‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

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“Fassbinder is Petra von Kant.” So says frequent star and muse Hanna Schygulla as she discusses Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s working methods and his identification with his characters, both male and female. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a notable case in point. Based on Fassbinder’s own complicated relationship with Günther Kaufmann, the genders are reversed for what became this tale of passion and despair between a successful fashion designer and the younger beauty who enters and upends her personal and professional life. Originally written for the stage, specifically for Margit Carstensen, who would take on the title role in the play and film, Bitter Tears is a fascinating examination of sexual intensity and infatuation gradually undercut by acrimony and deceit.

Though Fassbinder’s play was generally unsuccessful, he nevertheless moved full speed ahead with the film adaptation, and the exceptionally fast production (a 10-day shoot—100 hours according to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus) was surprising and challenging to even those already accustomed to the director’s breakneck speed. One would never suspect such a hurried pace by looking at the film itself though. Unfolding over slightly more than two hours, this meticulous and malicious battle of wills between a few individuals in a singular location resembles a Polanski-esque power play. There is likewise a breakdown of pretense, as falsities of behavior and speech give way to oppression and jealous resentment. In a film so reliant on dialogue, words take on particular significance, not only in their obvious meanings, but also in their insinuations and interpretations. Sidonie von Grasenabbsays (Katrin Schaake), the first individual who visits Petra, calls the designer “hardened,” but Petra contends she’s just using her brain. But couldn’t that be the same thing?

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As Karin Thimm (Schygulla) enters the picture, literally, she does so cast in flattering light (see Sidonie’s entrance for a contrast). Immediately, the dynamic of the film changes. Petra is instantly taken by the beautiful newcomer, so she invites Karin to meet her the next evening. When she does, both are elaborately costumed (Petra in what Carstensen describes as a “monstrous” dress), and the whole act of seduction feels like an affected performance. In this sequence, what develops into an unsteady conquest and eventual affair becomes, in the second act, a relationship already plagued by condescension and animosity. The bitterness between Petra and Karin, which quickly causes the relationship to sever, is a duel between dependency and autonomy, and the loathing that grows between a breadwinner with financial control and one in a more reliant position.

Each of Bitter Tears’ five acts function as confessional, sermon, and testament all at the same time, with Petra especially professing her feeling and imparting her beliefs. But Karin mocks Petra’s maternal “pearls of wisdom” and accuses her of thriving on suffering. (Curiously, in an interview on the new Criterion Blu-ray, professor Jane Shattuc likewise notes Fassbinder’s fondness for looking “at beautiful women suffering.”) Petra denies this, but there’s probably something to the claim. At least as far as we can gather, she is indeed what in modern parlance could be dubbed a “drama queen.” In particular, she plays the scorned lover remarkably well. We know she has just recently divorced (shockingly to Sidonie, Petra is the one who instigated it). Perhaps that breakup was a rehearsal for this latest one? Or perhaps this is just one of several such scenes in her life?

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In any case, by the end of the film, Petra is a cliché of despair: alone by the phone, drunk on the floor, talking to herself … all on her birthday no less. Her frame of mind is made explicit by her placement of two unclothed female mannequins embracing each other in bed, while another stands looking over them. The breakup with Karin leads to an inevitable outburst, and it happens in full view of Sidonie as well as Petra’s mother, Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), and daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes). When we first saw Petra at the beginning of the film, she was just waking up, with no makeup, no costume, no wig; she was void of the façade that defines her as the film progresses, at least until this emotionally raw final breakdown. In her defense though, it’s safe to say Petra is not surrounded by the strongest support system. Her mother, for instance, is totally oblivious to her daughter’s bisexuality, so she’s not going to be of much help.

In the shadows through it all, frequently and powerfully singled out by Fassbinder’s camera, has been the silent servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), bearing witness to the humiliation and cruelty as she herself is the neglected constant. “Don’t take any notice of Marlene,” says Petra, who is at once referring to her servant’s already existing knowledge of the household dramatics while also suggesting her irrelevance. Marlene herself is brought to tears at one point, but her misery goes unnoticed by all but the audience. Though her devotion and love toward Petra is evident, one expects her to snap at any time, especially as the verbal abuse becomes increasingly harsh.

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Due to Fassbinder’s restriction on the spatial possibilities, the audience is stuck in a single confining room as this disturbing series of events plays out. We are left with nowhere to go, no respite from the emotional carnage—it’s little wonder Mattes speaks of the film’s inherent imprisonment. With this setting constraint in mind, Kurt Raab’s extraordinary production design becomes something of a character itself, subtly changing as the scenes shift, time passes, and characters develop; a fluctuating treatment of the backdrop proves essential. The room of Bitter Tears is bursting with ornamentation and decorative clutter; there seems to be something everywhere. Though Ballhaus acknowledged the difficulty of shooting in such an enclosed space, which he describes as long but with little depth, he and Fassbinder incorporate smooth and often understated camera movements, along with creative camera angles, using the multitude of fore and background elements to break up the space and keep the compositions unique and interesting. Actor positioning works the same way, as the women assume both self-consciously posed stances and more naturalistic poises of relaxation.

Like pieces on a chessboard, Schygulla says Fassbinder took she and the other actresses and had them “stylized and arranged for a desired effect.” She also comments on Fassbinder’s frequent “combination of seriousness and kitsch,” and one certainly gets this duality with Bitter Tears. From The Platters to Verdi, Sirk to Brecht, the film spans the so called high and low cultures that so fascinated Fassbinder. The image vs. content clash, which is another key aspect of Fassbinder’s work, and which is further remarked upon by Shattuc, similarly juxtaposes gorgeously shot imagery that nonetheless depicts the brutal realities of life.

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Much is often made of Fassbinder as a great director of women, and rightfully so. As with filmmakers as wide-ranging as D.W. Griffith, Ingmar Bergman, George Cukor, and Lars von Trier, Fassbinder had a knack for eliciting strong female performances. As the supplemental materials for the Criterion disc illustrate, his cinema would not have been the same were it not for these collaborators. From Carstensen and Schygulla to Hermann, Schaake, and Mattes, Fassbinder’s notable stock of female players often turned in their finest performances under his direction. Those performances, however, were as much the result of the actress’ own individual skills as they were Fassbinder’s. And The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, as much as any other Fassbinder film, is a minimalist showcase for the talents of all involved.


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