Fassbinder Douglas Sirk Essay

Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Kamikaze 1989 (1982)

A Rainer Werner Fassbinder season runs at BFI Southbank, alongside a series of Fassbinder’s favourite films, in April-May 2017

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s cinephilia was narrower than, say, that of Jean-Luc Godard, and one wonders, given the German’s prolificacy, just when he had the time to watch so many films, especially since he lived before the advent of DVD or even the ubiquity of video. (He reportedly died while watching 20,000 Years in Sing Sing on television.)

Acute if occasionally perverse, Fassbinder’s taste naturally ran to extremes – of emotion, style and vision. Not for him the subdued or elegant, the delicate or refined. Whole terrains seemed not to exist on his cinematic map: much of Asia, Scandinavia, Latin America. He rarely listed silent, experimental or documentary films among his favourites and spurned or ignored vast stretches of French cinema. Über alles for Fassbinder was Hollywood cinema, particularly paranoid noirs, baroque westerns, crime films and highly wrought melodramas. The 1950s was his favourite decade, no doubt because its nuclear anxiety, cold war paranoia, familial fissures and social constriction made American cinema prone to the florid and corrosive.

The literally explosive endings of both Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Raoul Walsh’s White Heat (1949) – echoed in the big bang that ends The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) perhaps? – suggest how immoderate were Fassbinder’s predilections. Taken together, his most beloved films summon a dire vision of the world. (Those that don’t, such as Vasily Shukshin’s Red Elderberry and Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto, seem more like mild enthusiasms.) 

As with any director’s list of favourites and influences – well, maybe not Robert Bresson’s – it is easy to discern thematic patterns and obvious debts. Like Godard, Fassbinder flaunted his influences through homage and citation – to Jean-Pierre Melville, Bertolt Brecht and Godard in his early crime films, to Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky in The Third Generation (1979), to many American directors throughout his career.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

He employed actors he adored who were associated with other directors: Anna Karina, Eddie Constantine and Macha Méril from Godard’s early films, for example, Jeanne Moreau from countless beloved movies, Magdalena Montezuma from Werner Schroeter’s cinema and Lou Castel from Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965). In his omnivorous way, Fassbinder paid the grandest homage to his mentors by refashioning their films to make some of his own –  Suspicion (1941) and Gaslight (1944) in Martha (1974), The Blue Angel (1930) in Lola (1981), All That Heaven Allows (1955) in Fear Eats the Soul (1974), The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956) in The Marriage of Maria Braun, Sunset Blvd. (1950) in Veronika Voss (1982).

Often, the influence is more apparent than paraded, a matter of mere affinity. The recurring theme of entrapment, especially of women, in his cinema is readily noticeable in many of his favourites (especially Sirk’s). The small-town corruption in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) and Michael Curtiz’s Flamingo Road (1949) informs Fassbinder’s Lola, and the ‘female buddy’ bonding – and (mostly) its opposite – in such movies as The Revolt of Mamie Stover, All about Eve (1950) and Johnny Guitar (1954) certainly shaped Fassbinder’s own woman-centred cinema. And the scrims and screens, mirrors and windows, counterfeit colours and contrived lighting with which Fassbinder filled his frames to suffocate his sufferers are clearly derived from Josef von Sternberg and (again, especially) Sirk.

Unsurprisingly, Fassbinder tilted towards films that critique or indict, directly or by subterfuge, such conventions as marriage, the family, tradition, romantic love and professional success. Of Howard Hawks’ films, for instance, he admired most what he called “the gay stories”, and though he found Hitchcock’s work politically reactionary, he loved Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Suspicion, no doubt for their nasty sense of the instability of the bourgeois universe. Bresson’s Le Diable probablement (1977), which Fassbinder ferociously championed against its many detractors, offers one of the most drastic visions in all of cinema, proceeding syllogistically to illustrate that the world is hopelessly ruined.

