No other director has been more closely associated with the concept of melodrama in cinema than Douglas Sirk. His best known and most financially successful films, produced by Ross Hunter for Universal Studios during the mid-1950s, have become for critics and scholars the archetypical examples of what Thomas Elsaesser describes as family melodrama.
Born into a middle-class family in Hamburg at the turn of the century, Detlef Sierck began his career in the German theater during the years of the Weimar Republic, directing plays by Bertolt Brecht, Georg Kaiser, and Kurt Weill, among others. He became involved in the cinema working as a director for the state-run studio Ufa, directing such notable works as Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937) and La Habanera (1937). While many of his contemporaries fled Germany under the Nazi regime, Sierck did not leave until the end of the 1930s. Arriving in Hollywood at the start of the 1940s, Sierck (now known as Douglas Sirk) initially worked for Columbia before becoming a contract director for Universal in 1946. As one of Universal's house directors, he worked on a diverse range of projects ranging from war films and thrillers to westerns, comedies, and musicals, but it was the films he made with Hunter in the 1950s that established Sirk's reputation as the quintessential director of Hollywood melodrama. Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959), featuring lavish production design and convoluted narratives concerning doomed romances, improbable coincidences, and tear-jerking denouements, made stars of Rock Hudson, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone as well as consolidating the careers of Jane Wyman and Lana Turner.
While popular with audiences, Sirk's films were often condemned by contemporary film critics as examples of the sensationalism and sentimentality of popular cinema. However, in France, the critics of the influential Cahiers du Cinema, notably Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, praised Sirk's distinctive visual style. In the early 1970s a new generation of film scholars, notably Thomas Elsaesser, Paul Willemen, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, and Fred Camper, "rediscovered" Sirk's films, hailing them as supreme examples of a subversive critique of postwar American society expressed through stylized mise-en-scene drawing on irony and Brechtian alienating devices. Sirk's work has influenced many subsequent filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Pedro Almodovar, Jonathan Demme, and Todd Haynes.
Zu neuen Ufern (To New Shores, 1937, as Detlef Sierck), La Habanera (1937, as Detlef Sierck), Hitler's Madman (1943), Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), There's Always Tomorrow (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958), A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958), Imitation of Life (1959)
Halliday, Jon. Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday. London: Faber & Faber, 1971.
--. et. al. Douglas Sirk. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
John Mercer the case of film in certain elements of the mise-en-sc^ne" (Nowell-Smith, p. 73).
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, critical discussion of film melodrama was constrained by two theoretical paradigms, psychoanalysis and neoMarxist ideology, framing debate around the terms of reference, concerns, and generic features of melodrama for nearly thirty years, as well as Sirk's preeminent place as director. This critical view of melodrama has additionally had a significant influence on a generation of filmmakers who emerged during the period when film theorists were rediscovering Sirk's work. The most prominent figure to have been influenced by this theoretically informed notion of melodrama was the German New Wave director, writer, and actor, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (19451982). Legend has it that Fassbinder first saw a retrospective of Sirk's Hollywood films at a festival in Berlin in 1971 and was so inspired that he instantly drove to
Douglas Sirk. everett collection. reproduced by permission.
Douglas Sirk. everett collection. reproduced by permission.
Switzerland to speak with the retired director in person at his home in Lugano. It is certainly true to say that Fassbinder's work demonstrates some degree of debt to the stylization, alienating devices, and subversive social critique that critics attribute to Sirk's films. This influence is very apparent in films such as Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) often, incorrectly, seen as a remake of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows, in which a socially unacceptable relationship between an older woman and a younger man causes disruption. However, in Fassbinder's film the older woman is an elderly cleaner (Brigitte Mira) who falls in love with a Moroccan laborer (El Hedi ben Salem) rather than Jane Wyman's glamorous widow falling for Rock Hudson's brooding, free-spirited gardener, as in Sirk's film. Throughout Fassbinder's short but extremely prolific career (he made nearly forty films in less than ten years), Sirk's Hollywood melodramas were to become stylistic touchstones that provided a rich source of inspiration. Sirk's use of reflections and onscreen space, for example, are apparent in Fassbinder's Die Bitteren Tranen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, 1972) and Chinesisches Roulette (Chinese Roulette, 1976), the garish use of color is evident in Lola (1981) and Querelle (1982), ironic social criticism is evident in Handler der vier Jahreszeiten (The
Merchant of Four Seasons, 1972) and Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends, 1975) and the suffering female protagonist in Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982) and Die Ehe der Maria Braun (The Marriage of Maria Braun, 1979).
Sirk's melodramas have also been cited as influences on the work of an even more disparate range of directors, from Martin Scorsese (b. 1942) to John Waters (b. 1946). In recent years the work of the internationally acclaimed Spanish director Pedro Almodovar (b. 1949) clearly demonstrates the influence of Sirk's films through the use of lavish stylization, lurid color schemes, convoluted narratives, and mannered performances. In films such as Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988), La flor de mi secreto (The Flower of My Secret, 1995), and All About My Mother (1999), Almodovar shows himself to be the natural successor to both Sirk and Fassbinder through his interest in female protagonists and highly emotionally charged and lavishly mounted productions. Todd Haynes (b. 1961), one of the leading figures of the so-called New Queer Cinema and another figure inspired by both Sirk and Fassbinder, gained commercial and critical success with his own revision of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows with Far from Heaven (2003). For the problem of class, the obstacle that faces the lovers in Sirk's original film, the film substitutes the even more problematic and inflammatory issues of race and sexuality, subjects that the production code would have made it impossible for Sirk's source text to discuss.
Was this article helpful?
If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.