Douglas Sirk | Hitler's Madman | Sleep, My Love | Shockproof | Slightly French
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Hitler's Madman is one of the most detailed looks at Nazism anywhere in the classical American cinema. Only Frank Borzage's The Mortal Storm (1940) and Edward Dmytryk and Irving Reis' Hitler's Children (1943) in any way rival it in taking a long hard look at life inside Nazi Europe. It is a work of considerable complexity. It was made almost entirely by men who, like Sirk, were refugees from Nazi Germany. So even though it was made in California, in some ways it is a study of Nazi Germany by anti-Nazi Germans. Sirk had actually met Heydrich at a party in Berlin in the 1930's, according to Jon Halliday's fascinating book length interview, Sirk on Sirk (1972).
Hitler's Madman could easily have served as a model for Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), especially in its depiction of Nazi actions. Both films deal with a murderous Nazi who commits great crimes in Nazi occupied Central Europe. In both, we get a detailed view inside the mind of the Nazi villain, played with a mixture of ideological fervor, severely emotionally disturbed use of violence, and sexual mistreatment of women. Both films have a relentless, horrifying focus on crimes committed against a civilian population. In both films, we see how everyday life of this population, all its flourishing pre-war business and personal life, is eventually annihilated and reduced to rubble by the Nazis.
In many cases, it is ideological beliefs of the parents that are causing this gloom. The parents are people who are obsessed with cooperating with a sick and evil society, and demand that their children fall into line. Here, it is parents who wish to live in fear, collaborating with and kow-towing to Nazi oppressors. They do everything they can to force young people into this mold. They recall the money-obsessed mother of Sirk's comedy, Has Anyone Seen My Gal? (1952), and the way she nearly ruins all of her family's lives by insisting they hunt for success. They also recall the bitter bourgeois father in All I Desire (1953). One hastens to add that there are plenty of ideological and controlling young people in Sirk as well. The heroine's grown children in All That Heaven Allows relentlessly try to control her life along ideological grounds. One also recalls the nice seeming young white man in Imitation of Life who beats up his girl friend when he discovers that she is actually black. This is one of the most chilling looks at Sirk at how a vicious ideology permeates society. As in Hitler's Madman, racist ideology is linked to violence against women. The two form an interlocking chain, designed to impose a vicious ideology on a society. In all cases in Sirk, it is collaboration with a corrupt social system that causes problems. Sirk focuses on that nightmarish link between the personal and the political, where people live out vicious ideologies dividing society into inferiors and superiors.
In the late 1940's Sirk directed two crime films, Lured (1947) and Sleep, My Love (1948). Both have long been unavailable, but suddenly both have resurfaced. The huge interest in film noir probably has something to do with this. Both have been labeled as noir films. However, they seem awfully different to me from mainstream noir.
Both films are suspense tales about women in jeopardy. Both films take place in lush, overdone homes that reek of Victorian clutter and repression. This is very different from the tough urban milieu of much noir. Both films have numerous suspense passages, which is also different from conventional noir, which tends to focus more on action and drama than on suspense. The visual style in neither film is especially noir like. Sirk does include such Fritz Lang like features as mirrors, clocks and staircases, all of which do give the film a noir like aspect. Both directors came out of the German film industry.
The massive incongruity of the characters is also startling. Surrealism is often based on the juxtaposition or radically different ideas or objects. This film is full of characters who seem to have sprung from different worlds. It is hard to understand how all these people even met in the first place.
Another disturbing phenomenon: no one ever seems to be in charge of the conspiracy affecting the heroine. All of its sinister conspirators seem to have their own perspective and different needs from it. They never operate fully as a team, and no one seems to be an effective leader or in control. This makes the conspiracy out as a malevolent force that seems to have a life of its own.. The conspirators seem caught up in it, almost as much as the heroine.