Flamingo Road (1949)

Director Michael Curtiz

“She cast her scarlet shadow on Flamingo Road!” cried the posters for this Deep South tale – the “she” being Joan Crawford, who plays carnival dancer Lane Bellamy to the hilt and then some. Stranded in a steamy backwater, Bellamy crosses paths with corrupt big boss Titus Semple (a deliciously malignant Sydney Greenstreet) who tries to run her out of town. Instead she ends up in a succession of houses: at Lute Mae’s juke joint as a hostess and entertainer, in jail on a trumped-up morals charge and finally in posh digs on Flamingo Road, where married, respectable life beckons, until a new scandal reveals that her scarlet shadow packs a pistol.

Fassbinder greatly admired Michael Curtiz, whom he called “cruelly overlooked” in an essay on the director. He loved Casablanca (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945), but placed the comparatively rare Flamingo Road above those familiar classics, in his top four films of all time. I swear that Fassbinder recreates the opening sequence of this film at the start of Fox and His Friends (1975), where a salacious circus gets shut down by the police. (The film’s mirror-mad mise-en-scène is another giveaway).

All about Eve (1950)

Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz

We all know an Eve Harrington. Some of us know several. Fassbinder recognised the type, inserting a sly reference to Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s delectable tale of backstabbing ambition in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). When Bette Davis, swathed in cigarette smoke and insecurity, makes her famous crack about buckling up for a bumpy night, search for the seatbelt on your cinema chair. You’ll need it.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Director Nicholas Ray

François Truffaut called Johnny Guitar a “hallucinatory” western, and you may feel you have popped one too many peyotes as you stare into the Trucolor delirium of Nick Ray’s feminist western.

Joan Crawford, beyond butch in jut jaw and lean jeans, her eyebrows twin Mount Fujis, faces down arch-nemesis Mercedes McCambridge, hellfire in a dress. Everything in Johnny Guitar – clothes, colours, names, locales – seems heavily coded (watch what happens to Crawford’s white dress and to Mercedes McCambridge’s black-veiled hat) to serve Ray’s sexual and political allegory. “Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited for me.”

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

Director Charles Laughton

Charles Laughton dredged this nightmare from the collective unconscious of America’s Depression heartland. Fassbinder fell hard for its mixture of demented Americana, Andersen fairy tale, German Expressionism, symbolist painting – that rhyme of seaweed and Shelley Winters’ streaming hair! – and weird D.W. Griffith homages (Lillian Gish as a seraphic saviour lugging a shotgun). Despite its copious Christian symbolism, The Night of the Hunter manages to incriminate marriage, the family and religion as sources of horror. No wonder Fassbinder loved it!

The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956)

Director Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) is an obvious influence on Chinese Roulette (1976) and, though there is no hard evidence, I’m convinced that his The Revolt of Mamie Stover served as the template for Fassbinder’s similarly titled The Marriage of Maria Braun and its tale of a striving woman (here, Jane Russell as “flaming Mamie”) rising in the world by wile and guile, profiting from the devastation of the Second World War.

Business is what Mamie is built for, and once in Honolulu – rendered in garish colour and Cinemascope – she takes up as a “hostess” in the dancehall called The Bungalow, whose proprietor Bertha Parchman – what is it with 50s cinema and those crazy names? – is played by a steely Agnes Moorehead (a favourite actress of Douglas Sirk).

Written on the Wind (1956)

Director Douglas Sirk

Fassbinder deified German émigré Douglas Sirk, “someone,” he said, “who loves people and doesn’t despise them like we do”. Fassbinder’s bitter chronicles of familial disintegration, such as The Merchant of Four Seasons (1972), reflect his perception of this lurid 1950s update on the House of Atreus, a portrait of a clan of Texas-tea billionaires with walk-in closets to house their countless skeletons: “In Written on the Wind, the good, the ‘normal,’ the ‘beautiful’ are always utterly revolting; the evil, the weak, the dissolute arouse one’s compassion.”

When the child died before the parent, Sirk wrote this moving tribute to his offspring: “Today I have lost a good friend and Germany a genius. I would never have thought that the evil day would arrive when I, so much older, would be writing these words of mourning for this thirtysixyearold [sic] man. Fassbinder has left an amazing oeuvre of more than forty films. As magnificent in their form as in their theme, Fassbinder’s films were for a long time controversial, and hopefully will stay that way. For only those things that can survive opposition have the power of permanence.” In that last marvellous sentence, Sirk could have been speaking about his own films.

