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(Credit: Far Out / Universal Pictures)

Film

Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk is remembered as one of the great directorial voices of the 20th century by many while some are still not sold on Sirk’s genius. Even though his work is often criticised for the overt sentimentality, many critics and commentators have pointed out the ingenious ways in which Sirk conducted highly subversive social critiques.

Born in Germany, Sirk discovered a love for the theatre in his teenage years and even managed to become one of the top stage directors in the country before eventually leaving due to his political beliefs. In Hollywood, Sirk developed a reputation for making “women’s pictures” which were critically panned at the time of their release.

Sirk’s approach to melodrama was considered banal by critics because it revolved around women but the critical attitude towards his art underwent a major shift in the 1960s and the ’70s when people began to understand the importance of Sirk’s work. In order to explore Sirk’s beautiful filmography, we have curated the ultimate beginner’s guide.

Douglas Sirk’s six definitive films:

Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Magnificent Obsession might be a strange entry point into Sirk’s filmography since it is often classified as “lesser Sirk”. However, the film contains many precursors to the masterpieces that Sirk would direct in the years to come.

Rock Hudson stars as a careless playboy who requires emergency attention after crashing his speedboat. Unfortunately, the resuscitator used to save the young man is taken from the house of a doctor who dies due to a heart attack. After recovering, Hudson’s character embarks on a strange journey which makes him fall in love with the doctor’s widow.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

One of Sirk’s greatest cinematic achievements, All That Heaven Allows is a quintessential American melodrama which explores various subjects like class conflicts and societal conventions through the romance between a widow and a younger man.

Jane Wyman delivers a fantastic performance as Cary Scott, a wealthy widow who becomes interested in her arborist (portrayed by Rock Hudson) because he exists outside her shallow social realm. However, their relationship faces vehement opposition from all directions.

There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)

There’s Always Tomorrow tends to be relatively more neglected when it comes to the later re-evaluations of Sirk’s filmography but it is undoubtedly among his finest works. The film revolves around a toy manufacturer who is terribly depressed by the monotonous nature of his life.

Stuck in a marriage that is going nowhere, he starts to feel like the mechanical toys that his company makes until his former colleague shows up at his doorstep. Sirk not only attempts to launch an attack against normative sociocultural beliefs but he also manages to indulge in a commentary on voyeuristic expectations.

Written on the Wind (1956)

Written on the Wind is the perfect combination of an engaging story and a visual narrative that is densely packed. Based on Robert Wilder’s eponymous novel, the film chronicles the activities of a Texas oil dynasty that is characterised by its many dysfunctions.

Full of excessive wealth, widespread moral corruption, lies, deceit and disastrous consequences, Written on the Wind laid the groundwork for many popular soaps of the future. In fact, its influence can still be observed in modern projects like Succession.

A Time to Love and a Time To Die (1958)

A Douglas Sirk war film with cinematography by Russell Metty, A Time to Love and a Time To Die is the story of a young German soldier whose conscience is troubled by the brutality he sees all around him during the second World War.

Disillusioned by the massacre of innocent civilians and the constant bombing, he tries to find love amidst this all-consuming destruction. Although he decides to go against his own comrade in order to save civilian lives, he is gunned down by one of the people he frees.

Imitation of Life (1959)

This was the film that marked Sirk’s exit from Hollywood even though Imitation of Life was a huge commercial success. A remake of a 1930s classic, Sirk’s final American work is a fantastic drama which conducted relevant investigations of racism, gender and class divides.

Often cited among the greatest melodramas ever made, Imitation of Life explored the subjects of family ties, racial tension and black heritage like few other films from that period. Sirk did participate in a handful of other cinematic projects but Imitation of Life can definitely be considered as the finishing flourish on a masterful body of work.