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Program 3 | Schlussakkord

Friday, June 3, 2022, 3 p.m., Dryden Theatre

Schlussakkord [Final Chord] (Germany 1936)

Director: Detlef Sierck [Douglas Sirk]
Writers: Kurt Heuser, Detlef Sierck [Douglas Sirk]
Producer: Bruno Duday
Cinematographer: Robert Baberske
Set designer: Erich Kettelhut
Music supervisor and composer: Kurt Schröder
Cast: Willy Birgel, Lil Dagover, Maria von Tasnady, Maria Koppenhöfer, Theodor Loos, Peter Bosse, Albert Lippert, Kurt Meisel, Hella Graf, Erich Ponto, Paul Otto
Production company: UFA

Sound, b/w, 100 min.
German language, electronic English subtitles

Print source: George Eastman Museum, Rochester, NY

It is unlikely we will be screening any of Douglas Sirk’s signature Technicolor melodramas at the Nitrate Picture Show, as all of them were made during the safety film era. But we are lucky to have a projectable nitrate print of not just an early film by Sirk (credited under his birth name, Detlef Sierck) but one that was seminal in the career of this highly acclaimed director.

Schlussakkord was Sirk’s first melodrama, his first international hit, and one of the most commercially successful German productions of the mid-1930s. The story of a famous conductor, his narcissist wife who is having an affair with a clairvoyant, and the selfless young nurse of the conductor’s adopted child (in fact her own son) would have made a pretty lame tearjerker had it been treated with straightforward realism. But Sirk was immune to cinematic conventions, thanks to his exquisite knowledge of literature and theatre. He translated Shakespeare and Pirandello into German and, being one of his country’s leading theatrical directors, dealt with all the great playwrights, from Ben Johnson and Kleist to Strindberg and Shaw. While Sirk's previous cinematic works were adaptations of Ibsen and Selma Lagerlöf, here he finally decided to distance cinema from literature. “I needed something more kino,” he recalled in an interview. “From Schlussakord onwards I . . . tried to develop a cinema style, I began to understand that the camera is the main thing here, because there is emotion in the motion pictures. Motion is emotion, in a way it can never be in the theatre.”

Indeed, Schlussakord is convincing on a purely physiological level—by the logic of its seemingly unpredictable camera movements, its extravagant angle shots, its contrast of textures, its multiple lighting accents cleverly dispersed around the set. It reaches its dramatic effect in spite of its overwrought plot and dialogue—just like an opera. In fact, Sirk repeatedly stated that the word “melodrama” should be understood literally as music plus drama. His German melodramas rely on music: in Schlussakkord the protagonist’s occupation justifies the extensive use of Beethoven, Handel, and Tchaikovsky. And no wonder he was a huge fan of Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s musical plays.

For decades Schlussakkord circulated on 16mm, which makes a screening of this stunningly beautiful original release print a special treat. The print shows significant wear and tear, with many scratches and 189 splices, at 1.0% shrinkage. However, after extensive prep work, it has been made projectable. —Peter Bagrov