Touch of Evil (1958)

Director Orson Welles

Orson Welles’ marimba-propelled tale of mendacity turns its every improbable shot, from the opening long take forward, into a feat of seedy sensibility. Cantina queen Marlene Dietrich growls at the bloated, chocolate-chewing police chief Hank Quinlan (Welles): “Your future is all used up, why don’t you go home?” A big tawdry pleasure machine, Touch of Evil is enlivened by a game-show cast of international has-beens, wannabes and yet-to-bes, including Zsa Zsa Gabor, Akim Tamiroff, Dennis Weaver and, most bizarre of all, an uncredited and androgynous Mercedes McCambridge who whines “I wanna’ watch!” as a gang of hopped-up leather boys circle round Janet Leigh’s virginal bride in an isolated motel room.

Vivre sa vie (1962)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Fassbinder claimed, “I’ve seen it 27 times … it is the most important film I’ve seen in my life”, and paid homage to Godard’s 12-tableaux masterpiece by casting Anna Karina in Chinese Roulette. Influenced by Bresson, Brecht and Roberto Rossellini – a trio Fassbinder also admired – Vivre sa vie features two of Godard’s most famous sequences: Karina weeps as she watches Falconetti suffer in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), and dances, in her one moment of unalloyed joy, to a jukebox commanding her to “Swing! Swing! Swing!”

The Damned (1969)

Director Luchino Visconti

Fassbinder singled out Luchino Visconti’s Wagnerian epic, set, like Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), during the rise of the Third Reich (though at the opposite end of the class structure), as his all-time favourite movie, which he claimed to have seen more than 30 times, declaring it “perhaps the greatest film, the film that I think means as much to the history of film as Shakespeare to the history of theatre”. No doubt Fassbinder’s love of The Damned led to his casting of Dirk Bogarde in Despair (1978), another tale of industrial-familial intrigue set during the ascent of the Nazis. 

The Devil, Probably (1977)

Director Robert Bresson

Fassbinder inserted an extended homage to Bresson’s film in the credit sequence of The Third Generation. Hanna Schygulla calls it a “sad film”, and indeed it is, inexorably tracking the last months in the life of a young Parisian in search of his own demise, who rejects the conventional solutions offered by politics, psychiatry and religion. Fassbinder stormed off the Berlin Film Festival jury when it appeared that The Devil, Probably would not win the top prize.

This article is an edited version of programme notes for TIFF Cinematheque, Toronto

“This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”

– Jean Luc Godard writing about A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Godard on Godard translated by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press)

In the same way that the gangster movie can be said to belong to the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and film noir can be said to belong to the 1940s, the melodrama genre belongs more to the 1950s than any other decade. This is in part because the extreme stylization of mise-en-scene that we associate with the genre arguably required the “bigger than life” virtues of Technicolor and widescreen cinematography that didn’t become de rigueur until the 1950s. It is also in part because postwar societal changes saw more Americans rebelling against narrowly defined social roles, changes that were explicitly dramatized in melodrama masterpieces like Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. These two facets can be seen as neatly dovetailing when the filmmaking innovations of the day proved to be ideal tools for critiquing the specific climate of postwar repression that now seems synonymous with the “Eisenhower era.” In writing about Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Geoff Andrew has noted how “At every level the banal props of ’50s prosperity are turned into symbols of suffocation and trauma, from the X-ray machine used to diagnose (James) Mason’s ‘disease’ to the bathroom cabinet mirror shattering under a desperate blow.” To which one might add that it was precisely Ray’s masterful ‘Scope compositions and bold employment of color that made his critique so effective. Ray knew how to use the latest filmmaking technology to highlight the nightmarish undertone of these new “props of prosperity.”

