Monday, 22 August 2011

Masters of melodrama: Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk

There's a telling moment in his introduction to the DVD of Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment, when Todd Haynes calls the German-born director 'Sirk'. Ophüls' camera, of course, flies gracefully through such dramas set in turn-of-the-century Europe as La Ronde, starring Anton Walbrook (1950), Madame De… (1953) - which features another ronde, this time following a pair of earrings - and Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), adapted from a novel by Stefan Zweig. The director was no less adept at the seamier side of twentieth-century life in the US: The Reckless Moment (1949; pictured) was based on a story in Lady's Home Journal and stars James Mason as a blackmailer who starts to sympathise with his housewife victim, Joan Bennett.

Ophüls made only one film in colour (Lola Montès, I think), but his oeuvre is as rich and sumptuous as anything by Sirk, another German, five years his elder. Born Hans Detlef Sierck, the central tragedy of Sirk's life occurred in 1937, when he quit Germany with his second - Jewish - wife, leaving behind the son from his first marriage. Claus Detlef Sierck became the blue-eyed boy star of Nazi cinema but died on the Russian front in 1944. Sirk reimagined the last weeks of his son's life in the film A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958).

Both Ophüls and Sirk had worked in theatre and were masters of spectacle, with a special interest in women's rights and inequalities. Many of Sirk's films star strong female leads: Written on the Wind (1956) is an oil-dynasty intrigue with stunning Lauren Bacall and Dorothy Malone, who at one point clutches a model of priapic rig to her chest; Jane Wyman falls for her gardener - Rock Hudson, Sirk's leading man of choice - in All that Heaven Allows (1955; remade by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Fear Eats the Soul in 1973, this time featuring a Moroccan guest worker in Germany, and again by Todd Haynes for Far from Heaven, 2002); the valedictory Imitation of Life (1959) has Lana Turner and Juanita Moore caught in a typically bleak look at the post-WWII dream.

After leaving Hollywood, the director's last films were short projects for his university students in Munich in the 1970s; each year's intake voted on which of their favourite scripts they would produce - Sirk made the one that came bottom.

No comments:

Post a Comment