The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant – Fassbinder and the art of woman

“He stank like a man. The way men stink. What had once had its charms now turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.”

The further along my Fassbinder journey I travel, the more pleased I find myself with his films. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is another fine fine film from the great German film maker, laced with all the complexities of humanity, political commentary on the rise of the proletariat and the ominous always already listening oppression of “the help”. It is hard to tell from this film if Fassbinder hates women or adores them. Just as in Daisies by Věra Chytilová femininity and its gaudy trinkets is used in a hyper-realised dramatic style.  Fassbinder makes statements out of wigs, clothing, makeup and even the dramatic hysterics traditionally associated with the female stereotypes to reveal women to us as well as mask them from each other.

Margit Carstensen stars as the film’s eponymous fashion designer, a divorced whiner who falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with one of her models, Karin (Hanna Schygulla). Fassbinder uses the claustrophobic geometry of the film (for two hours, his grueling camera never leaves Petra’s hermetic quarters) to strangle the film’s women and to distance them physically and emotionally from each other, cataloging the various force du jours their individual hysteria provoke. Having divorced some time ago the husband she no longer loved, Carsensen’s bored fashionista now grapples with the implications of her love for women. She’s drawn to Karin not only for her beauty but for the subservience the up-and-coming ingénue seems to promise her.

But in Karin’s emotional turnaround in the film’s nihilistic last act, Fassbinder envisions a proletarian uprising against an oppressive bourgeois. Irm Hermann stars as Petra’s perpetually silent servant girl, who spends much of the film typing in a corner for her master and observing her eventual downfall. And in Petra’s relationship with her daughter, a naïve little baby dyke fresh out of boarding school, Fassbinder allows Petra to declare and define her notions of maternal power and female control. The film is a fascinating  document of the trickle-down effects of power and an even stranger observation of the way women treat and sometimes enslave each other. Fassbinder’s galvanizing aesthetic approach to the material,  is  unbearably oppressive bordering on the pathological.

The setting is entirely within one room. Time is marked by dramatic changes in clothing as well as hair and make up. It is a classic example of the “well-made play,” its five acts limning the requisite rising action, climax, and denouement. 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). 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), 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. My assumption is, 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.  And of course she leaves her for a man – or rather for all men.

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 intense, brave performances. 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 apartment is littered with mannequins – some being used, others discarded like plies of dead bodies in rigamortis. There are railings and ceiling beams often used in the filming perspective as prison bars. And the use of a typewriter in my absolute favourite scene from this film – a scene that will never leave me.  The omnipresent Marlene types continuously behind the seduction scene between Petra and Karin without a pause. For the bulk of the scene the sound of the typewriter hovers just above the voices, so the tat-a-tat is the prevailing sound even if we can’t see Marlene on-screen. The oppressive presence of the “help”, the working class, the discarded other, those we are responsible for and accountable to. Their presence never leaves us, always there, tattering into our mind. This scene is maddening and at the same time intensely evocative and powerful. Marlene never speaks and yet she is the most haunting, worrying character of all. This typewriter, growing louder and louder behind the women playing at love / power games is a completely unforgettable scene.

The film is laced with tributes – Fassbinder appears in a press clipping making himself the only man to appear in the film, and a letter dictated to Marlene 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. These are just a few of the insider tributes. For more on this and for an excellent review that I drew on for my own review, see Jim’s Reviews.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a remarkably rich work, potent and deep in its symbolic mystery.  It is the kind of film that can mean something different each time you see it.  Few films so creatively, and powerfully, manage to subvert our desire for cathartic drama while simultaneously fulfilling it.