The medicine chest, a broken “prop of prosperity,” in Bigger Than Life:

The melodrama has its origins in theater and actually predates the movies as a genre (the word literally means “drama with music” and was coined in 18th century France), and film scholar John Belton has provocatively argued that all silent movies, even comedies, are also melodramas. But the melodrama didn’t come into its own as a cinematic genre until the 1950s when Universal Studios produced a cycle of films directed by the Danish/German emigre Douglas Dirk. Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller, what Ford was to the western and what Minnelli was to the musical: its most famous and accomplished practitioner. The color melodramas that Sirk made for Universal between 1954 and 1959 are high water marks that virtually define the genre: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Imitation of Life. Of these, All That Heaven Allows is frequently cited as Sirk’s masterpiece, largely because it was loosely remade not once but twice: by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1973 and by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven in 2002. A comparison between Sirk’s original film and Fassbinder’s similar-yet-different remake offers an object lesson in how a genre can successfully mutate from one country and era to another, offering filmmakers living in different cultural climates the same framework in which to create diverse social critiques, while still retaining the same core characteristics.

These characteristics, which can be found in spades in both All That Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, include:

– the extreme stylization of not only mise-en-scene (as previously mentioned) but also dialogue and acting
– a foregrounding and heightening of the characters’ emotions
– the domestic sphere as a central location
– plots revolving around family tensions and romantic entanglements
– narratives involving incredible coincidences, accidents, last minute rescues and reversals of fortune

Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene combines different color temperatures, cold and warm, within a single frame:

All That Heaven Allows relays the dilemma of Carrie Scott (Jane Wyman), an attractive middle-aged widow who unexpectedly falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her much younger gardner. Their budding romance is frowned upon by the surrounding small town community, including Carrie’s grown children, because of both the age and class discrepancy that exists between them. The true subject of the film is the intolerance and hypocrisy of middle America, which Sirk shows as being rooted in prejudice and fear. This is best illustrated in two back to back scenes where Carrie is shunned first by her country club set friends at a party and then castigated by her son at home. The earlier scene offers some of the outrageously stylized, bordering-on-camp dialogue and acting for which Sirk’s movies have become beloved. When Carrie arrives at the party with Ron in tow, their “coming out” party as a couple, the reaction of her peers ranges from bemusement to envy to outright hostility. Mona, one of Carrie’s female acquaintances, references Ron’s tan from “working outdoors” before packing many layers of innuendo into a follow-up comment that he must be “handy indoors too.” Howard, a male acquaintance, likewise assumes that Carrie’s interest in Ron must be only physical and attempts to kiss her after drunkenly declaring “Line forms to the right!”

After leaving the party abruptly, Carrie returns home where she is confronted by her son, Ned, who minces words even less: “I think all you see is a good-looking set of muscles!,” Ned hisses disapprovingly. This scene, literally the darkest in the film, shows off Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene to best effect. Both Carrie and Ned are cloaked in heavy shadows throughout their tense dialogue exchange, although Sirk also combines different color temperatures within a single frame in order to subtly comment on the characters: Carrie is bathed in a warm orange light while the light that falls on Ned is cold and blue. During this exchange, Carrie and Ned change places in the room and yet the light that surrounds them paradoxically remains the same. When the scene ends, Carrie pleads for Ned to not “let this come between us.” Ned replies, “If you mean Kirby, he already has.” Most directors would have isolated these characters from each other in separate alternating close-ups at this moment, in order to emphasize the emotional distance between them, but Sirk does something more interesting; he has the characters speak their lines to each other through a translucent Chinese screen-like room divider. By doing so, he creates frames within a frame that not only emphasize the distance between the characters but show them to be metaphorically imprisoned as well.

Frames within a frame in All That Heaven Allows:

One of the film’s most celebrated sequences (and one that Martin Scorsese chose to include in his Personal Journey Through American Movies before All That Heaven Allows had ever received a home video release) involves Carrie’s children presenting their mother with a Christmas gift of a new television. At this point in the movie, Carrie has called off her relationship with Ron, and her children clearly intend for the television to fill the new void in her life. This intention is made explicit when the television salesman informs Carrie “All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want . . . right there on the screen.” The scene ends with an image as clever as it is haunting, a somber Carrie staring at her own reflection in the switched-off television screen. Here, Sirk’s critique is twofold: as a prop of prosperity, the television is a poor substitute for a lover and, as a competing form of audio-visual entertainment, its image is inferior to that of the cinema!

