‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script footnote1 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. footnote2 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, specializing 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 makeup. 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, knew Kafka’s work 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 15 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 armchairs 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 had 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 eulogize 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.