) outcomes by familiar faces. For example, in There's Always Tomorrow , Clifford and his wife Marion (Joan Bennett) might very well have been the prototypes for the main characters of a typical 1930s comedy in which "boy gets girl" in the last reel. Yet, in looking at them after almost 20 years of marriage, their lives are shallow. The happy ending of a youthful love has not sustained itself. Similarly, in All That Heaven Allows , the attractive middle-aged widow of a "wonderful man" has few things in life to make her happy. Whereas she was once a supposedly happy housewife, the loving spouse of a pillar of the community, her own identity has been suppressed to the point that his death means social ostracism. These two examples epitomize the cynicism of Sirk's view of what was traditionally perceived as the American dream. Most of Sirk's films depict families in which a house, cars, and affluence are present, but in which sexual and emotional fulfillment are not. Many of Sirk's films end on a decidedly unhappy note; the ones that do end optimistically for the main characters are those in which traditions are shattered and the strict societal standards of the time are rejected.

- Patricia King Hanson, Film Reference.com


The quartet of sexual dysfunction in Written on the Wind allows two oppositions: for the "good" couple, Hudson's stubborn reserve and Lauren Bacall's naive trust; for the "bad," Stack's impotence and Malone's nymphomania. Sirk never resolves the conflicts, nor does he even seem to hold out hope for the possibility of common ground.

This ability to embrace the complexity of his characters is the main reason these films are better than the '50s critics who dismissed them first thought, and even better than some of Sirk's most fervent contemporary admirers would have you believe. Again and again, Sirk employs the mechanics of melodrama to explore people too fearful, selfish, deluded, or self-loathing to truly appreciate what should be melodrama's ultimate reward: the love given them. Happiness is just out of reach, tantalizingly beyond the omnipresent mirrors and window panes. Sometimes his characters see this; sometimes they don't. Thus, these supremely artificial films are quite accurate reflections (not just imitations) of how nearly all of us behave in life. Scorn or laugh at them, and you're only admitting that you refuse to see how well Sirk has described you.

- Bruce Reid, The Stranger

The term "subversive" gets bandied about too easily when talking about Sirk. He indeed snuck in sly comments on middle class malaise, discrimination, racism, ageism, class distinction and the gap between the ideals of the American dream and romantic love and the realities of 1950s America into his soapy, sudsy melodramas. But that kind of subversion was lurking all through the cinema of the 1950s, in the works of Sam Fullerand John Ford and Nicholas Ray, in the westerns and the women's pictures and the crime films we’ve since collectively recognized as film noir. The most subversive thing one could say about Sirk and company was not that his message was politically daring, but that he snuck it into pictures without the flashing lights and self-conscious commentary of the more obviously socially conscious dramas of the time.

Sirk never denies the overwrought emotions and mawkish sentimentality of these films, he pours on the exaggeration and irony in equal doses. It’s oddly appropriate that Sirk’s popular hits were critically snubbed on their release. That's not to say that middle class crowds and sobbing housewives saw through the glossy surfaces to see the Brechtian engagements with middle class malaise and the crumbling ideals of the American dream underneath. But they understood his films in ways that critics, looking for Meaning (with a capitol M) in "important," high-minded dramas, completely missed at the time. Sirk’s films are all about surfaces and social masks, and his style - impeccable compositions, portentous angles, gaudy color, and performances that ping pong between simmering repression and overwrought emotional turbulence - tell the real stories in these pulp fictions.

- Sean Axmaker, GreenCine


As is well known, Sirk worked as a successful theatre director in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. He acknowledges, however, that he did make a decisive break with the theatre when he began to understand and explore the possibilities of cinematic language. By the time he came to direct Schlussakkord/Final Accord in 1936, he claims that making films was not merely a matter of transferring theatre to cinema, but rather required qualities that contrasted markedly with those of the theatre. ‘I realized I had to make a complete break with my theatrical past’, he admitted. ‘I had realized that the cinema and the theatre were two completely different media’. The distinction between the two forms became crucial for him: ‘I began to understand that the camera is the main thing here, because there is emotion in the motion pictures. Motion is emotion, in a way it can never be in the theatre’ (Halliday, pp. 43-44). Once again, Sirk seems to be emphasizing that with cinema he was in some way turning his back on the theatre, the key distinction being that cinema could present emotion in ways that it could not in the theatre.

But even if the cinema has the ability to exhibit close moments of genuine emotion – of authenticity – then even this is no guarantee of resolution or reconciliation: Sirk is certainly not proposing any kind of triumph of cinema over theatre. In Imitation of Life Lora does indeed make a move from theatre into film acting, but if the world of the theatre is deemed inauthentic then her entry into the world of film offers no instantaneous authenticity. Even at the end of the film, when Annie is on her deathbed, Lora’s startled cry reeks of inauthenticity (Sirk considers this one of the high ironic points of the film) (Halliday, p. 153). Lora’s inability to distinguish real life from its imitations continues unabated.

Ultimately, however, to understand what Imitation of Life is trying to do audiences have to trust in its distinction between authenticity and inauthenticity, between its evocations of real life and its manifestations of life’s imitations. The evocations of real life rely on emotional manipulation – the emotion of motion pictures. It is only by way of these moments of intense emotional involvement that the moments of authenticity in the film can be distinguished from those of pretence. And it is the moments of pretence, of escaping into falsifying theatres of one form or another, that Sirk is holding up for criticism. Finally, that is what is produced by Sirkian ‘ironic distanciation’: an acknowledgment of the inauthentic imitation of life.

- Richard Rushton, "Douglas Sirk's Theatres of Imitation." Screening the Past

Mike Grost analyzes three early Sirk films: Hitler's Madman; Sleep, My Love; and Shockproof

Glenn Kenny reviews Summer Storm on DVD