Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is not an easy film. By that I mean to imply both that it is painful to watch as a result of the emotional intensity which it generates, and also that it is not easy to interpret.
But let me start with a description. The film is shot in five scenes all of which occur in the apartment of Petra von Kant (played by Margit Carstensen) a successful fashion designer. Petra lives with her devoted secretary/companion Marlene (Irm Hermann) whom she treats with contempt and is more of a slave than an employee. Petra is introduced by her friend Sidonie to Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla) with whom she falls deeply in love. Karin turns out to be little more than a gold-digger and abandons Petra when her husband turns up (off-screen – there are no men on-screen in this film). Petra, whom in the early scenes of the film was shown as thoroughly hard and selfish, goes completely to pieces and treats her mother and her daughter (the latter especially) cruelly when they turn up for her Birthday. In the final scenes however it seems the fever has passed and she speaks, for the first time, to Marlene as a human being: the latter then packs her bags and leaves.
The first thing to be noted, before approaching any exposition, is that the film is a masterclass in technique. It manages within this very confined space to be continuously visually inventive and the colours are lush and lavish. The film is often beautiful but this never becomes a barrier to the intense emotion which Fassbinder is concerned to convey. At times I was strongly reminded of some of Godard’s interior discussion scenes but Fassbinder’s approach is more baroque, more classical – as is emphasised by the enormous painting which dominates one wall. This painting is in fact Poussin’s ‘Midas and Bacchus’ (1629) – a fact revealed by a very fine on-line essay on the film at Jim’s Film Website….http://jclarkmedia.com/fassbinder/fassbinder13.html#crew.
Now in my view the film’s complexity is one of its strengths, and the multiple reactions which it might engender a tribute. However, in a fascinating extra on my DVD, Harry Baer, longtime Fassbinder collaborator as actor, assistant director and production manager, says that the film was in fact a roman a clef in which Petra represents Fassbinder, Karin Gunther Kaufmann and Marlene Peer Raben. Baer claims that there was a lot of laughter during the making of the film as they had heard many of the lines in real life. If this is so it certainly offers an extraordinary glimpse into the world of the Fassbinder menage/ensemble. Whatever the truth of this Baer later makes the assertion that in order to understand Fassbinder’s work as a whole you have to understand his theme. Fassbinder apparently claimed that to be a great Director you had to have a ‘theme’ and his own was that ‘love can be exploited’. At the heart of many of his films will be a relationship where one person is more in love, and they will lose out to the person who is less in love [a striking example of what Victoria Glendenning calls the ‘brutal politics of human relations’ which she sees in the work of Trollope]. Baer says the archetype of this is to be found in Berlin Alexanderplatz. Certainly in terms of the films I have seen so far in my Fassbinder re-watching it is very true of Lola, The Marriage of Maria Braun and here in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I am less sure of its applicability to Effi Briest though there Fassbinder was clearly constrained by the source material. It would certainly be interesting to consider this as an Ur-motif and see how it emerges in individual films. If we add together this theme and the autobiographical element then it would be possible to say that Fassbinder was an artist who was very prepared to confront his own demons, weaknesses and flaws.
Returning to Jim’s essay he suggests that….
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.
Certainly this is one possible interpretation. The film was controversial and criticised at the time for its “harshly limited view of women” and its failure to portray lesbian relationships in a positive light (something Fassbinder also did in films with gay themes). I would reject both of these accusations, though I do understand the second, especially in its historical context. At a time when lesbian and gay relationships hardly ever appeared on-screen it might have been felt that there was a need that when they did it should be in a positive light. In reality of course there is no reason whatever why such relationships should be any more positive than straight ones, and Fassbinder as a gay man was doubtless very aware of this. The ‘harshly limited view of women’ accusation is far less justifiable: in the first place none of the characters are monstrous, although all behave badly at one point or another, but more importantly there is a substantial range of character types in the film. Whatever the case this is a film which very much passes the Bechdel test (indeed as there are no men at all present it probably establishes some kind of different test!).
Jim rightly points out the brilliance of the acting: for once, good as she is, Schygulla is overshadowed by Carstensen’s extraordinary, bravura performance. Of Fassbinder’s directorial genius Jim writes….
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.
He points out that some critics have argued that the Poussin picture….
represents the patriarchal system which “underlies, and perhaps even dooms, the relationship of Petra and Karin.” But I am equally struck by his own observation that the figure of Midas suggests the moral of being careful what you wish for.
Jim points out that class relations and exploitation are an almost ever-present in Fassbinder, here highly dramatised in the treatment of Marlene. He also points out a number of sly comic references: the one to Joseph Mankiewicz which occurs early in the film is relevant because Mankiewicz was “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.” All in all Jim’s comments are invaluable and insightful and highly recommended.
Having said all this and drawn attention to the film’s many strengths I would have to say that this is the least favourite of the 4 Fassbinders I have had so far from Lovefilm. When all is said and done it remains a somewhat theatrical chamber piece. Yes, of extraordinary visual and emotional power and interest but lacking the sweep, both cinematographic and thematic, of the other films. I certainly recommend The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and would like to see it again, but it’s very nature imposes constraints which do not allow Fassbinder’s talent to flourish to its full extent.
Harry Baer had a lot of interesting observations to make in his interview. The picture of Fassbinder as a human being which emerged was not an attractive one : in particular he was highly manipulative and could be cruel. The only actress who was really allowed to share in the creative process, and was treated very differently to the others, was Schygulla. Baer said that he thought she was to some extent Fassbinder’s ‘alter ego’. And he had created her, as he discovered how to light her so as to draw out her beauty – when you see her work with other directors this is very evident apparently. She was his Marlene Dietrich, even his Joan of Arc (I have no idea what Baer meant by thislatter comment).
Baer also spoke of Fassbinder’s death saying it was definitely not suicide – Fassbinder died of too many pills, but he was accustomed to take vast quantities of powerful sleeping tablets due to his problems with sleeplessness. In fact Fassbinder was planning more movies and had spoken to Baer on some technical issues hours before he expired. It was just that his body was finally unable to cope with all the pills he put into it. It was for Fassbinder a ‘nice death’ Baer said, but an artistic tragedy for the rest of us.