Douglas Sirk is a tough sell in a cynical age. Perhaps he would be in any. His plots are often shallow and seeped in wish-fulfilment; the performances are overwrought and slightly archaic; his sets, despite being deeply expressive, are purposefully synthetic. Known for his run of lush, indulgent melodramas in the mid-to-late fifties, he was dismissed by contemporary American critics as a creator of superficial “weepies” or “woman’s pictures”. Yet, owing to his fluent visual style, its searingly satirical lens, and the vibrant strains of expressionism throughout, he has since been reclaimed as one of Hollywood’s greatest artists.

Born Claus Detlef Sierck in Hamburg, 1900, Sirk had a prolific and exciting career even before his most famous films. As critics are keen to point out, he studied (and cared greatly for) philosophy and art history before becoming a prolific theatre director. His parents were Danish but he only spent a little of his childhood there, and so his first outings on stage and screen were in Germany. He made nine features in the Nazi period, leaving in 1937 due to his disgust with the ideology as well as the obvious fears he shared with his Jewish wife.

Courtesy of: United Artists

Upon moving to America he made some notable melodramas (Summer Storm, A Scandal in Paris) and noirs (Lured, Shockproof) which showed his supreme talent with actors and his constantly moving, subtly emotive camerawork – an aspect that is overlooked but always brilliantly in tune with the most nuanced of character’s feelings. Something like Shockproof suggests how his ironic sensibility differs from Sam Fuller’s, who wrote the film. Sirk is less acerbic and far more sensitive. He lulls us into the conflicts and the discomforts of modern bourgeois life and then explodes them.

While he may have lacked some of his key tools at this stage – Technicolor, for instance – famous traits such as blocking the frame with screens and windows and shooting through mirrors are present. This tendency to capture trademarks of modern American life as though they were a prison is one of the reasons Sirk is now heralded as a genius of irony. However trite or repetitive his scripts, he consistently provided symbols and subtextual hints that challenged or perfected the desperate characters of his domestic landscapes.

Courtesy of: Columbia

Yet this was not always the case. He was originally viewed as nothing more than a director of ‘women’s pictures’ and given little respect by the male-dominated critical establishment as a result. Later viewers saw his ironic gaze and elevated his status accordingly, but this reclamation has its own problems. The focus on irony in Sirk’s work has bordered on obsession in some critical circles, to the point where his original wave of admirers had to label everything in his films as such. Tag Gallagher criticises this impulse as essentially forcing a distinction between those who ‘got’ the films and the original audience (mainly women) who were too naïve to see the subtext of social criticism and Brechtian detachment. He writes that his irony operates rather in the Aristotelian sense – less a kind of bitterness and more a set of complex contradictions seeking to “clarify and anneal” society’s own. His approach to Sirk denies any cynicism and argues that original audiences experienced, or “felt,” the great ironies and contradictions of his work all along.

While I agree for the most part, I don’t think we can wholeheartedly say that these elements are never framed through bitterness or a more subversive gaze. When Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) restores the sight of the woman he has blinded in Magnificent Obsession (1954), for example, are we not constantly aware of the very lurid psychodrama of this power imbalance? The fact that this could only happen in cinema points to the absurdity of these narratives, though the emotions are achingly real. This is not to say that viewers didn’t understand, however. The beauty of Sirk is that neither a moviegoer nor a hardened critic can really explain the strange, dazzling undercurrents of his melodrama. No one definitively “gets” it.

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The famous deer in the window at the end of All that Heaven Allows (1955) is much the same – a slightly too artificial sign of reconciliation; we cannot quite believe it. As a director of peerless visual acuity, Sirk cannot resist bathing his romantic scenes in shadow, or undermining “good” characters by highlighting their banality. His endings may seem to exist as either happy or sad, but there are always aspects of the mise-en-scène clouding this view. The joy of watching his films comes from a position between these critical perspectives, embracing artifice while also recognising melodrama’s unique capacity to articulate our most passionate desires and fears.

Magnificent Obsession was the first of his ‘50s masterpieces, and, though it introduces two of his greatest stars as well as the opulent style of his Technicolor experiments, its ludicrous plot may be off-putting to some. The amount of operations and injuries sustained through Hudson’s quest to love Jane Wyman’s character Helen is astounding. As far as it concerns a rich brat trying mercilessly to mould the future (and people) to his needs, it is unsurprising that someone like Pedro Almodóvar found it just one step away from gothic horror, clearly taking a little influence for his The Skin I Live In (2011).

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Hudson and Wyman’s next collaboration, All That Heaven Allows, may be Sirk’s best film. Wyman stars as Cary Scott, a respected widow in suburban New England who falls for her gardener, a handsome young man played by Rock Hudson. Reinforcing the strained passion of the relationship through complex red and blue lighting schemes, Sirk suggests the somewhat irreconcilable differences between Cary’s class and that of her poorer, more freewheeling lover. The satire here is at its most blatant and sincere, as Cary’s children and friends despise her new relationship, making the prison of middle-class womanhood seem utterly inescapable.

Playing Hollywood conventionality against societal critique is not always an easy sell, and the director’s last movie is either a white saviour story or a damning indictment of them depending on who you ask. What is inarguable however is that Juanita Moore’s stunningly layered performance as a black mother raising a daughter who passes as white really makes Imitation of Life (1959) special. Though she is a maid in Lana Turner’s affluent household (which is given more time), the horror of racism pervades the film. When Sirk left the industry shortly after its release, it took about a decade for a critical reappraisal of his filmography to occur. A constant spring of viewers willing to puzzle over his densely packed melodramas formed in recognition of his greatness. They haven’t left since.

Top Five Douglas Sirk Films:

5. The Tarnished Angels (1957)

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Proof that the director could also nail black-and-white melodrama, this underappreciated Faulkner adaptation details the blazing tragedy of a stunt-performing couple and the timid reporter who embroils himself in their grim, intoxicating world.

4. Magnificent Obsession (1954)

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Jean-Luc Godard once wrote that ‘the only logic which concerns Sirk is delirium’. This movie is a case in point – delirious, bold, exciting, completely bonkers; yet still somehow strangely potent and sensitive. Hold off until you’ve seen a few of the others.

3. Imitation of Life (1959)

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While its less potent colour and harrowing themes may make it a more discomforting watch than some, Imitation remains one of the most surefire tearjerkers of all time. Add to this some excellent performances and a really expressive zeal from Sirk and you have a mystifying classic.

2. Written on the Wind (1956)

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A clear stepping stone on the way to classic American soap-operas like Dallas and Dynasty, this gorgeous and inflated melodrama is perhaps the closest any Hollywood director came to full-on expressionism. Unrelentingly vibrant and shocking, the only thing more artificial and rich than the sets are the spoiled family at its centre.

1. All That Heaven Allows (1955)

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Even the most cynical modern viewer couldn’t deny the power of this film. All That Heaven Allows boasts a singular, haunting critique of small-town America; powerful, subversive symbolism; and one or two of the most heart-wrenching tracking shots in cinematic history. Douglas Sirk’s masterpiece, and a perfect place to start.