Rainer Wener Fassbinder and Todd Haynes made it cool to reference Douglas Sirk. But if the esteemed Andrew Sarris hadn’t championed the incisiveness of the German-born director’s dark humor inside the pages of Film Culture, there’s no telling if Sirk’s rank as one of cinema’s premiere auteurist heroes would be as steadfast as it is today. Sirk’s journey to wide critical acceptance has fascinatingly mirrored the very biting irony of his distinctly feminine melodramas. These misunderstood masterpieces (among them All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind and Imitation of Life) were often dismissed as salient, weepy “women’s pictures” by critics (no doubt the same ones who easily embraced the more masculine melodramas of Vittorio de Sica, Nicholas Ray, and Sam Fuller) too afraid or unwilling to look beneath their complex surfaces.
In Hollywood, Sirk worked with controversial figures like Albert Zugsmith on Written on the Wind and, more notably, gay Hollywood producer Ross Hunter on classics like There’s Always Tomorrow, Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. But before turning to film in the 1930s, Sirk made a career for himself as a successful theater director in Germany, staging works by the likes of Shakespeare, Shaw, Pirandello, Ibsen and Brecht. Today it’s almost impossible to look at Sirk’s films without turning to Brecht, whose innovative theories on distancing and alienation are all over films like Fassbinder’s In a Year of 13 Moons, Sirk’s Imitation of Life and Lars von Trier’s upcoming Dogville, a film inspired in part by a song from Kurt Weill and Brecht’s famous Threepenny Opera, which Sirk had staged in Bremen in 1929.
Brecht’s theater looked to move away from the expressionistic works that were popular during his time period. In his essay “Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting,” Brecht details his fascination with the Peking Opera and a Chinese form of performance art that actively rejected Western forms of realism in theater. This self-conscious form of acting stresses theatricality and demands active involvement from both the actor and the spectator. With the fourth wall dutifully dismantled, the audience develops an observant relationship to the play’s action that’s extremely volatile. In estranging the audience from the material, Brecht believed they could approach a play’s many themes seriously and critically. Brecht observes, “We see this theater as uncommonly precious, its portrayal of human passions as schematized, its idea of society as rigid and wrong-headed.”
1959’s sardonic Imitation of Life deals with blond bombshell Lora Meredith’s rise to fame and her complicated relationships with a series of carnivorous men, her hot-headed daughter, and her angelic African-American maid Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore). Though Lora (Lana Turner) shuns the love of Steve Archer (John Gavin) and lies in order to further her career, she’s still a sympathetic character because Sirk understands that she is just as much a victim as her darling Annie. Lora’s seedy agent Albert Loomis (Robert Alda) feeds on her desire for fame, pointing out that she’s no spring chicken before suggesting she prostitute herself for success. She’s hyper-conscious of her dangerous ambition yet she continues to push away the people around her. “Maybe I should see things as they really are and not the way I want them to be,” she acknowledges early on.
The film opens with a shot of diamonds slowly falling into a glass container and filling the frame from top to bottom. Sirk immediately and deliberately acknowledges the precious and artificial nature of the film and, much greater, the film’s metaphoric, almost pathological obsession with surfaces (from mirrors to the color of the characters’ skins). Both Lora and Steve make a career out of representing the world around them via their art: Lora finds success in the theater with a series of collaborations with playwright David Edwards (Dan O’Herlihy) while Steve lands a major gig at a beer company after selling a picture he took of Lora’s daughter Susie (Terry Burnham) and Annie’s daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker) on the beaches of Coney Island. Not surprisingly, their art is every bit as grotesquely overwhelming as Sirk’s ravishing mise-en-scène.
Indeed, just as Steve’s picture of young Susie and Sarah Jane balancing a bottle on a sleeping man’s fat stomach is a frightening representation of a seemingly innocent day at the beach, beneath the surface of Imitation of Life lies the reality of what Sirk rightfully believed was a seriously deranged American society. He is particularly critical yet sensitive to the light-skinned Sarah Jane’s dilemma, who prefers her absent father to her dark-skinned mother because “he was practically white,” and goes to great lengths to disguise her mixed race. However ghoulish her rejection of her mother may be, Annie sees the opportunity that her daughter’s deceptive skin tone permits. Just as Annie resigns herself to a lifetime of subjugation because of her skin color, Sarah Jane looks to give herself a chance at life by emancipating herself from that skin.