The photographer's studio in this film recalls Boris Karloff's studio in Lured. Both are places of extreme abnormality and menace, the home of vicious people who try to harm the heroine. It is not clear why such studios are so effective at conveying a mood of horror. Both are run by people who want to submerge the heroine in scenarios, fictitious worlds of play acting in which she will be engulfed. It is in the studio in Sleep, My Love that we typically learn about the deliberate conspiracy of lying which is engulfing the heroine, with people in the conspiracy taking on new names and roles. The studio seems to be an operations headquarters for the conspiracy, the place where plans are made.
There is also a perception that Victorian studios are the home of Victorian imagery that controls personal relations: both the sentimental imagery that glamorizes and justifies the patriarchal family, and sleazier material as well. It is very different from just taking a snapshot: people go there to create an artificial image. And viewers know that such images are often harmful to women.
The film shows the heroine menaced by patriarchal figures of authority: her husband, the fake psychiatrist, and the obnoxious police officer played by Raymond Burr. All of these men are working together. The heroine finds an outlet through a man who stands outside of this traditional upper class social world, the pilot played by Robert Cummings. He is quite sophisticated acting. But he also has distinct connections outside of this limited world, represented visually by his Chinese associates. The film resembles All That Heaven Allows (1956), where Rock Hudson's gardener offers the heroine her only alternative to the country club set who try to entrap her. Both films contain a glass wall in the heroine's living area, showing a garden outside.
There are also similarities to Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952). The mother in that film tries to coerce everybody into living a lifestyle, one rigidly defined by financial worries and concerns. She is as rigidly controlling as the husband in Sleep, My Love and the family in All That Heaven Allows.
Sirk always wants us geographically oriented in the film's sets. Unlike Fritz Lang, who often moves to a new, striking angle that is difficult to place on a film's first viewing, Sirk is careful to make clear exactly where we are at all times. The introduction to the heroine's house near the start of the film is a complete exposition of its layout. Sirk starts right in on the street outside, goes in at the front door, shows us the hall, the main staircase, including several gothic - or film noir - like angles straight up its spiral, the living room to the left of the hall, and the heroine's bedroom and balcony upstairs. All of these will later play a key role in the events of the film. It is very interesting to see all these visually elaborate places. Similarly, the first trip to the photographer's studio locates it on its busy urban street, one whose huge numbered of lettered signs establishes it as a setting of urban poverty, like the skid row scenes in William Keighley's The Street With No Name.
Sirk is fond of small camera movements in these scenes, designed to link up different points of view, and show how the geography of the film's locations are connected. These camera movements are expository, designed to teach the viewers practical information. The camera movements often seem to be designed for the viewer's convenience, shifting him or her to a better point of view.
During several suspense scenes at the house, the film seems to deliberately confuse the boundaries of indoors and out. The front door is left open during a rain storm, leading to a strong sense of anxiety. Sirk cuts to a high angle from the staircase in this scene, showing us both the inside of the house, and the outdoors through the door. Similarly, the heroine's balcony also shares ambiguous features of inside and outside.
Shockproof includes noir features like mirrors and staircases.
Shockproof anticipates some later Sirk films.
There are differences between the two movies. In Shockproof the well-to-do lover is a gambler and near-criminal, whereas the upper classes in All That Heaven Allows are stupefyingly respectable members of the country club set. The rich in All That Heaven Allows offer the heroine both friendship and social status, two things the gambler in Shockproof can't. The heroine in Shockproof will be a kept woman; the heroine in All That Heaven Allows is offered a loveless affair, but she is still supporting herself financially. This means that All That Heaven Allows is a study in social pressure and conformity, while the heroine of Shockproof simply is challenged to lower her standard of living: always a difficult task.
The attempt of a heroine to escape from a dysfunctional well-to-do world, also occurs in Sleep, My Love. In that film, too, it is associated with a romance with a man outside of the upper crust (Robert Cummings' pilot).
The mother in All I Desire is trying to become re-accepted in her husband's male-run home. In Shockproof, the heroine is trying to fit in, to the pre-existing life in the hero's home. This is not the same situation: but it does offer parallels.
Both films develop similar triangle relationships. In Slightly French, these are much looser, more cheerful, and far less tragic that those in Written on the Wind: