The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant
1972 — 124 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Disclosure: I have written the liner notes for the U.K.-based Arrow Film's Region 2 DVD release of this film. That essay draws on my review presented here.
Based on Fassbinder's original play, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a work of astonishing visual design, with emotions on an operatic scale, which explores the tortured connections between desire and power.
It unfolds in five scenes, each of which progresses in continuous time, the story of Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a successful but arrogant fashion designer in her mid-30s who falls passionately in love with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful, cunning young woman who wants a career in modeling. Watching over everything, but never uttering a single word, is the enigmatic Marlene (Irm Hermann), the slavish secretary, maid, and co-designer, whom Petra takes every opportunity to humiliate. After Petra and Karin seal their newfound relationship with a torrid kiss, the film jumps ahead six months to show us their breakup (Karin goes back to her husband) and, for Petra, its devastating aftermath. We meet Petra's daughter Gaby (Eva Mattes) and mother (Gisela Fackeldey), again see her catty friend Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), and discover the new direction of her relationship with Marlene.
Although this remains one of Fassbinder's most controversial films in part for its severely limited depiction of lesbian (more accurately, bisexual women's) lives it is also one of his most powerful, for both its volcanic emotional force and the unparalleled visual imagination it displays.
I understand and respect the people who are outraged by the harshly limited view of women in this film, from bitchy couturier to slavish secretary. When released in 1972, it was perhaps the most visible film because of Fassbinder's international reputation yet to depict lesbian relationships. And the view is, for most of the film, bleak. Fortunately, the range of lesbian- and bisexual-themed films in the past thirty years has presented women's experiences in considerably more diversity and fullness, so perhaps now we can better evaluate the film's considerable merits.
But as with his equally controversial gay-themed film three years later, Fox and His Friends (in which Fassbinder played the self-deprecating title role), there are many layers to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. And it can be argued that with Petra's emotional epiphany at the end of the film ultimately, if tentatively, presents a sanguine view of a person's ability, after great suffering (not to mention histrionics), finally to come to a new, deeper self-understanding. I purposely put the previous sentence in gender-neutral terms because I believe that, although the film features only women, it explores a basic human dilemma: What happens when you feel desire but are incapable of connecting emotionally with another person?
Fassbinder's casts are uniformly strong throughout his career (he regularly worked with the same actors and crew from his early Anti-Theater days). But the cast here is extraordinary, especially Margit Carstensen in the title role (she won several awards), Hanna Schygulla (with whom Fassbinder made 20 pictures) as Karin Thimm, and Irm Herrman as the mysterious Marlene who, without uttering one word, at times dominates the film with her sheer presence. Fassbinder created a very safe space in which these actresses could work, allowing for some of the bravest performances I have ever seen. Margit Carstensen in particular covers an astonishing range of emotions while simultaneously embodying the tightly controlled artifice and hence distancing of the persona which Fassbinder wanted as part of his larger stylistic, and thematic, plan.
The film is also astonishing for its interweaving of raw emotion with stunning and meticulous design. It is a classic example of the "well-made play," its five acts limning the requisite rising action, climax, and denouement. (The theatrical script is included in the anthology Fassbinder's Plays.) And you can imagine it being performed onstage; the slightly raised level of its language playing well even to the balcony. But Fassbinder, who wrote 14 plays, is as much the consummate filmmaker as dramatist.
The emotionally ugly and literally claustrophobic (we never leave this one apartment) world of the film yields images of striking beauty, and resonance. The rich autumnal palette of the setting (orange, gold, brown, black, white and bursts of red) is contrasted with the bright, clashing colors of the costumes (such as Gaby's cartoonish yellow suit and purple tie). Fassbinder and director of photography Michael Ballhaus (who shot about half of the director's films, and now does all of Martin Scorsese's pictures) wrest every bit of visual interest from the single set. The endlessly inventive deep focus compositions provide a series of emotionally penetrating, and technically virtuosic, comments on the action ironic, allusive, symbolic, and visually gorgeous.
It is as if Fassbinder were using the resources of film to close in, rather than open up, his play; to force even more pressure on Petra. She is often framed within bars of shadow, and frozen in tableaux. And the camera's sinuous tracking shots rather than simply following her movement, as in a conventional picture encircle Petra, binding her. Zoom shots are reserved for Marlene, taking us nearer to her face but no closer to unraveling her ambiguous nature. The only comparable picture which approaches this level of achievement in making limited physical space utterly compelling as cinema is Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (1948), but he had all of two sets for his tragicomedy!
Fassbinder also makes extensive, and acerbic, use of every carefully placed object in the lavish apartment. Most notable is a gigantic blowup of Poussin's 1629 painting "Midas and Bacchus" (wittily cropped on the right to stop at the goat's posterior; Fassbinder would have seen this painting only 38.58" x 51.18" at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich), which covers an entire wall. It reminds us, on one level, that Petra like Midas, whose life was blasted by the "golden touch" bestowed on him by Bacchus should be careful what she wishes for. The nude Bacchus stands in the center of the mural and not infrequently Fassbinder's compositions with the body of, well, a Greek god, a larger-than-life male in a film peopled entirely with women. Some critics argue that this overbearing backdrop represents the patriarchal system which underlies, and perhaps even dooms, the relationship of Petra and Karin. When Karin announces that she is leaving Petra, the key light shines not on her, but on Bacchus's glowing genitalia which hover over her.
As with most of Fassbinder's films, the symbolic and emotional, political, and even playful use of elements is not as easy as it might at first appear. And that applies as much to his use of "Midas and Bacchus" as to, say, the dozen mannequins which eerily litter the apartment (and which bear a creepy resemblance to the emaciated Petra at her lowest points: ironic doppelgangers, anyone?). Or all of the beams and railings which are often framed to evoke prison bars.
Or take Marlene's incessant typing (please!), in the Petra and Karin's love or is it mutual seduction? scene. The maddening tat-tat-tat may express Marelene's frustration that someone else is "getting" Petra, with whom she is likely in love (Irm Hermann plays longing with subtle force). It also resonates with one of Fassbinder's perennial themes: Class differences. While the elite Petra enjoys her time with Karin, Marlene the dutiful "wage slave" must work hard for a living. The typing also functions as a form of dramatic punctuation: When Marlene stops, briefly, the words passing between Petra and Karin take on a different resonance. Fassbinder has simultaneously distanced us from a scene of romance (for some viewers the initial distance came because this traditional love scene is between two women) and, briefly, drawn us more deeply into it. On yet another level, this "drumbeat motif" also connects with other Fassbinder films, including The Niklashausen Journey, in which the medieval would-be messiah Boehm is introduced beating a drum while exhorting his congregation to holy war. Of course, each viewer will come up with still more possible interpretations for the typing motif. It also reminds us of how much metaphorical weight Fassbinder put on sound and silence in his films.
On a lighter note, Fassbinder injects several witty, even playful, elements throughout the film, both to give it greater resonance, and to keep it from descending into bathos. He slyly gives himself a fleeting cameo by appearing in a press photograph that Petra holds, which makes him the only man, not in a painting, to appear (shades of Hitchcock's cameo via newspaper ad in Lifeboat (1944)! One of the first things Petra does is dictate, to Marlene, a letter for "Joseph Mankiewicz," saying she will not be able to pay him on time. Mankiewicz is, of course, the writer/director of All About Eve (1950), whose story of an established star's life appropriated by a conniving upstart bears an intentional relationship to Fassbinder's film. (He directed other unofficial remakes, most notably transforming Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) into Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), and von Sternberg's The Blue Angel (1930) into Lola (1982).) During Karin and Petra's love scene, Fassbinder also plays with the iconic image, from Bergman's Persona (1966), of two women merging into each other.
Some of the film's other ironic elements include Fassbinder's eclectic (to say the least) use of music: The Platters, the Walker Brothers... and Verdi (Alfredo's "Un di felice" from La Traviata: And is it symbolic perhaps of Petra's self-imposed isolation that he does not continue the number to include Violetta's part in what becomes a duet?). Sidonie's name conjures up the flamboyant, and gifted, bisexual author, Colette (real name: Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine), known for her amorous exploits, as well as for creating the Claudine novels and Gigi. There is one of the most unsettling props in any Fassbinder film: The little plastic doll of Karin the face and hair are a dead-on match which Sidonie gives as a cruel gift to lovelorn Petra.
