Melodrama & The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder

All art inspires other art. By telling stories, filmmakers impact people all across the world, and encourage them to tell their own stories. Such is the case with Douglas Sirk, whose 1950s melodramas have inspired many contemporary filmmakers to experiment with the melodramatic form in their own filmmaking practice.

Sirk’s 1955 All That Heaven Allows inspired and informed the creative choices made by German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in his 1973 film Ali: Fear Eats the Soul by a large extent – let’s analyse.

Introduction: Melodrama And The Pseudo-Remake

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a pseudo-remake of All That Heaven Allows; however, Fassbinder re-contextualises the story, to focus on racial tensions in 1970s Munich. The initial premise remains: an older woman falls in love with a younger man, much to the disapproval of the world around her. However, Fassbinder does not just take inspiration from Sirk’s narrative, he also attempts to recreate the traditional melodramatic form that Sirk presents.

The key formal elements of melodrama, as Sirk presents them, are: restrained non-verbal storytelling, using mise en scene for framing purposes and the telling of socially and politically relevant stories. The most important of these is the mise en scène. As scholar Laura Mulvey claims, melodramatic mise en scène “acts as a means of narration, contributing a kind of cinematic commentary or description, inscribing into the scene significance that goes beyond the consciousness of characters”. Through comparing the two films, one can analyse the significant influence Sirk’s work had on Fassbinder’s.

Fassbinder’s Revisions: An Updated Melodrama for 1970s Germany

Fassbinder updates and re-contextualises Sirk’s narrative, placing an emphasis on race relations in 1970s Germany. In Sirk’s original film, set in 1955, a recently widowed upper class white woman falls in love with her younger white, lower middle-class gardener. In Fassbinder’s, an elderly German cleaning woman, Emmi, falls in love with a much younger black Morrocan man. In writing his remake, Fassbinder re-contextualised the story from 1950s suburban America to 1970s working class Munich, adding to the story an element of race relations which was not previously there.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
All That Heaven Allows (1955) – source: Universal-International

It is worth noting that Sirk was working within the studio system, under Universal, in the conservative 1950s America, whereas Fassbinder was making arthouse films in 1970s Germany, and had more creative and political freedom to address race in a way that Sirk could not. In her article “The Price of Heaven: Remaking Politics in All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Far From Heaven”, scholar Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky reveals the significance of these changes:

“By presenting a cross-ethnic worker solidarity, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ultimately inverts All that Heaven Allows, which it reads as depicting not a cross-class solidarity, but rather the alliance of petit bourgeoisie and haut bourgeoisie sanctioned by an ideology of individualism. Fassbinder’s film recuperates the absences of the Sirk text: the urban space, the working class, and the racial minority.[1]

Considering Context: Racial Dynamics in Post-War Germany

Fassbinder made the decision to refocus a previously all-white love story to become a fable for intolerance in post-war Germany. To understand the significance of this choice, we must consider the racial history of 1970s Germany. Germany’s history has deep colonial roots, born from its invasion and genocide of several areas of Africa between the 19th and 20th centuries. In her her article for Al JazeeraGouri Sharma eloquently summarises the conflict: “During Colonialism, Germans were offered the idea that they were white people, that they were superior people, that they were born to rule”.

Fassbinder illustrates that these insidious beliefs of superiority have never really gone away through public attitudes towards Ali, who is from Morocco, a part of Africa. He shows this through the hateful rhetoric used to describe Arab immigrants by Emmi’s cleaner co-workers. These women call Arabs “stinky unwashed pigs” and “garbage”, claiming that women who fall in love with them, like Emmi, are “filthy whores”. By understanding Germany’s colonial past, and its subsequent deeply ingrained historical anti-blackness, allows one to understand the reason for and significance of Ali’s (and Emmi’s) ostracization in the film. Fassbinder uses Sirk’s story as an inspiration for him to create his own political work, in his own context of 1970s Germany.

