Although he would come to be known as one of cinema’s quintessential commentators on the hypocrisies and shortcomings of postwar U.S. culture, delivering critique of middle-class America with what seemed an insider’s eye, Douglas Sirk was born Detlef Sierk in 1897 in Hamburg, Germany. His career would begin in his home country, where he became a sought-after theater director in the 1920s before moving into film just as the Nazis came to power in 1933. 

Before finally fleeing the country [Sirk’s political leanings were generally left-wing and his wife, Hilde Jary, was Jewish], he would become one of Germany’s most popular directors, filming nine movies between 1935 and 1937. It was here that he began to develop the recognizable Sirkian style of melodrama that we see in films like All That Heaven Allows [1955]: namely, an elaborate mise-en-scene that often clashes with the overt content of the story. 

Sirk’s early encounter with the work of Bertolt Brecht is often cited to explain the development of this style. Among the plays Sirk staged as a theater director was Brecht and Kurt Weill’s satirical musical The Threepenny Opera [Die Dreigroschenoper, written 1928]. Although, unlike the Communist playwright, Sirk never has characters in his films break character and address the audience, the hallmark of his mise-en-scene is the way it calls attention to itself as artifice, creating what Brecht referred to as Verfremdung, or its awkward English translation, “distanciation.”

The irony and sophistication—not to mention the left-wing tendencies—of such techniques is not what you would call a common feature of German film between 1933 and 1945. Nazi-era film, produced under the state-controlled monopoly Ufa, is famously banal; vile propaganda like Jud Süss [1940] was actually the exception. In this context, however, Sirk began to develop a means of conveying complex meanings through the popular form of the melodrama.

It’s in his first great film, Schlussakkord [Final Accord, 1936], that we can see the Sirk of All That Heaven Allows emerge. The story opens in New York on New Year’s Eve as a dead body is discovered on a park bench. The man turns out to be Christian Müller, a German forced to flee his country with his wife Hanna [Maria von Tasnady] after his role in an embezzlement scheme was discovered. Confronted by the police, Hanna reveals that she was forced to leave their son behind when they fled.

Across the ocean—a transition that will be bridged for most of the film with an insert shot of rolling waves—a little boy has been taken from his abusive foster parents and remanded to the care of pediatrician Dr. Obereit [Theodor Loos]. Obereit’s friend, the well-known conductor Erich Garvenberg [Willy Birgel] takes a liking to the boy, Peter [Peter Bosse], and eventually will decide to adopt him, hoping that having a child will fix his relationship with his wife Charlotte [Lil Dagover].

In America, under terrible emotional distress, Hanna falls ill, and only regains the strength to go on living when she hears a stirring performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio. “Did you hear that?” Hanna sits up and asks, “the cherub stands before God,” referring to the lyrics of the 9th’s “Ode to Joy.” This performance, of course, is being broadcast live from the Berlin Philharmonic, where Garvenberg himself is conducting. While Garvenberg conducts, however, his wife is spending time with her paramour, the astrologist Carl-Otto [whose name is strikingly close to Charlotte’s], played by Albert Lippert. Her handmaid and trusted confidant, Frau Freese [Maria Koppenhöfer], helps cover for her, promising to protect her at any cost.

The true melodramatic situation—the one in which secrets are harbored, injustices are silently suffered, and good is redeemed against evil—comes about when Hanna journeys back to Germany and, in a move that would surely have him barred from today’s APA, Dr. Obereit gets her a job as her real son’s nanny. Here we have the set-up for a classic melodramatic conclusion that would also conform to the National Socialists’ stance on motherhood and duty: the real, biological mother will take the place of the philandering wife, defeating the [lesbian] handmaid along the way.

While on the surface, the film would seem to conform to this ideological rubric, the way it plays out is surprisingly complex, thanks largely to Sirk’s masterful staging of a few key sequences. The recurring motif of performance in the film begins to undermine what seems like its heartfelt portrayal of mothers lost and redeemed. The scene with Beethoven’s 9th is followed by a pair of scenes from ballets which mirror Charlotte’s affair with Carl-Otto, and foreshadow the film’s dark climax.

 Figure 1.. Peter's puppet play calls attention to the film's own artificial characters.

Figure 1.. Peter's puppet play calls attention to the film's own artificial characters.

These scenes, however, are undercut by the boy Peter’s own staging of “Snow White” as a puppet play, which seems also to reflect certain elements of the plot. Where before the reflection of Schlussakkord’s plot in pieces of fiction within the film seemed to add weight to its reflection on family, during the extended scene with Peter’s crudely constructed puppets, the film’s plot seems arbitrary, even ridiculous. These characters that we are watching—the Good Mother [Snow White/Hanna], the Bad Mother [Charlotte/the Queen], and the Malevolent Maid [the witch/Frau Freese]—are ancient archetypes, not people.

Ironically, as the film winds toward its [in many ways surprising] conclusion, this foregrounding of the artifice helps us to see the humanity of each of the characters lurking underneath the archetypes inherited from Grimm Fairy Tales and propagated by a petty bourgeois worldview. Other moments in the film, including a rather haunting one in which a hand mirror reflects Charlotte’s face in the place of Frau Fresse’s, deconstruct the film’s own messaging by calling attention to the narrative devices it is in the process of deploying.

 Figure 2. Charlotte holds up her mirror, replacing Frau Fesse's face with her own.

Figure 2. Charlotte holds up her mirror, replacing Frau Fesse's face with her own.

It would be wrong to say that the film is an example of resistance to Nazi ideology or anything as, well, melodramatic as that. But Schlussakkord is a distinctly Sirkian film, the kind of “doubly coded,” ironic narrative critics would discover in later American works like All That Heaven Allows.