It is often said that the mark of a good, rich film is that the part mirrors the whole—or, more specifically, that the structure of each individual scene should reflect, as in a microcosm, the overall structure. If Douglas Sirk had a particular fondness for this way of working—and if his films provide especially dazzling examples of the process—that is no doubt because his films are often hell-bent on emphasizing a certain, deathly repetition.
Sirk’s central characters (like, later, the characters of his devotee, Rainer Werner Fassbinder) twist in their social traps, commit the same mistakes over and over, and trigger the same, perverse, interpersonal binds. It can be like watching some grotesque, medieval pageant, where stereotypical figures perform their gestures mechanically, on a recurring, cyclical treadmill of harsh, fallen existence.
The Tarnished Angels was a long-cherished project of Sirk’s, and he was able to make it in relative freedom near the end of his Hollywood career. A bleak and even apocalyptic tale, it lightens up only slightly by the end. Our audiovisual essay analyzes a central scene 40 minutes into the narrative, and also refers both backward and forward in order to show the film’s richly elaborated logic of part and whole, repetition and stasis, drama and entropy.