And then there are the unforgettable wigs. Dramatic form has rarely been so drolly encapsulated by hairpieces, as Petra changes into a new wig (or lack of one) in each of the film's five scenes from brown to black to red to blond, then finally to none.
At the end Petra, completely chastened (and, for the first time since the opening moments, wig-less), seems to realize the error of her ways, and makes a friendly, caring gesture to Marlene. Still without uttering a word, Marlene methodically packs her bags and leaves Petra alone in her dark apartment... although she takes the Karin doll with her. This is in contrast to Fassbinder's original play, which ends with a possible rapprochement between the two women; in any event, there Marlene stays with Petra.
But is the ending of the film necessarily darker than the play's? Many would say it is. While Marlene's walking out is clearly a turning point in her life, does it indicate that she is so masochistic that when the abuse ends, she must leave? Or is she is taking the first steps towards self-respect? And for Petra the significant act was reaching out to someone in this instance Marlene with compassion. Has the intense pain of losing Karin allowed Petra to begin transforming herself from the arrogant, narcissistic woman we first saw, into someone capable of genuine connection?
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is so rich a work that you may find yourself answering those questions differently each time you see it. Few films so creatively, and powerfully, manage to subvert our desire for cathartic drama while simultaneously fulfilling it.
Wellspring has created an outstanding "Masterworks Edition" for their DVD release of this film, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. Excellent image (from a restored print, personally supervised by filmmakers Wim Wenders and Juliane Lorenz) and sound (including both a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack and the original mono). There are also an excellent 1977 documentary about Fassbinder, an optional commentary track by a Fassbinder scholar, and an exceptional bonus both of Fassbinder's rare short films in excellent restorations; plus more features detailed below.
- In the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Choice of a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack or the original mono
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 28 chapters. Wellspring has thoughtfully grouped the chapters into the five scenes, or "acts," of the film: Act I/ chapters 15, II/612, III/1319, IV/2025, and V/2628
- Documentary film: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977 an engrossing half-hour portrait (by filmmakers Florian Hopf and Maximiliane Mainka) featuring interviews with Fassbinder, who comes across as a deeply thoughtful and volatile man rather than as a "packaged" moviemaker on some talk show, and a behind-the-scenes look at him filming Despair (from Tom Stoppard's screenplay of Vladimir Nabokov's novel). Fassbinder offers such gnomic comments as "I want to tell stories which free people," "I work out of a fear of loneliness," and "Even the films [I made] which I don't like were essential for my development."
- Commentary by Prof. Jane Shattuc of Emerson College, and author of Television, Tabloids and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture. Although Prof. Shattuc offers many insights into the film, there are several puzzling gaps in her analysis. For instance, she never mentions Petra's reference to "Joseph Mankiewicz" or how Fassbinder repeatedly riffs on All About Eve, Mankiewicz's acerbic classic which clearly inspired Fassbinder's play and film. Although she makes several interesting comments about how Fassbinder uses the looming mural by Poussin, she mentions that she is not certain about what the painting actually represents: It is NOT, as she believes, a bacchanal. After scavenging the Internet for an hour, I tracked it down at both the Web Gallery of Art and abcgallery.com and learned about its mythological subject (Midas, who bitterly rues getting the "golden touch" which he wished for), which connects in resonant ways with Petra and Karin. I also found that it hangs in one of Fassbinder's local museums, Munich's Alte Pinakothek. This is the kind of information which I would have liked the commentary to include. There are other important cultural allusions, both elite and popular, which were not glossed (I discuss a few of them in my review above). True, Fassbinder would have hated such "pedantry," but many of his admirers would be interested. And Fassbinder is well known for integrating an eclectic use of cultural references into the themes of his work. Prof. Shattuc also goes into too little detail about the many diverse interpretations of the film. And about 40 minutes into her talk, she falls silent for several minutes; I at first thought there was a problem with the audio track, but she does return. Despite these reservations, I want to point out that Prof. Shattuc offers many insights into the film including a series of fascinating comments on the cinematography and shares some delightful anecdotes. When she was in Germany, researching her book on Fassbinder, she found that "almost everyone says they slept with him." Despite its oversights (which could have been easily corrected), I do recommend this commentary.
