Join us over the winter holidays for Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk (December 23 – January 6). 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.
“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
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.
Tickets to Imitations of Life: The Films of Douglas Sirk will go on sale Thursday, December 10. Special holiday pricing applies: $10 for general public, $7 for members, students, and seniors.
Programmed by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan. Special thanks to 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.
All I Desire
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1953, 35mm, 79m
Sirk excoriates small-town pettiness and provincialism in this slashing, incisive melodrama. A marvelous Barbara Stanwyck stars as washed-up vaudeville actress Naomi Murdoch, who travels back to the Wisconsin town where the husband and three children she abandoned 10 years earlier still reside. Her sudden reappearance sends shock waves through the community and pits her against her oh-so-scandalized eldest daughter. At every turn, Sirk undercuts the outraged moralizing of the townsfolk, abetted mightily by Stanwyck’s defiant performance. As the world-wise Naomi, she conveys a toughness of spirit that can’t be crushed.
Thursday, December 31, 2:30pm & 6:30pm
All That Heaven Allows
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955, 35mm, 89m
Both a heartbreaking melodrama and a sharp indictment of hypocrisy in 1950s America, this epitome of layered Hollywood filmmaking follows the blossoming love between an upper-middle-class suburban widow (Jane Wyman) and her handsome, considerably younger gardener (Rock Hudson). Their romance, greeted with scorn by her selfish children and outright disgust by her snooty friends, reveals the class-based prejudices of small-town life. Sirk and renowned cinematographer Russell Metty bring a richly ambiguous emotional tenor to each shot with calibrated colors and meticulous compositions that suggest the confinement of Cary’s life and the impossibility of escaping it. In its aesthetic and narrative richness, All That Heaven Allows has proven an endlessly durable model for artists of any medium who wish to address the manifold taboos of bourgeois society.
Thursday, December 24, 4:30pm
Friday, December 25, 9:00pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1957, 35mm, 108m
A complex moral ambiguity elevates this underrated war drama. Rock Hudson stars as a preacher who, though haunted by the killing he did as a bomber pilot during World War II, reenlists in the Korean War, where his humanitarian ambitions bump up against the harsh realities of army life. While Sirk handles the spectacular scenes of aerial combat with aplomb, his primary concern is with the troubling ethical considerations of warfare, a theme he expresses through some of his most precise, hard-edged visual compositions. As an investigation of wartime guilt, Battle Hymn makes a fascinating companion to A Time to Love and a Time to Die.
Thursday, December 24, 8:30pm
Saturday, December 26, 2:00pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955, 35mm, 92m
Sirk makes the most of the CinemaScope frame in this handsomely mounted adventure yarn set in the 19th century. Rock Hudson stars as the eponymous Irish revolutionary, who goes from holding up stagecoaches to teaming with the rebel leader in the fight for freedom from Britain. Aided by Hudson’s engaging performance, Sirk keeps the proceedings light and lively, moving zippily from one action setpiece to the next and topping things off with a daring prison escape. Shot in Technicolor on location in Ireland, the film looks simply spectacular, with Sirk capturing breathtaking views of the Emerald Isle’s castles and coastline.
Friday, December 25, 4:30pm
Sunday, December 27, 7:00pm
The First Legion
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1951, 35mm, 86m
One of Sirk’s first masterpieces is also one of his most sincere, deeply felt works. Charles Boyer stars among a motley crew of character actors (including William Demarest and Leo G. Carroll) as a trial lawyer turned priest living in a Jesuit monastery. When he witnesses what may be a miracle, it precipitates a crisis of doubt as he tries to come to terms with what he saw. A subtle, absorbing meditation on faith vs. reason, The First Legion finds Sirk adopting an appropriately stripped-down, ascetic visual style (though he makes the most of the monastery’s mazelike interior). The transcendent climax is as moving a moment of grace as has ever been put on film, giving lie to the notion of Sirk as a strictly ironic filmmaker.
Monday, January 4, 7:00pm
The Girl from the Marsh Croft / Das Mädchen vom Moorhof
Douglas Sirk, Germany, 1935, 35mm, 82m
German with English subtitles
In his second feature film, Sirk (then still known as Detlef Sierck) crafts a luminous pastoral melodrama from a story by Nobel Prize–winning Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf. It follows the fortunes of a young, unwed mother (Hansi Knoteck) taken in as a maid by a kindly farmer (Kurt Fischer-Fehling), only to be shunned by his small-minded fiancée. One of Sirk’s first explorations of small-town prejudice—a recurring concern throughout his work—glows with romantic, bucolic imagery and a sincere empathy for its outcast heroine. The result is one of the director’s most sensitive, lyrical films.
Wednesday, January 6, 7:00pm
Douglas Sirk, Germany, 1937, 16mm, 98m
German with English subtitles
Exoticism, bacteriology, and musical numbers all collide in this lush, offbeat melodrama. Zarah Leander stars as a Swedish woman who leaves her native country behind for the romantic lure of Puerto Rico (with the Canary Islands filling in for the Caribbean). After 10 years of marriage to a cruel, controlling nobleman, the island paradise has become a personal hell—while the threat of a deadly tropical fever hangs in the air. Sirk downplays the story’s nationalistic message (then de rigueur in the Nazi-controlled film industry he would soon flee) to create a poetic human tragedy set amid a sumptuous world of glittering light and shadow.
Sunday, January 3, 4:00pm
Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1943, 16mm, 84m
In Sirk’s first American film, John Carradine gives a frighteningly effective performance as real-life Nazi sadist Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Butcher of Prague,” whose assassination led the Third Reich to unleash horrifying retribution upon Czechoslovakia (an incident that was also the basis for Fritz Lang’s 1943 film Hangmen Also Die!). Sirk’s powerfully expressionistic style (with deep shadows courtesy of legendary German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan, who worked uncredited) more than overcomes the Poverty Row budget. It turns this ode to Czech resistance into a shattering elegy for the victims of fascism. Look out for a 19-year-old Ava Gardner among a lineup of women whom Heydrich interrogates.
Sunday, January 3, 2:00pm & 6:00pm
Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Imitation of Life
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1959, 35mm, 125m
Sirk’s final Hollywood film—and perhaps his crowning achievement—is one of the all-time great weepies and a damning critique of racial and class division in America. It’s the dual story of Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), an aspiring actress, and Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), the African-American single mother she hires as her live-in maid. As Lora’s career ascends, Annie is pushed aside by her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who chooses to pass as white. Throughout, Sirk brilliantly manipulates the story’s artifice, emphasizing the obliviousness of the white characters to their privilege and imbuing the Annie–Sarah Jane relationship with a wrenching pathos. It all crescendos with a soul-shaking performance from Mahalia Jackson and the gale-force emotional annihilation of Sirk’s most devastating climax.
Saturday, December 26, 6:30pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1957, 35mm, 90m
Unjustly overlooked among Sirk’s celebrated 1950s melodramas, Interlude is one of the most searing expressions of the director’s fatalistic worldview. The loss-of-innocence narrative follows an American government worker (June Allyson) in Munich whose sunny optimism is put through the wringer by a tumultuous affair with a temperamental orchestra conductor (Rossano Brazzi) who is concealing a secret. Shooting in Germany for the first time since World War II, Sirk captures postcard-perfect views of his home country, while exposing the dark undercurrents beneath the glossy exterior. The result is a shattering work about the impossibility of lasting happiness, which, as Sirk once said, “exists, if only by virtue of the fact that it can be destroyed.”
Sunday, December 27, 5:00pm & 9:00pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1954, 35mm, 108m
Everything came together—the advent of widescreen filmmaking, a star-making performance from Rock Hudson, and a story so far-fetched it was practically begging for Sirk’s Brechtian approach—in the first of the director’s extraordinary Technicolor melodramas. Hudson is a devil-may-care playboy who inadvertently widows and then blinds the local doctor’s wife (Jane Wyman), before giving up his reckless ways to become a surgeon in hopes that he might cure her. Through his command of color, composition, and mise-en-scène, Sirk transforms this most outré of premises into a luminous, metaphysical exploration of fate and spirituality.