Breaking the Moral Binary in Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

Fassbinder, in updating melodrama as a critical form, chose to expand Sirk’s morally two-dimensional characters. Fassbinder adds sophistication to these stock characters to better resemble real, complicated people: moral flaws and all. Fassbinder, unlikeSirk, was not working for a studio, and therefore had more creative freedom to explore political issues of his choosing the way he wanted to explore them. He does this by expanding the characters of his melodrama to be more than simple stereotypes.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
All That Heaven Allows (1955) – source: Universal-International

In All That Heaven Allows, Sirk’s characters can largely separated into a binary of “good” and “bad”. Cary and Ron, our romantic heroes, are ‘good’; Howard the pervert, Mona the town gossip, and the monolith of snobby, catty society women, are all “bad”.

Fassbinder’s representation of his characters, particularly the lead couple, are more complicated as he pushes the boundary of what “melodrama” can be. One view of the melodramatic form posited by Svirsky, as exemplified in All That Heaven Allows, is that it tends to conflate virtue with suffering and victimisation.[2] Fassbender rejects this idea, espoused by Sirk, by creating Ali as both a flawed human and a victim of racism. His cheating behaviour prevents audiences from compartmentalising him into the binary of “good” and “bad”.

Similarly, Emmi’s social ostracization by her friends, family and co-workers, evokes audience pathos and sympathy. However, she also admits with unapologetic candour to once being a member of the Nazi party in wartime. Fassbinder refuses to let us sentimentalise these morally flawed characters into tragic heroes. Svirsky claims that “This nonjudgmental stance is what makes Ali: Fear Eats the Soul’s critique of the social world political and not moralistic, like that of All that Heaven Allows”.[3]

Directorial Similarities: Colour as Storytelling

Fassbinder copies Sirk’s deliberate use of colour and lighting as a storytelling method, in his attempt to emulate traditional melodramatic form. As a form, melodrama is a paradox. It is known as a “genre of restraint”, yet its films typically have heightened stakes and emotions.

Both directors satisfy melodramatic form by using colour for storytelling purposes in different ways. Sirk, for example, uses Technicolor technology to create an intense, lucid and highly saturated colour palette for symbolic purposes. Barbara Flueckigerparaphrasing Thomas Elsaesse, is perceptive in her assertion that “Sirk’s style reflects the oppressed emotions and the societal conditions of their female protagonists”.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
All That Heaven Allows (1955) – source: Universal-International

Never is this more evident than in the emotional confrontation between Cary and her daughter Kay. Here, a distraught Kay laments how her mother’s radical behaviour within this intolerant society has caused social exile for the whole family. Throughout the entire film, Kay, a psychology student, avoids approaching her issues “emotionally” and attempts to analyse them “objectively” instead. By repressing her emotions up until this point, Kay’s breakdown is even more cathartic. This scene is lit via a stained-glass window which casts grotesquely vibrant colours across the room. The intensity of colours serves as a visual indicator of the scene’s heightened emotions.

When asked about colour in his films, Sirk claimed that he used colour “to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can’t break through”. While this emotional repression clearly applies to Kay, it can also be seen in the character of Emmi in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.

Throughout the film, Emmi avoids letting Ali see how upset their social exclusion has made her. However, in this climactic scene at an outdoor café, she openly weeps. Emmi laments the intolerant society, “I can hardly stand it, the way people hate us”, in dialogue that is clearly inspired by Kay’s scene in Sirk’s film.

Fassbinder uses colour symbolically here, but in more subtle ways. This outdoor scene has naturalistic lighting (unlike All That Heaven Allows) and is framed so that the bottom half of this extreme long shot is overwhelmed by the bright yellow of the café furniture. By juxtaposing yellow, a colour that symbolises optimism and happiness, with the sadness and despair of this scene, Fassbinder makes a statement about the inability to have a happy, inter-racial romance in such a prejudiced society.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (1973) – source: Tango-Film

Visual Symbolism in All That Heaven Allows

Both Sirk and Fassbinder use framing to show the thoughts and feelings of characters non-verbally, consistent with the visual elements of the melodramatic form. In melodrama, the mise en scène takes on a narrational function. In All That Heaven AllowsSirk applies all five elements of mise en scène (setting, costume, lighting, props, staging) to tell Cary’s story visually.