The film isn’t only revolutionary for its aesthetic rigorousness but its rare fascination with white America’s difficulty relating to people of color. Because it embodies so much of Sirk’s key themes and aesthetic truths, there’s no sadder scene in the film than a dying Annie visiting an older Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) in Los Angeles after the girl takes a job as a dancer at a club called Moulin Rouge. Sirk’s camera violently pans to one side—just as it does earlier when Sarah Jane’s white boyfriend beats her after finding out her dirty secret—and forces the girl to look at her face in a mirror as she rejects her race. Despite her overwhelming pain, Annie allows herself to abort her relationship with her daughter because she understands the lonely freedom promised to Sarah Jane by distancing herself from her race. Like Annie says early on in the film: “She was born to be hurt.”
Imitation of Life is drunk on the lies and gross assumptions of its characters and the way they feed off of deceptive surfaces. “We didn’t know,” says a schoolteacher to Annie when she comes looking for her daughter in the woman’s classroom. And later when Sarah Jane’s friend enters her hotel room, she assumes Annie is a hotel maid and subsequently reads off a list of demands. Because no one asks her about her race, Sarah Jane doesn’t feel inclined to speak the truth. Annie is understandably hurt by the girl’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy, but Sirk is quick to balance the scales, subversively cutting to a shot of Lora taking Susie’s temperature. “Well, you’re practically normal,” she says as she read the thermometer.
It’s important to observe Imitation of Life’s stifling, mid-point rhetorical shift. As the film flashes forward a decade, the montage of marquee signs celebrate her roles in Sweet Surrender, Happiness, Always Laughter and Born to Laugh. Lora, though, looks to branch out into dramatic acting and ditches David for a new drama with a “colored angle” called No More Laughter (a self-reflexive wink on Sirk’s part to the emotional windfalls still to come). The debonair Steve is back in the picture but feels slighted once more when Lora chooses him over a budding film career. To a certain degree, Steve is a chauvinist but he also recognizes her almost sadistic ability to reject happiness at every turn.
“What you’re after isn’t real,” says Steve to Lora early in the film. He acknowledges his love for her and just as they’re about to kiss, a nearby doorbell rings. She pulls away and when she draws close again, the phone inside her apartment rings. And the interruptions continue on and on. Lora seems to always look for a reason to tear away from happiness, and Sirk is more than willing to point out her pathology by repeatedly teasing her with his mise-en-scène and the film’s sound design. During the film’s especially rigorous second half, Sirk frames his characters beneath imposing edifices or shoots them in such a way that he emphasizes their emotional separation from each other (when Susie reveals to Lora that Annie has always been more of a mother, a bed pillar bisects the frame). Every object in the film also seems to point out that everyone here is always in performance mode: the drama masks on the walls of a seedy dance club that reference Sarah Jane’s tortured identity and the sad clown paintings that decorate the whole of Lora’s home.
Every word and image in the film comes with a double meaning. “My camera could have a love affair with your face,” says Steve to Lora not long after they’ve first met. This sentiment would normally come across more maudlin, but because this is a Douglas Sirk film it carries a subversive undertone. As for the pretty things the nurturing Annie loves to take care of, she’s obviously talking about more than Lora’s dainty belongings. “Oh, Annie, what would I do without you?” says a selfish Lora to her ailing maid. Sirk never questions Lora’s love for Annie but he is critical of the self-centeredness of that love. Despite Annie’s devotion to the clueless Lora and her daughter, Lora knows next to nothing about the woman. In order to emphasize this distance, Sirk also chooses to reveal next to nothing about Annie’s personal life to the spectator as well. All of this makes the film’s final scenes that more emotionally wrenching.
When Lora tells Steve that she must pursue a part in an Italian director’s next film because it could be the best female role since Scarlett O’Hara. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American to win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Scarlett O’Hara’s Mammie in the overblown Victor Fleming epic. Sirk is obviously critical of the Lora Merediths and Scarlett O’Haras of the world, women who’ve redefined slavery inside the domestic home by reducing their “mammies” to mere emotional sounding boards. Imitation of Life ends with Moore’s Annie Johnson being dramatically hoisted into a hearse as an entire black community mourns her passing. It’s a valiant, heartbreaking moment, but if you dig beneath the scene’s giddy surface sheen, you may see that Sirk is asking for an instant moratorium on films that further subjugate the role of African-Americans in art and the world itself.