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- Booklet Thomas Elsaesser's incisive essay, "The Films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: A Cinema of Vicious Circles"
- Exceptional bonus — Fassbinder's two short films (discussed directly below).
- $29.98 suggested retail
"The City Tramp" and "The Little Chaos" are presented in excellent transfers from the 16mm originals. Although his applications to the state-run film schools were rejected (if only they had known), the undaunted Fassbinder struck out on his own to make two short films. As with his subsequent features, he used several cast and crew members from his Anti-Theater group and shot locally in Munich. He secured financing from Christoph Roser, in exchange for giving him lead roles in both films.
Plot Outline: A homeless man (Christoph Roser), wandering around Munich, finds a gun lying in a street. He carries it into a park, and glances at it while eating a sandwich. Then he leaves, tossing the gun into a wheelbarrow. But a waitress picks it out and gives it back to him; for a moment he thinks he is being held up. All of this is observed by two mysterious, handsome, well-dressed young men (Michael and Thomas Fengler; Michael Fengler was also the co-cinematographer of this film, and four years later would co-write and co-direct The Niklashausen Journey with Fassbinder).
After fantasizing about suicide including a shot in which he strikes a crucifixion pose next to a reproduction of a Baroque-style Christ on the cross he goes to the apartment of a young woman (Irm Hermann), who seems to be a stranger picked at random, and asks this is the first scene with synchronous sound "May I use your bathroom?" When she asks why, he replies, "Because I want to kill myself." She closes the door, and alone in the hallway he sings a ditty about Japan. He again ambles around Munich, at one point entering a public urinal where he crosses paths with a young man (Fassbinder). When the tramp is back in the park, the two young men reappear and grab the gun, playfully tossing it back and forth over the his head as they run off. The tramp falls to the ground, but then rises just enough to mime shooting the two men with his 'finger gun.'
Review: This ambiguous "tramp" is more akin to those of playwright/novelist Samuel Beckett than to Charlie Chaplin's. Although Fassbinder's first short film, "This Night" (1966), has been lost, we are fortunate to have this one, which is his tribute to Eric Rohmer's "Le Signe du lion", then his favorite film. "The City Tramp" is a work of extraordinary, stark visual design and intriguing commentative sound – street noise juxtaposed with classical music juxtaposed with silence that makes effectively creative use of the limited budget. The film boasts excellent performances, with Fassbinder raising it far above the level of a "vanity piece" for financial backer cum star Christoph Roser. It also introduces several of Fassbinder's recurring themes, including alienation, the role of the outsider, exploitation, and violence, while its sporadic playfulness highlights another vital, and fun, aspect of his work.
Plot Outline: Theo (Christoph Roser), Marite (Marite Greiselis), and Franz (Fassbinder) cannot make any money selling magazines door to door not even from a Frau Eder (played by Fassbinder's mother). Franz grouses, "I'd like to see a gangster movie that ends well for once." The three friends use their knowledge of American crime movies to rob, and in Franz's case to humiliate, a woman. Among other things, he asks her point blank, "Do you love the Führer?" She does not know what to say. Theo apologetically explains that "Sometimes he goes a little crazy." As the three robbers ask each other what they are going to do with the money, Franz says, "I'm going to the movies!" Cut to the three bounding out of the apartment building, to make a clean getaway in their Volkswagen.
Review: Although not as visually striking or emotionally rich as its predecessor, "The Little Chaos" contains first-rate performances and clearly shows how strongly Godard, in such films as Band of Outsiders (1964) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), influenced young Fassbinder. "The Little Chaos" is also a playful take on American gangster and film noir pictures; it is a striking contrast to The American Soldier, Fassbinder's revisionist noir of just four years later. It also reveals some of Fassbinder's recurring themes, including the ambiguous nature of crime, the treatment of women, and although in embryonic form the legacy of Nazism. There is a refreshing exuberance to this little film, capped by its ironic "happy" ending.
Reviewed November 15, 2002
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