Through mise en scène and cinematography, Sirk elucidates Cary’s inner conflict in the film. Cary is torn between her old life, and the social status she holds, and an unfamiliar, unpredictable life with Ron. These emotions are represented visually after Ron proposes to Cary. The couple embrace at the doorway of the old mill, half way between the winter storm outside and the cosy interior. This liminal staging is symbolic, critics argue:

“Cary is caught between the warmth of this beautiful home Ron’s built for the two of them to live in, and the literal cold of the snow and wind that represents a life without him. It’s such an elegant way of silently conveying the character’s uncertainty and indecision.”

The lighting and colour scheme further emphasis this conflict. On the left, the snowy exterior is a cool, unwelcoming blue; on the right, the room is lit by the warm orange glow of the fire. The influence of German Expressionism, and the work of esteemed theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht, is evident in the highly theatrical and symbolic nature of this tableaux. This scene is framed in a way that clearly argues that the “right” choice is to be with Ron.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul- source: Tango-Film

By imploring Cary to rebel against the prejudices of her materialistic haut bourgeois society, and live a quaint life in nature, Sirk promotes a subtle yet progressive agenda. As Sirk was working within the dominant ideology of the studio system of 1950s America, he couldn’t posit his progressive class-defying politics too strongly. However, through subtle framing devices and melodramatic mise en scène, Sirk both shows Cary’s inner conflict, and projects to the audience which choice she must make.

‘Looking’ in Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

“Non-verbal storytelling” is yet another tenant of melodramatic filmmaking that Fassbinder draws from Sirk’s work. In Ali: Feat Eats the SoulFassbinder establishes society’s prejudice against Ali primarily through the distasteful way people look at Ali. In an interview about Fassbinder’s work, indie filmmaker Todd Haynes elaborates on this idea:

“The entire movie is constructed formally and in its content around looking, around one character looking at another character, around characters being looked at, around looks of desire and looks that define the most rigid social stations of insider/outsider.”

The many shots of Emmi’s neighbours spying on the couple, consistent with the formal, restrained style of melodrama, speaks volumes about this society’s disdainful and suspicious attitudes towards non-white people. This idea that Emmi and Ali are constantly being watched is echoed in the cinematography, which takes a voyeuristic perspective. In one scene at the start of the film, the couple share a private moment in Emmi’s kitchen. Emmi gets emotional thinking about the future of their relationship and shares with him that “I’m so happy and so full of fear, too”, causing Ali to comfort her with the wisdom of an Arab saying: “Fear eats the soul”.

In this intimate moment, the camera is framed in a mid-shot, with the doorway in the foreground, and the couple in the background. This cinematography gives the impression that the camera is peaking into the room, as if a hidden intruder spying on the couple.

Melodrama And The Remake: The Cinematic Influence Of Sirk On Fassbinder
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul- source: Tango-Film

This voyeuristic cinematographic style, constantly creates the sense that this couple’s private moments are being invaded by the judgemental, ever-watching society. Through utilising actors’ facial expressions, staging and cinematography, Fassbinderdelivers visual storytelling that, like Sirk’s work in All That Heaven Allows, is both subtle and powerful.

Conclusion: The Significant Influence of Douglas Sirk

Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows had a tremendous influence on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul both narratively and aestheticallyWithout Sirk, Fassbinder’s film could not exist. All That Heaven Allows serves as both a how-to guide on melodrama as a critical form, and a superb example of how powerful visual storytelling can be. The key formal elements of melodrama (restrained non-verbal storytelling, using mise en scène for framing purposes and the telling of socially and politically relevant stories) are showcased in both films in different ways.

Fassbinder doesn’t just copy Sirk’s filmmaking practice; he appreciates it, studies it, and makes it his own. Sirk’s film provided narrative inspiration for Fassbinder to write his own re-contextualised version of this story; it acted as a “jumping off point” for Fassbinder as an artist to write his own story, in a context he understood, exploring issues relevant to his time (1970s Germany). By comparatively studying these two films, one can appreciate the tremendous power art has, to both tell stories in its own right, and to inspire other artists to tell their stories, too.

What other examples can you think of, of directors inspiring other directors?

[1] Skvirsky, Salome Aguilera. 2008. “The Price Of Heaven: Remaking Politics In All That Heaven Allows, Ali: Fear Eats The Soul And Far From Heaven.”

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

This article was originally posted on Film Inquiry

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