As you might expect, there are a couple of RWF movies I’ve been really dreading, some because they’re really slow and static, others because they’re just emotionally brutal and depressing. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has been at the top of that list, frankly, because it’s all those things. That, at any rate, is how I remembered it. What a difference fifteen years and eleven early Fassbinder films under your belt makes!
Don’t get me wrong. The movie is still excruciatingly slow and suffocating, and the story of a masochistic affair between two women (OK, three) is almost intolerable both for its cruelty and its display of raw emotion. But wow. What a tour de force. This movie is just amazing.
Petra von Kant (the skeletal Margit Carstenson) is a successful fashion designer, recently divorced, who lives in her studio, or atelier, or whatever you call it, with her devoted assistant/servant, Marlene (a mute Irm Hermann). An aristocratic friend, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), introduces Petra to a charming and beautiful acquaintance, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), who wants to break into fashion modelling. Petra is immediately smitten. Act II ends with Petra inviting Karin to come live with her and promising to make a successful model out of her.
By Act III the relationship has already degenerated past the point of no return: Karin tortures Petra with her obvious indifference and detailed descriptions of her infidelities, while Petra, who appears to subsist exclusively on gin, alternates between powerless rage and pathetic desperation. When Karin’s husband from Australia phones unexpectedly, Karin demands that Petra buy her a first-class plane ticket so she can meet him in Frankfurt. Petra, drunk, orders Marlene to drive Karin to the airport.
Act IV sees Petra at rock bottom. She lies on her postmodern white carpet (the word shag does not begin to do it justice; it’s more like ostrich or some very long-haired snow-white animal) with the telephone and a bottle of gin, waiting for Karin—now a successful model—to call and wish her a happy birthday. Sidonie, Gabby (Petra’s daughter, back from boarding school), and Petra’s mother all show up, but Karin does not. As the scene unfolds, Petra comes spectacularly, pyrotechnically unglued.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is kind of a perfect film, in a small, self-contained way. Cold, formal, precise, it is almost crystalline, like a snowflake or a pavé diamond. To me it’s the culmination of RWF’s work in modernist theatre combined with his ongoing preoccupation with the politics of sexuality, and, of course, melodrama. This strange hybrid form was not new to him, of course; by 1972 RWF had already made plenty of movies that combined extreme formalism with elements of melodrama or other genres. But those threads never really quite meshed. The early films, from Love Is Colder Than Death to Rio das Mortes, all suffer from a jarring, unresolvable sense of incongruity, as though the parts, however interesting intellectually (and they are always interesting intellectually, if you ask me), don’t quite add up to a coherent whole. This film is different.
The movie is technically beautiful. Set and shot entirely within the confines of Petra’s studio, which for all intents and purposes consists of one room with other adjoining spaces visible through framed openings, it is literally theatrical (I’m thinking it was written to be staged as a play?). Unlike many interior dramas, however, Michael Ballhaus’ camera work makes this narrative confinement strangely thrilling. There is more camera movement than we have seen in any of the previous films (except maybe Herr R, but that was more of a handheld thing), and that movement is stately, masterful, beautifully choreographed with the actors, so that the latter are framed and reframed in a series of very stylized and often highly symbolic compositions. I think I read some description of the film somewhere that described it as consisting of a series of long, mostly single takes. That’s not quite true—the takes are long, but there are plenty of cuts, too. I think the editing and the cinematography work so well together that they appear nearly seamless—which may seem paradoxical, since the film itself is highly formal and self conscious, but it’s not, really. Fassbinder heightens your awareness of only the artifice he wants to make you aware of. This is the work of a director at the top of his game.
In addition to that groovy carpet, the set is fantastic. The central room, with only a bed in the center, is bisected by open frames (as in window-like studs and beams), which enable views of the adjoining spaces while framing characters, especially Marlene, who works in the space next to Petra’s room, in gorgeous depth. An entire wall of Petra’s room is adorned with a huge, really impressive renaissance-style mural depicting a Greco-mythological-type bacchanale. [According to a review on IMDB, the painting is Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus, adding another layer of symbolism: gold and wine, money and pleasure, acquisition and abandon?] Along with the costumes, which I’ll get to in a minute, and of course the super-formal compositions and tracking shots, it reminded me of Peter Greenaway, especially The Cook, The Thief, etc. Yet another example of just how far ahead of his time Fassbinder was.
