DOUGLAS SIRK'S second American film (1944) shows his art already at a high level of complexity and accomplishment. This art depends on an understanding, perhaps truer than any other director's, of why people act as they do. Recognizing the limitations on any man's ability to express and realize himself in his surroundings, Sirk shows how men come to know themselves by being confronted with constant evidence of these limitations.
Thier motives are to begin with complex. Fyodor, for example, loss a pretty bourgeois girl to whom he is affianced for the love of Olga, a dark-eyed peasant girl. But after a time he realizes that he wants to marry her and live peacefully with her. (Moveover he, though an aristocrat, wants to flee to America, the middle-class nation par excellence.) Olga, for her part, loses sight of a dominant urge to climb to riches and power by involving herself in true-love affairs. Though both characters come to know the deepest urges of their characters by the film's end, opposing urges push them into contrary actions; the frustration of their desires (partly a consequence of their imperfect self-knowledge) which results, limits and ultimately destroys them.
Both the contrary pulls and the limitations on self realization are the consequences of society. For Sirk, all characters exist only in relation to other characters and to objects. The relation is one of influence, expressed visually by resemblance. In a scene with another character, any character will take on the other's appearance. Thus Fyodor, at the end of a sequence with Count Volski, leaves the room bent over, dimniished in stature. The influence is never one-sided; no character is able to exercise total control over another. Instead, each scene is built on this multiple influence and resemblance, and all characters' appearances change according to their partners. They thus become less themselves--and, in a way, more abstract beings, whose forms echo those of other people. The firm identity that would result from one-way power over all else is softened by a complex view of identity which depends upon all people's being soical.
The importance of a character's setting extends to objects and backgrounds, which are very prominent in Sirk's films. Objects define people's character and actions (for example, a Cupid statue Count Volski admires in his gazebo betrays the childishness of his lecherous tendencies). They also cramp people in space; echo people's forms (often to savegely ironic effect--the statue in Volski's garden next to which Fyodor stands looking up at Olga); and in these ways subtly influence and define people's appearances and actions. Here, however, the influence is one-way. People cannot change objects as they can change other people; objects resemble in order to mirror, to comment. Sirk's characters react at crucial moments against this unchangeability-with-mockery by smashing object (Fyodor's violin). But they can only destroy them--never shape their surroundings to themselves. Indeed, as characters are worn down by frustration of their wishes and tensions between contrary desires, objects come more and more to shape their actions.
But in this way characters come to know themselves. When acting most strongly, they know themselves the least. It is when they are confronted with an imperfect mirroring of themselves that they recognize the limits of their ability to control others. In every form that echoes another there is a tension between what is similar and what is different. This tension is the basis of Sirk's whole drama, and it is in the drama of personal recognition. Characters see something of themselves in an object, but are confronted by the strength of what is unalterably different, unconquerable. Total control, complete realization of their wishes, is impossible. The existence of other people and objects imposes complex relationships upon all characters. In recognizing these relationships, expressed in visual echoing of their forms, characters come to know a little of themselves as they are assaulted with the impossibility of controlling anything else.