Melodrama is also a term that has currency within film studies debate that has a sometimes uncomfortable connection with the two understandings of the term already discussed.
The term entered the lexicon of film studies initially through auteurist interests in the work of European émigré directors working in Hollywood during the 1950s, particularly a group of films made by Douglas Sirk (1897–1987) during his years as a contract director at Universal, among them Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written on the Wind (1956), and Imitation of Life (1959). Sirk used the term melodrama to describe a form of drama characterized by high emotion and its affective qualities in an unambiguous and rather ironic manner in order to articulate his own distaste for their overtly sentimental plots. Melodrama at this point was seized upon by a generation of scholars to describe this "rediscovered" form of cinema, and Sirk's films were regarded as the epitome of a newly identified, though far from clearly defined, genre that was more complex ideologically than previously had been thought.
In 1971 Thomas Elsaesser, taking Sirk's lead, argued that the focus of film melodrama of 1950s Hollywood is the bourgeois family and that it is distinguished by a strong sense of ideological contradiction reflecting wider uncertainties, fears, and neuroses prevalent in postwar Eisenhower America. For Elsaesser, this ideological contradiction is expressed in the family melodrama primarily through mise-en-scène , music, and performance. From this perspective, mise-en-scène is perhaps the most important melodramatic device, filling in the gaps, as it were, between what the characters are unable or unwilling to express. For Elsaesser and other scholars such as Paul Willemen and, later, Thomas Schatz, the mise-en-scène in melodrama becomes overburdened with meaning. Anxieties and contradictions not explicitly expressed within the narrative are displaced onto objects, constructing the bourgeois home as a stifling environment for its inhabitants, as in Sirk's and Vincente Minnelli's films. Later in the 1970s Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Laura Mulvey expanded on this argument, suggesting that the ideological contradictions contained in the family melodrama were so marked that at moments of high tension, narrative coherence breaks down. In effect, they claimed, these contradictions become so intense that they actually ruptured the cohesiveness of the classical narrative structure. As Nowell-Smith notes, "The undischarged emotion which cannot be accommodated in the action, subordinated as it is to the demands of family/lineage/inheritance is traditionally expressed in the music and in the case of film in certain elements of the mise-en-scène " (Nowell-Smith, p. 73).
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 Cinèma , notably François 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-scène drawing on irony and Brechtian alienating devices. Sirk's work has influenced many subsequent filmmakers including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Pedro Almodóvar, 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 Festival, 1972.
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture and the Films of Douglas Sirk . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Throughout the 1970s and well into the 1980s, critical discussion of film melodrama was constrained by two theoretical paradigms, psychoanalysis and neo-Marxist 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 (1945–1982). 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
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 Tränen 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 Händler 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 Almodóvar (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), Almodóvar 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.