The costumes: over-the-top fabulous. (Why did I not remember this?) The conceit of having Petra be a fashion designer enables RWF to really play up the artifice with which she presents herself to the world (and herself). The Salomé/Theda Bara/Klimt-y-style getup that Petra sports to seduce Karin is just unbelieveable, but all the outfits and make-up are pretty spectacular. There are a lot of collars trimmed in fur or feathers (plumage! of course!), and Petra changes her wig with every outfit. Marlene’s 1930’s-inflected black dress, bobbed hair, and pert red lipstick are perfect.
Clothing, hair, and make-up are the most obvious ways Petra constructs her image of herself as cultured, sophisticated, commanding, and in control, but they’re not the only ones. There is something Olympian about her self-image, something godlike. (Perhaps that’s the significance of the mural?) She treats Marlene like the lowly slave she considers her to be, and it never occurs to her that she won’t be able to utterly possess Karin—her protégé, after all, her discovery—who comes from a tragic working class background. Who with such humble origins wouldn’t jump at the chance to be loved by a goddess?
Petra believes that she is above the petty politics and crass negotiations that characterize ordinary relationships. She is not interested in the “codes of behavior” and all the tiresome little “tricks” women employ to keep their relationships with men alive. Petra wants only true, honest, transcendental love, the kind that must be reinvented daily and which eludes mere mortals like her friend Sidonie. Petra claims that she divorced her husband because he couldn’t handle not being “on top” once her career became more successful than his. This sounds reasonable in a good feminist sort of way, but it probably just means that she could not tolerate his unhappiness, or any such ordinary human emotion. Great love does not permit such pettiness, which anyway wasn’t part of her design.
I haven’t talked about the lesbian angle yet, for good reason. I think it’s largely beside the point, except insofar as it confirms my assertion that relationships in Fassbinder’s universe are really about power, of which gender is but one signifier. Quite often class is actually the more important factor, which is what we see here—more clearly because there are no men and so no gender politics to complicate things. Petra tells Karin early on that she is grateful to her parents for exposing her to beauty and the finer things in life as a child, which is of course a statement of pure privilege (Karin had no access to fine things of any kind). And Petra quite simply owns the voiceless Marlene, whom she treats like the subservient dog she appears to be.
But class—or money, or gender, or violence—only keep you on top for so long. Once you fall in love in Fassbinder’s world, all bets are off. Thus does Petra lose the upper hand to Karin—whose indifference to Petra’s increasingly abject devotion ensures her triumph. This is why Fabian had no power over the indifferent Berta in Pioneers in Ingolstadt, too, despite his superior standing in terms of gender, wealth, class. This may also explain why prostitutes fare so well overall in Fassbinder’s world: it’s all just business. In film after film after film, RWF makes the same point: to fall in love is, quite simply, masochism. And of course the very definition of masochism is pleasure in pain (if the masochist didn’t cherish his suffering it wouldn’t be masochism, it’d just be victimization). In Pioneers, Berta begs Karl to lie to her rather than leave her. Petra asks Karin to do the same thing, even though she’s too savvy to fall for it, which only increases her pain. (Oh, and remember that scene in Whity when Whity is whipped by Nicholson? Definitely masochism!) But perhaps the ultimate masochist is Marlene. Not only is she clearly in love with her employer, it becomes evident that she cannot tolerate the prospect of any other kind of relationship with her. For once, I don’t want to spoil the ending, but suffice it say, Marlene offers perhaps the purest and certainly the most puzzling manifestation of masochism we’ve seen in Fassbinder so far.
There is a curious dedication after the opening credits of Petra von Kant which reads, “To the one who became Marlene here.” According to Jane Shattuc, who does the audio commentary on the DVD (I listened to about 20 minutes of it—it’s kind of interesting but not earth shattering, IMHO), RWF was downright abusive of Irm Hermann throughout their working relationship; casting her in this role with this dedication was his way of acknowledging that. It is also a reminder of who actually wielded the power in Fassbinder’s world.