Home Movies: Magnificent Obsession
By David Zuckerman
(The Criterion Collection, $39.95, on DVD)
By now, the lesson of Douglas Sirk should be clear: an auteur is to be measured not by his or her accomplishments outside a system, but by his or her accomplishments within a system. What makes Sirk a point of reference, as well as a continuing subject of retrospective analysis, is that his career seems to represent the possibility of creative transcendence, the prevailing of the individual artist within a colossal machine. Make that two colossal machines. As a hired gun at UFA under the rising Third Reich of the late Thirties, Sirk’s skeptical and independent personality ensured that even if his German films were to be touched by Fascism, they would not be wholly subordinated to it. Sirk’s time in the compromised UFA trenches, developing a cinematic Morse code of Euripidean irony and Brechtian V-effects, was to come in handy when the Danish-born director fled the Nazis with his Jewish wife and landed on a chicken farm in California and a career in Hollywood. Here, Sirk’s “despite-himself” cultural heritage (he met Kafka, hung with Max Brod) resulted in the contribution of a new dimension to the American Melodrama, until then a fairly one-dimensional genre. And yet, this contribution was not simply a by-product of historical circumstance. As a stage director and cinephile, Sirk like other German directors transplanted to the U.S., saw Melodrama as Hollywood’s Sturm and Drang, America’s expressionism. The velvety surfaces, sports cars, and alcohol reflected the irrational desires of a stiff entrepreneurial middle class. Whether Sirk’s “split-characters” derived from a truly allegorical impulse, or were just so many devices for emotional manipulation, the director had come from an intellectual milieu that knew the middle class was, as Sirk himself said “the soil in which dictatorships take root.”
For their part, the Criterion Collection’s new transfer of Magnificent Obsession does such a good job of highlighting Sirk’s “painterly-ness” that it’s a shame the director isn’t around to see his images looking so vibrant and clear. The two-disc set also comes with John M. Stahl’s original 1935 film version and a German documentary in which Sirk, sipping tea in dark sunglasses near the end of his life, reflects articulately on a range of subjects from star-making to script-bending. When Magnificent Obsession was released in 1954, the director had already been working in Hollywood for a decade, figuring out how to take the studio’s preference for “kitsch, craziness and trashiness,” as Sirk once described this film’s material, and turn it into something “nearer to art.” Not radical art perhaps, but art nonetheless. Take Obsession’s absurd plot, culled from Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel: the physician/saint/husband of Helen (Jane Wyman) dies when the town’s only resuscitator is tied up saving speed-boat-flipping playboy Bob (Rock Hudson)—who also happens to be a latent brain surgeon destined to cause Helen to go blind in a freak road accident, before redeeming himself as her new physician/saint/husband. Leave it to Sirk to find buried within this impossible contrivance the theme of Euripides’s Alcestis and the palette of Auguste Renoir.