Thursday, December 24, 2:00pm
Friday, December 25, 6:30pm
Meet Me at the Fair
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1953, 35mm, 87m
This tuneful, rosily nostalgic slice of Americana is greatly enhanced by Sirk’s sophisticated sensibility. Set at the turn of the century, it follows a runaway orphan boy who joins up with a traveling medicine-show huckster (ebullient song-and-dance man Dan Dailey) and his sidekick, played by the legendary Scatman Crothers (in his feature-film debut). Though Sirk more than delivers on the requisite charm, he also, as usual, emphasizes the story’s strong social critique: politicians are revealed to be corrupt charlatans, while it’s the professional con man who displays true character.
Monday, January 4, 5:00pm & 9:00pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1950, 35mm, 78m
The first film Sirk directed upon signing his multi-year contract with Universal was this post-WWII-set nautical thriller, starring Macdonald Carey as a U.S. Naval Intelligence officer who goes undercover to rescue a scientist kidnapped by a villainous Nazi commander (and thereby thwart a plot by the remnants of the Third Reich to steal atomic secrets) and sink a German submarine hidden off the coast of Mexico. A taut and suspenseful entertainment, Mystery Submarine finds Sirk playing with genre tropes and again confronting the global threat posed by Nazism, even after Germany’s WWII defeat.
Wednesday, December 30, 4:30pm & 8:45pm
Pillars of Society / Stützen der Gesellschaft
Douglas Sirk, Germany, 1935, 35mm, 85m
German with English subtitles
Sirk’s indictment of bourgeois hypocrisy receives one of its earliest treatments in this gripping adaptation of an Ibsen play. When a Norwegian rancher (Albrecht Schoenhals) living in America returns to his home country after 20 years away, his presence rattles skeletons in the family closet, exposing the moral duplicity and crooked dealings of his fat-cat industrialist brother-in-law (Heinrich George). Sirk guides this stinging condemnation of societal repression (which seems to have eluded Nazi censors) with a cool sense of dramatic irony, until the unresolved tension explodes in a raging climactic tempest at sea.
Wednesday, January 6, 9:00pm
A Scandal in Paris
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1946, DCP, 100m
George Sanders is perfectly cast as real-life 18th-century rake Eugène François Vidocq in this witty, sophisticated crime caper. Born in a French jail cell, Vidocq goes from stealing horses to women’s garters to jewels—before famously reforming to become a renowned criminologist. Sirk (aided by fellow German expatriates like cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan and composer Hanns Eisler) brings a distinctly Continental style to this Lubitschian comedy of manners, while Sanders gets the opportunity to deliver some of his most deliciously barbed bon mots this side of All About Eve’s Addison DeWitt. The director himself considered A Scandal in Paris a personal favorite among his films.
Wednesday, December 30, 2:15pm & 6:30pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1949, 35mm, 79m
The tough-minded terseness of co-writer Samuel Fuller meets Sirk’s elaborately stylized mise-en-scène in this breathless, couple-on-the-run noir. The pulpy premise follows good-guy parole officer Cornel Wilde as he goes bad for sultry ex-con Patricia Knight (a Rita Hayworth lookalike and Wilde’s real-life wife). After she shoots a guy, the pair hit the road, descending into ever-more-desperate criminality. With its field of endlessly pumping derricks, the oil-rig finale looks forward to the suggestive symbolism of Written on the Wind. Also of interest: a still from the film—Knight framed in a maze of geometric shadows and mid-century modern design—inspired a series of paintings by Pop Art pioneer Richard Hamilton.
Friday, January 1, 4:30pm & 8:30pm
Sign of the Pagan
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1954, 35mm, 92m
Sirk’s fatalistic vision drives this fascinatingly dark, doom-laden sword-and-sandal saga. Jack Palance delivers a commanding performance as Attila the Hun, who sets out to topple the Roman Empire—but is haunted at every turn by ominous signs and prophecies (with the Christian cross acting as a particularly potent harbinger of death). Sirk’s Attila is part of a long line of rebellious, unpredictable central characters (company that includes Dorothy Malone’s nymphomaniac in Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life’s Sarah Jane), whose volatile presence has the power to destabilize everything around them. Print courtesy of Academy Film Archive.
