Fassbinder on Imitation of Life
Imitation of Life (1959) is Douglas Sirk’s last film. A great, crazy movie about life and about death. And about America. The first great moment: Annie tells Lana Turner that Sarah Jane is her daughter. Annie is black and Sarah Jane is almost white. Lana Turner hesitates, then understands, hesitates again and then quickly pretends that it is the most natural thing in the world that a black woman should have a white daughter. But nothing is natural. Ever. Not in the whole film. And yet they are all trying desperately to make their thoughts and desires their own. It’s not because white is a prettier colour than black that Sarah Jane wants to pass for white, but because life is better when you’re white. Lana Turner doesn’t want to be an actress because she enjoys it, but because if you’re successful you get a better deal in this world. And Annie doesn’t want a spectacular funeral because she’d get anything out of it, she’s dead by then, but because she wants to give herself value in the eyes of the world retrospectively, which she was denied during her lifetime. None of the protagonists come to see that everything, thoughts, desires, dreams arise directly from social reality or are manipulated by it. I know of no other film in which this fact is formulated with such precision and with such desperation. At one point, towards the end of the film, Annie tells Lana Turner that she has a lot of friends. Lana is baffled. Annie has friends? The two women had been living together under one roof for ten years by then, and Lana knows nothing about Annie. No wonder Lana Turner is surprised. Lana Turner is also surprised when her daughter accuses her of always having left her alone; and when Sarah Jane starts being stroppy to the white goddess, when she has problems and wants to be taken seriously, even then Lana Turner can only show surprise. And she’s surprised when Annie dies. How could she simply lie down and die? It’s not fair, suddenly to find yourself confronted with reality quite out of the blue. All Lana can do is be surprised throughout the second part of the film. The result is that she wants to play dramatic parts in future. Pain, death, tears—one can surely make something out of that. This is where Lana Turner’s problem becomes the problem of the film-maker. Lana is an actress, possibly even a good one. We are never quite sure on this point. At first Lana has to earn a living for herself and her daughter. Or is it that she wants to make a career for herself? The death of her husband doesn’t seem to have affected her that much. All she knows about him is that he was a good director. I think Lana wants to carve out a career for herself. Money is of secondary interest to her, success comes first. John Gavin is third in line. John is in love with Lana; for her sake, in order to support her, he has abandoned his artistic ambitions and got a job as a photographer in an advertising agency. Lana cannot understand how someone could give up their ambition for love. John is also rather dumb, he confronts Lana with a choice, either marriage or career. Lana thinks this is fantastic and dramatic and opts for her career.
Things are like this throughout the film. They are always making plans for happiness, for tenderness, and then the phone rings, a new part and Lana revives. The woman is a hopeless case. So is John Gavin. He should have caught on pretty soon that it won’t work. But he pins his life on that woman all the same. For all of us it’s the things that won’t work that keep our interest. Lana Turner’s daughter then falls in love with John, she is exactly what John would like Lana to be—but she’s not Lana. This is understandable. Only Sandra Dee doesn’t understand. It could be that when one is in love one doesn’t understand too well. Annie, too, loves her daughter and doesn’t understand her at all. Once, when Sarah Jane is still a child, it is raining and Annie takes her an umbrella at school. Sarah Jane has pretended at school that she is white. The truth comes out when her mother shows up at the school with the umbrella. Sarah Jane will never forget. And when Annie, shortly before her death wants to see Sarah Jane for the last time, her love still prevents her from understanding. It seems to her to be a sin that Sarah Jane should want to be taken for white. The most terrible thing about this scene is that the more Sarah Jane is mean and cruel the more her mother is poor and pathetic. But in actual fact, exactly the reverse is true. It is the mother who is brutal, wanting to possess her child because she loves her. And Sarah Jane defends herself against her mother’s terrorism, against the terrorism of the world. The cruelty is that we can understand them both, both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult. Then they all come together again at Annie’s funeral, and behave for a few minutes as though everything was all right. It’s this ‘as though’ that lets them carry on with the same old crap, underneath they have an inkling of what they are really after, but they soon forget it again.
Imitation of Life starts as a film about the Lana Turner character and turns quite imperceptibly into a film about Annie, the black woman. The film-maker has turned away from the problem that concerns him, the aspect of the subject which deals with his own work, and has looked for the imitation of life in Annie’s fate, where he has found something far more cruel then he would have either in Lana Turner’s case or in his own. Even less of a chance. Even more despair.
I have tried to write about six films by Douglas Sirk and I discovered the difficulty of writing about films which are concerned with life and are not literature. I have left out a lot which might have been more important. I haven’t said enough about the lighting: how careful it is, how it helps Sirk to change the stories he had to tell. Only Joseph Von Sternberg is a match for him at lighting. And I haven’t said enough about the interiors Douglas Sirk had constructed. How incredibly exact they are. And I haven’t gone into the importance of flowers and mirrors and what they signify in the stories Sirk tells us. I haven’t emphasized enough that Sirk is a director who gets maximum results out of actors. That in Sirk’s films even zombies like Marianne Koch and Liselotte Pulver come across as real human beings, in whom we can and want to believe. And then I have seen far too few of Sirk’s films. I would like to have seen them all, all 39 of them. Perhaps I would have got further with myself, my life and my friends. I have seen six films by Douglas Sirk. Among them were the most beautiful in the world.
Translated by Thomas Elsaesser
(for full text see Fassbinder, Rainer Werner (1975) ‘Six Films by Douglas Sirk’ in New Left Review I/91, May-June, http://newleftreview.org/I/91/rainer-werner-fassbinder-six-films-by-douglas-sirk)