Douglas Sirk apparently said of the melodrama that its strength lies not in the story’s end, but in “the amount of dust [it] raises along the road”. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who sought to “think about aesthetic and political events simultaneously”, took to the road with his own melodramas twelve years and a cinematic aeon after Sirk’s last film. In 1973 he made Fear Eats the Soul, a loose remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, revealing how the fears of repressive 1950s America lived on in a society whose country remained unable or unwilling to confront its recent traumatic past. In the best melodramas, style, narrative and meaning constantly intersect, kicking up a dust that is arguably cinema at its most purely cinematic. In picking through what has settled, we can hope to discover the reasons behind our “intense emotion” when watching these films, why we recognise ourselves in them, why – as Fassbinder himself diagnosed in his essay on Sirk – we come out of them “feeling somewhat dissatisfied”.
Sirk and Fassbinder were both theatre men – Fassbinder from Munich’s Antiteater collective; Sirk from theatres in Hamburg, Chemnitz and Bremen. From the theatre they each brought to the cinema a sense of ‘theatrical distanciation’ which, when assimilated into their films, effects a sympathetic dissonance, quite at odds with cinema’s tendency to absorb the viewer into the film.
Partly hamstrung by the demands of a commercial film studio, and by the conservative climate of 1950s America, Sirk sought to subtly subvert and transcend the “ridiculous” stories which he was charged with filming by creating a lavish spectacle, an aesthetics of excess founded on a heavily stylized use of light, set design, costumes and casting. The world that All That Heaven Allows depicts is a Technicolor dreamscape inhabited by baby blue station wagons, golden autumnal leaves, crisp, white snow and Christmas card reindeers. Where there is conflict, this brightly lit idyll is plunged into noir-ish shadow, its hard edges tinted with cold blue hues.
A brief plot description: All That Heaven Allows tells the story of Cary (Jane Wyman), a widowed mother of two college-age children, who falls in love with Rock Hudson’s stoic gardener, Ron, who lives outside of her provincial town’s stifling social environment in a cabin in the countryside. Perceptibly poorer and fifteen years younger than Cary, Ron is met with disapproval from her children and her country club set. Agonised into choosing between her love for Ron and her desire to be accepted by her children and peers, Cary calls off the affair. Discovering her children’s indifference to her sacrifice, and suffering from psychosomatic headaches brought on by the emotional strain (or, according to Fassbinder, sexual tension), Cary decides to go back to Ron, but changes her mind at the last moment. In his excitement at seeing Cary in the distance, Ron suffers a life-threatening accident; Cary rushes to his bedside, vowing this time to stay.
The simplicity of the plot allows Sirk – and the viewer – room for a melodramatic ‘bending’ of the text. As much of the emotional conflict in 1950s melodrama is denied an external manifestation – as opposed to, say, in the action movie or western – filmmakers in the genre were required to come up with ways of visualising the internal drama using other, purely cinematic means. (The films of those directors who favoured a more naturalistic treatment of the material have suffered critically in the long term.) Sirk was one of a handful of Hollywood directors of the period to adopt a stylistically excessive mise-en-scène – what Thomas Elsaesser terms the “sublimation of dramatic conflict into décor, colour, gesture and composition” – to exteriorize what is happening “inside” the characters. Where this melodramatic “sublimation” differs from the expressionism of the early twentieth century – whose films also sought to express the internal anguish of their characters by altering their surroundings – is in the set design’s lavish attention to artifice: instead of the spiky, hard-edged surrealist sets of expressionist cinema, the ‘Sirkian’ 1950s melodrama provides a warm, seductive facsimile of US suburban life, which at once idealizes and subtly ironises the aspirations of Eisenhower’s bourgeois America.
The relationship of this artificiality to the audience is manifold: the plastic surfaces and garish colours of a film like Heaven highlight the illusory nature of the reality that is depicted, yes; but do they not, in their obvious artificiality, also serve to stand in for the hackneyed methods and sentimental rhetoric we call upon to articulate our own emotions and desires – the “real” of which language struggles to get within reach? Both Peter Brooks and Thomas Elsaesser associate the melodramatic form per se with a “crisis of expression”, the depiction of a “terrain of the ‘unspeakable’”, in which “language is inadequate to the emotional burden of the subject matter”. Laura Mulvey attributes this “text of muteness” in the 1950s melodrama to the form’s “proximity to the mechanisms of repression” inherent in the period’s expansion of suburban America.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder also turned to artifice as a way of articulating his society’s own crisis of expression in 1970s West Germany. But where Sirk was able to transplant the lavish set design of his classical theatre background into his movies, Fassbinder’s origins were in the experimental theatre, whose typically marginal status and constricted budgets encourage a reliance on improvised spaces and stark staging.
In Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder transposes Sirk’s story of WASPish repression to working class Munich. A late-middle-aged woman, Emmi, meets, falls in love with and marries Ali, a Moroccan immigrant worker 20 years her junior. Ostracised by her neighbours, colleagues and grown-up children, the couple go on their honeymoon; on their return, those who spurned Emmi realise she has her uses and make efforts to accept her and her husband. Welcomed back into the fold, Emmi is blinded to her husband’s alienation; Ali responds by turning to gambling and adultery. Emmi forgives him, but Ali is struck by an illness common among Gastarbeiter; the film ends with Emmi by his bedside.