Saturday, January 2, 3:00pm & 7:00pm
Sleep, My Love
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1948, 35mm, 97m
This stylish noir (produced by Mary Pickford) opens strikingly as Claudette Colbert awakes in fright and freaks out aboard a moving train she can’t remember boarding. What unfolds is a taut, Gaslight-style thriller, as the Manhattan-dwelling Colbert’s two-timing husband (Don Ameche) systematically shatters her sanity. Throughout, Sirk showcases his flair for baroque compositions, making the most of mirrors, staircases, and shadows to create a sinister atmosphere of disorientation. The colorful supporting cast includes George Coulouris as a nightmare-inducing psychiatrist and a wonderfully vampy Hazel Brooks as a hard-boiled femme fatale. 35mm preservation print courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Sunday, December 27, 2:45pm
Monday, December 28, 6:30pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1949, 35mm, 81m
Sirk brings a pleasing glossiness to this sharp-witted satire of the familiar “star is born” story. Don Ameche is a Hollywood director whose career is on the rocks and whose dream project—a lavish musical called Ten Days in Paris—is about to be shelved unless he can come up with a singing, dancing, French female lead. Unable to find the real thing, he does a Pygmalion job on a coarse carnival showgirl (Dorothy Lamour, having a blast with the role), transforming her into a très chic Gallic starlet. Deliciously irreverent and full of sardonic one-liners, this unsung gem is an all-too-rare showcase for Sirk’s flair for intelligent comedy.
Friday, January 1, 2:30pm & 6:30pm
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1944, 35mm, 106m
Sirk’s follow-up to Hitler’s Madman (and his second feature made in the U.S.) adapts Anton Chekhov’s novel The Shooting Party (with a script by Rowland Leigh), in which a cunning but illiterate peasant woman (Linda Darnell in a seductive, manipulative role that would redefine her virtuous starlet persona) pulls cynical imperial magistrate Fedor Petroff (George Sanders) away from his fiancée, with dire results. Produced by fellow German exile Seymour Nebenzal (who also produced Fritz Lang’s M and Joseph Losey’s remake 20 years later), this despairing social drama finds Sirk’s efficient storytelling and delicate, nuanced direction of actors on full display, presaging the wrought melodramas to come.
Tuesday, January 5, 4:00pm & 8:30pm
Take Me to Town
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1953, 35mm, 81m
Charming, American-as-apple-pie Old West comedy? Or barbed critique of religious hypocrisy? Sirk delivers both (plus songs) in this delightfully offbeat Technicolor confection. Ann Sheridan stars as Vermilion O’Toole, a brassy saloon singer on the lam who hides out in a small town where she becomes a surrogate mother to the three towheaded sons of the local preacher (tough-guy Sterling Hayden in an uncharacteristically wholesome role, though he still handily wastes a guy in a brawl before delivering a sermon). As the brash Vermillion’s presence elicits much hand-wringing from the congregation, Sirk exposes the sham piety of the moral majority. Take Me to Town was the first film produced by Ross Hunter, who would go on to collaborate with Sirk on several of his celebrated ’50s melodramas.
Thursday, December 31, 4:30pm & 8:30pm
The Tarnished Angels
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1957, 35mm, 91m
A newspaper reporter (Rock Hudson) addicted to booze tails a pair of vagabond stunt flyers (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) addicted to cheating death. The love triangle that ensues plays out against the sordid backdrop of Depression-era New Orleans during Mardi Gras, depicted by Sirk as a modern-day Sodom where death seems to haunt every corner. While the director’s use of Technicolor is justly lauded, The Tarnished Angels finds Sirk harnessing the full expressive potential of black and white, with each frame etched in dramatic chiaroscuro. It also features one of Hudson’s best performances; as the tormented journalist drawn into his subjects’ doomy lives, he conveys a tightly wound intensity that explodes when he drinks.
Wednesday, December 23, 7:00pm
Saturday, December 26, 4:30pm
Taza, Son of Cochise
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1954, 35mm, 79m
The director’s one and only classical Western (shot in 3-D, but originally released in 2-D) stars Rock Hudson as the titular Apache chief, whose pleas for peace between his tribe and the white settlers are thwarted by his warmongering brother. Resplendent in Technicolor, the films is a showcase for Sirk’s masterful action scene choreography and striking widescreen compositions. In its sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans, it’s also surprisingly progressive (for 1954), with the climactic Apaches vs. U.S. Cavalry standoff resolved via a quintessential bit of Sirkian subversion.
Saturday, January 2, 5:00pm & 9:00pm
There’s Always Tomorrow
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1956, 35mm, 84m
Sirk delivers a devastating takedown of 1950s family values in this caustic domestic nightmare disguised as a romantic melodrama. Fred MacMurray stars as a browbeaten L.A. toy manufacturer whose insufferable children and ineffectual wife (lent nice depth by Joan Bennett) drive him into the arms of a fashion-designer old flame (Barbara Stanwyck). Sirk’s visual coup is the indelible image of a wind-up toy robot (a not-so-subtle metaphor for MacMurray) marching obediently toward oblivion. Ultimately, the film makes the jaw-dropping case that infidelity can be a justifiable escape from the suffocating boredom of domesticity—but that it, too, may only offer the illusion of happiness.
Monday, December 28, 4:30pm & 8:45pm
Thunder on the Hill
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1951, 35mm, 84m
A heartfelt and suspenseful mystery, Sirk’s third film for Universal stars Claudette Colbert as Sister Mary Bonaventure, a nun in charge of a convent’s hospital ward in Norfolk, England, whose fate becomes intertwined with that of a convicted killer, Valerie Carns (Ann Blyth), when a flood strands the latter and her guards at the convent en route to her execution. As previously withheld pieces of evidence slowly emerge, Sister Mary finds herself doubting Valerie’s guilt, but her search for the truth could have fatal consequences… Despite his reputation as one of cinema’s greatest ironists, Sirk’s sincere fascination with the plot’s mixture of melodrama and mystery is evident throughout.
Tuesday, January 5, 2:00pm & 6:30pm
A Time to Love and a Time to Die
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1958, 35mm, 132m
“I am going to write a madly enthusiastic review of Douglas Sirk’s latest film, simply because it set my cheeks afire,” raved Jean-Luc Godard after viewing this haunting, existential World War II–set romance. Based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque (who appears in the film), it follows a German soldier (John Gavin) on furlough who finds fleeting love amid the rubble-strewn remains of his hometown—while coming to terms with the Nazi atrocities he is supposed to be fighting for. One of Sirk’s major themes—the struggle for happiness in the face of overwhelming odds—finds powerful expression in this elegiac masterpiece. Look for a young Klaus Kinski as a creepy Nazi officer.
Wednesday, December 23, 4:15pm & 9:00pm
To New Shores / Zu neuen Ufern
Douglas Sirk, Germany, 1937, 35mm, 104m
German with English subtitles
This ravishing melodrama finds Sirk already in full command of his powers as a master visual stylist. Swedish superstar Zarah Leander makes her debut film for UFA, the state-controlled studio where she would go on to become the most famous (and ultimately controversial) actress of the Nazi era. She plays a London music-hall singer who is sent to an Australian prison after she takes the rap for a check forged by her aristocratic lover. It’s all rendered sublime through Sirk’s dazzling use of lighting, trademark mirror shots, and Brechtian songs, which harken back to his roots in the German avant-garde theater.
Sunday, January 3, 8:30pm*
Wednesday, January 6, 4:30pm
*Venue: Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, 144 West 65th Street
Written on the Wind
Douglas Sirk, USA, 1956, 35mm, 99m
Arguably Sirk’s most jaw-droppingly subversive film follows the spoiled scions (Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone) of a Texas oil family whose monstrous delinquency—he’s an alcoholic, she’s sleeping with half the town—engulfs two relatively normal outsiders (Rock Hudson and Lauren Bacall) in a depraved domestic horror show. Never has Technicolor looked so lurid, as unchecked neuroses pile up, phallic symbols abound (those oil derricks!), and Malone (in an Oscar-winning performance) does a (literally) killer rumba. As audacious formally as it is thematically, Written on the Wind finds Sirk pushing his byzantine visual style so deliriously over the top that it’s almost avant-garde.
Thursday, December 24, 6:30pm
Friday, December 25, 2:00pm
Saturday, December 26, 9:00pm