The impact of Sirk on Fassbinder, while well-known, cannot be overestimated. Fassbinder’s earliest movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s were self-consciously intellectual, avant-garde-tinged works of political modernism. After discovering the films of Sirk, Fassbinder realized that not only could the cinema be simultaneously emotionally engaging and socially critical, but that audiences might be able to swallow such criticism more easily if it could be subversively couched within the conventions of a highly emotional genre like the melodrama. While many of Fassbinder’s best films from 1971 through the premature end of his career in 1982 show the obvious influence of Sirk, it can perhaps be most strongly felt in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the one time Fassbinder actively remade the plot of one of his master’s movies.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul updates the basic premise of All That Heaven Allows to the Germany of the early 1970s; it tells the story of Emmi, a middle-aged cleaning lady, who embarks on an unlikely romance with Ali, a much younger immigrant worker from Morocco. So not only does Fassbinder tackle agism and classism, a la Sirk, but racism and xenophobia as well. Similar to Sirk, Fassbinder’s unlikely scenario forces his disparate characters together in a way that will cause them to reveal prejudices that might otherwise remain hidden. But it’s worth noting that Fassbinder’s milieu is pointedly urban and multicultural (it takes place in Munich) so that the social ills he depicts, unlike those in All That Heaven Allows, cannot be seen as stemming from “provincial thinking.” Showing social prejudice to be a kind of disease underlying the facade of civilized German society is one of the links Fassbinder makes between the Germany of the time he made his film and his country’s Nazi past. This link is made explicit when Emmi takes Ali to a fancy restaurant to celebrate their engagement, one that she boasts was a favorite of Hitler.

Fassbinder’s mise-en-scene is likewise stylized along Sirkian lines with characters frequently framed behind windows or railings to suggest entrapment, although Fassbinder betrays his avant-garde roots by composing images that call more attention to themselves in their artfulness. This self-conscious use of form to explicitly comment on content was accurately and memorably described by Manny Farber as “snarl and decoration.” But taking a cue from his more urban milieu, Fassbinder also elaborates on the Sirk playbook in ways that are meaningful and original. For instance, he frequently shoots his characters from a distance, often through doorways, to give his scenes a more voyeuristic feel. Because these working class, city dwellers live in crowded apartment buildings and not, say, houses in New England, Fassbinder repeatedly makes viewers aware of the extent to which his characters are living in close quarters to each other, allowing us to read varying degrees of social prejudice into the silent gazes of his characters as they openly spy on one another.

“Snarl and decoration” in Fear Eats the Soul:

Fassbinder’s cleverest Sirk homage in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes in a scene that also includes a television as a prop; Emmi never bothers to inform her grown children of her relationship with Ali until after the two have married. She invites over her two sons, daughter and son-in-law (played by the director himself) with the promise of a big announcement. Once the children are seated in the living room in front of her, Emmi brings out Ali, wearing his best suit, and formally introduces him as her husband. A slow pan across the children’s faces registers their silent disgust. Then, one of her sons, stands up and proceeds to kick in the screen of his mother’s television set. The difference between the television scene in each film illustrates the extent to which the television ceased to be a prop of prosperity for the rich and had instead become a ubiquitous fixture of working class homes. In the earlier film, Ned sheepishly apologizes for only being able to afford a “table top” model. In the latter, the T.V. is no longer a status symbol and a novelty but a necessity that is both practically valueless and easily disposable.

One of the joys of raking through the history of cinema is to note the kind of explicit repurposing of genre conventions that I’ve outlined above. Fassbinder, a keen student of film history himself, was acutely aware of this impulse but also of the importance of elaborating upon and adding to that from which he borrowed. The radical nature of Fassbinder’s art is of the kind that can only stem from a true reverence for the masters who invented the very rules he intended to bend. I will leave the last word to him from his famous essay on Sirk:

“‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore.’ America is really something else.”

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

This entry was posted on Monday, March 12th, 2012 at 6:36 am and tagged with Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, All That Heaven Allows, Angst essen Seele auf, Bigger Than Life, Douglas Sirk, Geoff Andrew, John Belton, Manny Farber, Nicholas Ray, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and posted in Essays, Film Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.

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