Douglas Sirk once said: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.” When All That Heaven Allows was released by Universal Studios in 1955 it was just another critically unnoticed Hollywood genre product designed to appeal to the trashy “women’s weepie” audience. Now, in retrospect, it is considered to be closer to the art side of Sirk’s “dialectic” and one of his key films. But this is part of a wider process of critical re-evaluation, in which his entire body of work has been rediscovered and reappraised by successive generations of filmmakers and historians.
No one seeing the film at the time would have imagined its director to be an elegant, extremely erudite European whose career started in the theatre of Weimar Germany and was an early director of Brecht’s Threepenny Opera. After a short, but successful, career at the UFa studios in the vacuum left by the massive emigration of Jewish talent after the Nazis came to power in 1933, he made his way to Hollywood, directing his first film there in 1942. But after an unsuccessful attempt to return to Germany in 1949–50, he signed a contract with Universal Pictures. His movie career then culminated with his most high-profile films, the melodramas of 1952–58. By 1959 he was Universal’s most successful director. At that very point, he left moviemaking and America. Until his death in 1987, he and his wife Hilde lived in Lugano, Switzerland.
All That Heaven Allows marks the final turning point in Sirk’s strange and varied career. On the back of Magnificent Obsession’s success the previous year, Universal gave him the budgets and the freedom that enabled his mature style to blossom. All That Heaven Allows contains all the elements of characteristically Sirkian composition: light, shade, color, and camera angles combine with his trademark use of mirrors to break up the surface of the screen. Here are all the components of the “melodramatic” style on which Sirk’s critical reputation is based and that has made him the favorite of later generations of filmmakers, from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Quentin Tarantino, from John Waters to Pedro Almódovar.
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