Naturalistic lighting and an authentically drab colour scheme of greens, browns and greys place us undeniably in 1970s Central Europe. Where Fassbinder veers towards artificiality is in the almost featureless set design – the stark, carpeted rooms resemble show homes from a G-Plan catalogue – and in the performances of his actors, whose awkward movements and monotonous delivery throw the viewer out of the cinematic illusion. The muted soundtrack too – with its overdubbed sounds and speech bearing little relation to the spaces in which they are supposedly emitted – works to alienate the viewer from the world on screen.
Like Cary in Heaven, Fassbinder is preoccupied with being seen. His films repeatedly make us identify with a scene’s onlookers, with peripheral characters commanding an attention from the camera far beyond that required by the narrative. In Fear this stall is set out in the first scene, with the film’s first big close-up reserved for Ali’s jealous friend as she glares at the little old lady sat alone at the table; and later, after Ali has joined Emmi, by the constant reverse shots between the couple and the patrons’ cold stares (a sequence repeated to an exaggerated degree in a later restaurant scene). Even when a scene has no actual onlookers, Jurgen Jurges’ camera forces us to look upon the couple at awkward angles, through gaps between walls and staircases, or from behind a window across the street, as if trying to snatch a voyeuristic glance at this private world. This near-constant surveillance of Emmi & Ali by the community – coupled with the indifferent, almost benign attitude of the ‘official’ authorities (the police, the landlord) – leaves us in little doubt about the workings of this society’s mechanisms of control.
While Emmi might attract a fair amount of attention in Ali’s bar, once she takes him into her domain it is he who becomes the subject of stares. Indeed, El Hedi ben Salem is the film’s archetypal ‘looked-at’ object, the embodiment of Rock Hudson’s supposed “nice set of muscles”. Ali’s passivity goes beyond his charmingly simple easy-going nature (“think much, cry much”): in a reversal of John Berger’s maxim that “men act, women appear”, it is Ali whom the film subjectivises as being-looked-at, both in ben Salem’s performance and in the way his image is presented to us.
Ali is pictured in mirrors and through door frames, in an exhibition more classically associated with representations of the female form. When Emmi observes Ali’s reflection while he takes a shower, he smiles at her “with the modesty of someone whose pleasure in himself is entirely dependent upon the pleasure another takes in him” – a peculiar type of “non-narcissism” which is reminiscent of Freud’s “classic female subject”. Later, in an explicit inversion of Laura Mulvey’s classical formulation of cinema’s ‘male gaze’, Fassbinder frames Ali’s naked figure within a doorway down a hall, looked upon by the bar’s landlady – a pose and framing familiar from historical representations of the female nude. Ali’s passive objectification is most obscenely depicted in the scene in which Emmi invites her co-workers to feel up his muscles, exchanging him between them. (“And so clean!” Emmi’s colleague exclaims, as if Ali’s status as a foreign ‘stain’ within Munich’s cosily drab milieu might be evident in his physical hygiene.) Ali’s passivity is embedded in ben Salem’s performance: the actor gestures rather than acts, his blank expression inviting the other characters – and the audience – to project their own fantasies onto him.
Fassbinder’s use of mirrors and internal frames is hardly unique: the ‘self-reflexive’ practice of composing images to invite comparisons with the act of film-watching is a typical feature of much ‘auteur’ cinema. But the almost excessive use of reflected images throughout Fassbinder’s oeuvre brings to mind Douglas Sirk’s comments on Imitation of Life:
Everything, even life, is inevitably removed from you. You can’t reach, or touch, the real. You just see reflections. If you try to grasp happiness itself your fingers only meet glass. It’s hopeless.¹
Sirk explores this in All That Heaven Allows by separating Jane Wyman from a typically idyllic scene with a window pane: as carol singers glide outside on a horse-drawn cart; as a deer frolics among the trees outside Ron’s mill. In the screen’s reflection of her newly-arrived television, rather than ‘happiness’, Cary glimpses herself as seen through the eyes of her growing-up children: a lonely, ageing woman, bound by the TV’s boxy frame. Similarly, Fassbinder locates within (or behind) the glass a character’s subjectivity; or, as Kaja Silverman puts it, he “denaturalises identity by emphasising at every conceivable juncture its imaginary bases”. Thus,
…he never misses an opportunity to point the camera at a character’s mirror reflection rather than at the character himself or herself, and he shoots almost compulsively through windows, as if to deny any possibility of a direct or immediate access to the object of the camera’s scrutiny.²
So it is that only upon seeing Ali’s reflection in the bathroom mirror does Emmi declare his beauty, and it is in the mirror that Ali slaps himself in an attempt to reach himself, to snap himself out of his losing streak. What is seen as the ‘essence’ of a character is glimpsed only through their reflection – itself a distortion.
Sirk was required to append a ‘happy ending’ to each of his films, and this he did fully aware of the dubiousness of neat resolutions – the deer remains behind the glass, after all. Fassbinder makes explicit the irony of his ‘happy end’, having a doctor explain that Ali will of course be back in hospital in another six months – his body the site of his ongoing conflict with society, just as Cary’s protested with headaches during hers. Endings are the most illusory trait of any fiction; that Sirk’s and Fassbinder’s films recognise this attests to their makers’ ability to observe life, the dust it throws up, and to present their reflections on the screen.
1. Halliday, J. (1997). Sirk on Sirk. 2nd ed. London: Faber and Faber, p151.
2. Silverman, K. (1992). Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, p133.