Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) would become synonymous with the 1950s American melodrama, but he was already reinventing the genre while working in Germany in the 1930s. This disc collects two of these rarely-seen, innovative films, both showcasing the talents of Swedish-born superstar Zarah Leander. While she bore certain resemblances to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (with her sultry insouciance, defiance of authority, and her low singing voice), Zarah Leander was in fact a striking original, and has largely been overlooked by American audiences because of the inaccessibility of her films (produced at Ufa when the studio was under Reich control).
To New Shores (1937)
To New Shores stars Leander as a woman sentenced to an Australian penal colony for a crime committed by her former lover, Albert (Willy Birgel). She eventually marries a farmer (Viktor Staal) and returns to the cabaret stage, but remains tragically fixated on the man who broke her heart.
This early effort from the man who would soon be known as Douglas Sirk (he was still known as Detlef Sierck at this time) is one that is dripping with the melodrama that would come to define one of the great directors of the mid-20th century. The key to this film is the truly wonderful performance from Zarah Leander, who shows an immense vulnerability as a woman taken advantage of by love. Even at this early time in cinema, Sirk shows a bit of the disparity that women were faced with thanks to selfish men who would take every advantage given to them. When Leander’s Gloria is sent to prison in Australia, it is devastating to watch her journey from hopeful romantic to jaded victim. This film expertly uses music from the playful introduction to Gloria at the beginning of the picture to the melancholic ballad that says everything about her state of mind. The narrative strikes the right balance between heart wrenching turns and comforting warmth.
From a filmmaking perspective, Sirk is as strong as ever as he captures his story through stimulating cinematography. While not completely telegraphing your emotional state, the use of shadows implemented throughout are very well done, especially when conveying the emotional state of Albert during his unsteady journey. The use of rain in conjunction with the music is another underrated aspect of this feature. Both in the physical rain that mimics the tormented state of Gloria and in the lyrics of some pivotal songs that likewise reference rain. The only light criticism that I would put forth in regards to this film is the fact that the editing could have been a bit tighter with a more condensed focus, but having extra character moments with Leander is hard to argue as a bad thing. While this does not reach the height of some of his later work, this early effort is quite memorable in its own regard.
La Habanera (1937)
In La Habanera, Leander plays Astree, a Swedish woman who marries a Puerto Rican land baron (Ferdinand Marian). As years pass, their love fades, and Astree’s passions are reawakened by a doctor (Karl Martell) who has come to help fight a devastating epidemic, igniting the fury of her jealous husband.
While made the same year as To New Shores with Zarah Leander once again in a starring role, La Habanera is not as enjoyable of an experience in the end. This is not the fault of Leander, who is pretty spectacular as a woman who gets what she believes she wants in the form of a new “exciting” lifestyle Puerto Rico but soon learns that the man she has chosen to take this journey with is not all he appears to be. The domestic drama aspects of the film work fairly well, as the longing to escape the life you thought you wanted is a relatable turn. The movie just lacks a propulsive energy to get to the heart of the matter in a particularly interesting way. A subplot about a deadly fever going around Puerto Rico is a necessary plot development, but as depicted on screen it staggers momentum every time it is brought up on screen outside of the final few minutes. There are also some dog whistle political messages embedded in here that connect back to the the burgeoning Nazi movement that are more than a bit unfortunate if you care enough to analyze that closely. This is a lesser effort from Sirk without a doubt, but there are elements worth checking out if you are a fan of the director or its star.
To New Shores and La Habanera make their Blu-Ray debut thanks to Kino Classics with a strong transfer from a restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung. For films that are over 80 years old, this is a truly pleasing presentation. The gorgeous black-and-white photography shines in high definition with natural grain intact. There is a fair amount of detail present with nice textures on the clothing and within the production design. The new transfer shows off a great amount of depth and enhanced detail within the film’s composition. Black levels present with some depth with no overwhelming occurrence of black crush or compression artifacts. The contrast is mostly well defined, but the transfer experiences a noticeable amount of flicker and specks of damage to the print. There are also more than a few stray, faint vertical lines that make a quick appearance without ruining the overall aesthetic of the film. Between the two films, To New Shores might exhibit a bit more stability, but each is strong within reason. Kino Classics has done as well as could be expected given the quality of the source material.
The Blu-Ray comes with pretty solid LPCM 2.0 Master Audio tracks for each in the original German that serves the material quite well considering its age. Dialogue and background noises are represented in pleasing harmony with all competing elements. This track does present with a decent amount of age related wear and tear including some hissing and crackles that likely date back to the source elements. The music that is pivotal to both films never overpowers the dialogue or other important information. There are optional English SDH subtitles included for the feature film. The good folks at Kino Classics have done their best to provide the most stable track possible for this one.
- To New Shores Audio Commentary: Film Historian Josh Nelson provides a very compelling commentary track in which he delves into the historical significance of the film, Sirk’s directorial style, the themes of the film and more. Nelson is an Australian, which allows him to have a unique perspective on some of the elements of the film that are worth checking out.
- La Habanera Audio Commentary: Film Historian Olaf Möller likewise delivers a really insightful commentary track that further delves into the career of Douglas Sirk, discusses the careers of the performers, analyzes the themes of the film and more. A very worthwhile track if you are a fan of the film.
The Douglas Sirk Collection (To New Shores/La Habanera) is an interesting disc of lesser-known titles from one of the most iconic directors of the 20th century. Zarah Leander makes quite the impression as the star of these two features in a manner that makes you want to further explore her work. To New Shores is a very strong film for Sirk, while La Habanera is more of a mixed bag quality wise. Kino Classics has delivered a Blu-Ray featuring both of these films with a solid A/V presentation and two commentary tracks that really enhance the features. If you are a fan ofDouglas Sirk or classic German cinema, it is worth searching these out and making up your own mind about these titles.
The Douglas Sirk Collection is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.