Sirk in Locarno

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954)

Artistic director Giona A. Nazzaro describes Locarno as “an avant-garde cutting-edge festival with a strong classicist vibe and lineups which provide discoveries and surprises.” The seventy-fifth edition, running from Wednesday through August 13, will present new work from Alexander Sokurov and Helena Wittmann and special achievement awards to Laurie Anderson, Costa-Gavras, and Kelly Reichardt. So it hardly matters that early reviews of the opening film, David Leitch’s Bullet Train, are less than stellar. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, for example, finds it “so busy delivering violent action with a self-satisfied wink that its contorted plotting and one-note characters get real tedious real fast.”

A more remarkable feature of this year’s edition is the first complete retrospective dedicated to Douglas Sirk. Best known for such Hollywood melodramas as Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Written on the Wind (1956), Sirk had a famously profound influence on the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, John Waters, and Pedro Almodóvar. Curators Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto have taken full advantage of previously unpublished documents from the archives of the Cinémathèque suisse to give shape and scope to a program that travels next to the Cinémathèque française in Paris, running from August 31 through October 26.

As a teenager in Germany, Hans Detlef Sierck frequented theaters and movie houses, becoming a serious fan of Asta Nielsen. In his twenties, he studied under art historian Erwin Panofsky and worked as a dramaturge in Hamburg and as a set designer in Berlin. He painted and translated Shakespeare. As a renowned stage director in his thirties, working with the likes of Kurt Weill, he made his first feature, April, April (1935), at UFA, and then, six more before leaving Germany in 1937. His first wife, a member of the Nazi party, had publicly denounced his marriage to his second, a Jewish woman.

Sirk worked briefly in Switzerland and the Netherlands before arriving in the U.S. in 1941, quickly signing on to make the vehemently anti-Nazi Hitler’s Madmen (1943). Shooting Summer Storm (1944), an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Shooting Party, he became a close friend of George Sanders, with whom he’d work again on A Scandal in Paris (1946) and Lured (1947). A postwar return to Germany led nowhere, so he went back to Hollywood, where he made the films that established his reputation for Universal-International Pictures.

Magnificent Obsession, an unlikely love story starring Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman, was “a major turning point in Sirk’s career,” wrote Geoffrey O’Brien in 2009. “Of all his films, Magnificent Obsession stands out for its uniquely over-the-top plotline, and that very outrageousness seems to have prompted a corresponding vigor in Sirk’s direction. Instead of toning down the story’s emotional extremes, he accepts them and allows their full and somewhat demented force to emerge.”

All That Heaven Allows, reimagined by Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and by Haynes as Far From Heaven (2002), reunited Hudson and Wyman for a far more feasible—and so, for many, immeasurably more moving—affair. It’s a favorite for novelist Megan Abbott, who calls it “a sumptuous tearjerker with Sirk’s signature cultural critique . . . No one understood melodrama like Sirk, or how to sharpen it into the dagger it’s meant to be.” Writing about Written on the Wind earlier this year, Blair McClendon noted that Sirk “understood that the genre’s excesses were what enabled it to handle the nuances and contradictions of contemporary life in a way that more straightforward drama no longer could, in a postwar society that was losing the cohesion from which realism might spring. The artifice was the point.”

It took a while for critics to come around. Often dismissed as a director of “women’s pictures,” Sirk happily lived to see the tide turn, beginning with the April 1967 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. The full story of the shift in critical assessment was told by Tom Ryan in Senses of Cinema in 2004 and by Jean-Loup Bourget in Bright Lights Film Journal in 2005. Following Imitation of Life (1959), his biggest hit at the box office, Sirk retired to Switzerland, though in the late 1970s Fassbinder was able to lure him briefly to Munich, where he taught and made three short films with his students. As Giona A. Nazzaro points out to Variety’s Nick Vivarelli, Sirk lived out his last days in Ascona, a small town in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland and “a stone’s throw from Locarno.”

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