“THELittle Detlef and his poet grandmother went to a Danish cinema to cry all their tears as they witnessed the tragic end of Asta Nielsen and many other beautiful ladies wearing white “he wrote Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1971 by Douglas Sirk, the director which he had belatedly discovered and of which he had only seen six movies out of 40. Concluding that “they were the most beautiful in the world“.

    Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack in Like Leaves in the Wind. © Images courtesy of Park Circus Universal

    Of those precious films shot between Germany and America the Locarno festival (3-13 August) is organizing a complete retrospective curated by Roberto Turigliatto and Bernard Eisenschitz. And perhaps, seeing on the big screen those films, reviled by the American critics of the time who considered them soaps, but are considered classics, will invite us to reflect on the reasons for the fascination of Fassbinder (and later Pedro Almodòvar, François Ozon, Todd Haynes , John Waters and Katryn Bigelow). And that is, that they were “The cutest films I know, the films of a man who loves people, instead of despising them as we do”.

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    His world, the bourgeoisie

    But if Detlef Sierck pined with his grandmother for the fate of the Northern Diva, “he had to do it secretly, because Detlef would have to become an intellectual according to the German tradition, with a strictly humanistic upbringing, and so one day his love for Asta Nielsen turned into love for Clytemnestra »writes Fassbinder. Later, in 1972, when historian Jon Halliday interviewed Sirk to make a book that the Saggiatore republished today with the title The mirror of life (edited by Andrea Inzerillo, 360 pages, 33 euros), would have said: “Aeschylus and Sophocles also wrote many melodramas … Only that everything that happened in the world of kings and princes has meanwhile been transposed into the world of the bourgeoisie” .

    Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone in The Trapeze of Life.

    Sirk of the American bourgeoisie and the province of the country that had welcomed him was an inspired singer, as only a European could be. A singer of his conflicts, of his contradictions, of the prison of the family and of the extraordinary female figures who inhabited that world. Women who, as Fassbinder wrote, were “thinking women”: «Women think in your films and I’ve never noticed that with any other director. Notice it, it’s nice to see a woman think. ‘ They think and debate in closed worlds, they transgress, desire, and in the noir variant, they become vamps, fatal, dangerous women. Defeats, like Dorothy Malone in the finale of Like the leaves in the windleft alone, after the deaths, departures, disasters. Alone, with a model of an oil well in her hand (“The oil well … in my opinion is a rather frightening symbol of American society”). A world that Sirk was able to tell by adapting to the rules of the studios, but infiltrating them with subtle veins of subversion. His happy endings were actually “Unhappy happy ends”, imbued with melancholy, “Obsessed as he was with the figures of the losers” explains Roberto Turigliatto. “Its protagonists are never successful people or, if they are, they have to give them up – as Rock Hudson does in Magnificent obsession – to become human beings “. Rich and cynical, Hudson – with whom Sirk will make 8 films – after causing Jane Wyman’s blindness, falls in love with her, becomes a surgeon, works her and gives her back her sight: a film based on the novel by a Lutheran pastor “a mixture of kitsch, madness and trash “the director would have confessed. “But madness is capable of saving a junk novel like Magnificent obsession“.

    Life as a Douglas Sirk Film

    “His are not conformist films, there is no praise ofamerican way of life, Sirk shows all the mediocrity, the victimhood of these small familiar universes. An almost cruel vision: this is what Fassbinder loved »continues Turigliatto. “Films with Barbara Stanwyck exude bitterness, the viewer experiences the impossibility of a way out, The one I was supposed to marry it’s heartbreaking. ” The Italian title says it all about the fate of the woman who is not given a second chance (it will be so instead in Second love, but …). Likewise the ménage à trois of Faulkner’s novel (Pylon) from which Sirk will draw The trapezoid of life, in the film it becomes «a possibility, strongly suggested, then discarded. Any allusion to the uncertainty about the paternity of a child was inadmissible in the Hollywood of the Hays code “writes Bernard Eisenschitz in Douglas Sirk, nor Detlef Sierck, magnificent volume accompanying the retrospective, full of images taken from Sirk’s filmography. Filmography which, Andrea Inzerillo recalls, “includes at least three other phases that have been ignored for decades”. Douglas Sirk was the first theater director between Bremen and Leipzig, he staged classics, but also Brecht, a tragedy about Sacco and Vanzetti until, considered too subversive and Marxist, he was removed from the stage. In 1934 he was hired by Ufa, the German film studios, there he contributed to the success of the diva of the time Zarah Leander, protagonist of an exotic film, The habanera that the public loved. “For Sirk, however, the road to exile was opening, which was late compared to the other German filmmakers that had already reached America for some time. But there is a reason, ”explains Inzerillo. And the reason seems to come out of the plot of one of his melodramas: Sirk himself tells it in the updated version of the interview with Jon Halliday, to whom the director had recommended to amend the text until all those directly involved were dead (one of the parts reinstated concerns Rock Hudson’s homosexuality).

    Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in Second Love.

    Douglas Sirk had a son with his first wife Lydia Brinken who, after the director’s second marriage to the Jewish Hilde Jare, had managed – a fervent Nazi – to obtain a restraining order forever alienating the son who in the meantime had become a propaganda film actor. Staying in Germany therefore represented the only chance for Sirk to see him, even if only on screen and in films that praised the Reich. The film that comes closest to his personal story is perhaps Time to liveadapted from Time to live, time to die by Erich Maria Remarque, who made a Jean-Luc Godard, first among the admirers, with an article of 1959 published by Cahiers du cinéma: «Sirk manages to tell us in every image that loving and dying are in an inseparable relationship and this is what makes his film so beautiful».

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    America became his second homeland and, after a first interlude of a few years in which he lived on a farm, and a second at Columbia where he worked hard (“He has no idea how stupid and pretentious it was to get by Hollywood! If you seemed to have no money, you were finished. Luckily I had kept some good clothes. We will give you more money and a better script ”».

    The importance of compassion

    Star had many (Jane Wyman, Lana Turner, Dorothy Malone and Rock Hudson which he asked to do everything, even the Indian in Cochise’s son), others touched: Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. And if today it is “the avid cinema fans, those who forgive a lot in Hollywood because over there the films are more alive” wrote François Truffaut, who love his films, at the time it was women who queued at the box office. Producer Ross Hunter “just came up to me and said, ‘Doug, Doug, make them cry! Please make them cry!… And at every scene where I tried to do something interesting he would say: “Here, five hundred handkerchiefs have to come out here” ». And you can’t see why it shouldn’t be like this: “It is also good to cry, every now and then, of compassion for the misfortunes of others or of joy for their achieved serenity, for their fair share of happiness” concludes the critic Goffredo Fofi in the afterword to the Mirror of life.