When Douglas Sirk retired from American filmmaking and returned to Europe at the end of the 1950s, his reputation was that of a director who simply churned out glossy Hollywood weepies. But after a major critical reappraisal, spurred by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma, the German-born filmmaker was reclaimed as an auteur with a varied body of work, an eye for visual stylization, and a sophisticated understanding of Brechtian artifice, not to mention one of cinema’s greatest ironists.

Long before his iconic melodramas of the 1950s, Sirk began his artistic career in post-WWI Germany as a theater director, under the name Detlef Sierck. By 1935 he had transitioned to motion pictures, but despite his early success, the menace of the Third Reich chased him and his Jewish wife to France, the Netherlands, and eventually Hollywood, where he would direct nearly 30 feature films.

Though Sirk worked on everything from musical comedies (Slightly French) to war films (Battle Hymn) to 3-D Westerns (Taza, Son of Cochise), his self-reflexive visual style and measured compositions—particularly in his later domestic melodramas—today suggest a sharp, socially conscious artist observing Eisenhower America from within the culture industry’s most popular medium, tackling topics including racial identity, religion, sexual repression, and familial relationships.

Sirk’s oeuvre has become a model for a critical cinema that subversively passes as straightforward entertainment. This retrospective, the largest in New York City in decades, tracks his artistry from his early German films through to his early Hollywood forays into multiple genres and on to the now-canonical works of his late career.

Academy Film Archive; British Film Institute; Cinematheque Suisse; Sikelia NY; UCLA Film and Television Archive; Goethe-Institut; Murnau Foundation; George Eastman House; Museum of Modern Art

Programmed by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan.