The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

One of the major cinematic events of the fall is the Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective at Doc Films, which runs on Sunday nights at 7 PM through December 3. The series, consisting of nine features (all showing on 35-millimeter), is organized in chronological order, and this allows spectators to consider Fassbinder’s remarkable—and remarkably fast—evolution as it played out.

The first four weeks of the series brought films from Fassbinder’s first period, which consists of ten features shot between spring 1969 and fall 1970. These efforts are of a piece, whether they’re genre exercises (Love Is Colder Than Death, The American Soldier) or ironic dramas (Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore), employing detached long shots (which show the influence of Andy Warhol and Jean-Marie Straub) and espousing a pessimistic worldview that saw love as a form of social control. The breathtaking pace at which Fassbinder made these movies speaks to their fervor; here is the work of an angry, impassioned young man (he was only 25 when he completed the first period) who wanted to realize his ideas as soon as they came to him. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), screening this Sunday in Doc’s series, comes from the start of Fassbinder’s second period, when he married his style to a newfound interest in character. The results are deeply emotional, even overwhelming.

Bitter Tears
centers on the romance between the title character (Margit Carstensen), a famous fashion designer, and an aspiring model named Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla, Fassbinder’s frequent muse). They enter into an affair, with Petra assuming a dominant role in the relationship, but Karin learns to exploit the older woman’s emotional attachment, and the two end up switching roles. As in his earlier films, Fassbinder argues that love is colder than death—it’s a transaction in which one party benefits and the other party loses. At the same time, the writer-director gives the characters greater depth than he did to those in his previous work. Bitter Tears hinges on several extended monologues wherein the characters delve into their pasts and their current beliefs, and these passages give the movie a novelistic texture. One sees the characters as individuals, not just representations of a social order.

Bitter Tears was adapted from a play Fassbinder had staged in Munich not long before, and the film retains the theatrical conventions of its source material. The action is limited to one place, Petra’s home, and each of the scenes plays out in real time. Fassbinder evens heightens the sense of theatricality with opulent costumes, moments of grandly overstated acting, and painted walls that evoke theatrical backdrops. In doing so, he makes theatrical convention seem arbitrary and constricting—much like he presents love as an arbitrary and constricting convention that replicates in miniature the order of capitalist society. Fassbinder ironically appeals to the emotions in conveying this argument—in the movie’s most commanding scenes, Bitter Tears drops the curtain of artifice as characters bare their souls and voice their most primitive emotional needs. Fassbinder elicits more naturalistic performances during these scenes and shoots some of them in close-up. It feels as though the director has broken through his style to achieve something universal and direct.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Despite the fluctuations in tone from camp to searing drama, Bitter Tears is one of Fassbinder’s most formally controlled efforts. Working with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (with whom he’d collaborate throughout the decade), Fassbinder creates a seductive look that combines bright colors, deep shadows, geometric slats of light, and dynamic camera angles. It’s the first time the director truly displayed the influence of Douglas Sirk in his highly stylized approach to melodrama, and the film conveys the enthusiasm of a director discovering new tricks at his disposal. Bitter Tears also continues Fassbinder and Ballhaus’s fascination with snakelike tracking shots (previously displayed in Whity and Holy Whore), featuring brilliantly executed camera movements that shift perspective from one character to another. The filmmakers are inventive in using framing to vary the ambience of the space. When Petra and Karin are in bed together, there’s a claustrophobic feel; but when Petra suffers an emotional breakdown after Karin moves out, the home seems cavernous.

Playing out alongside the romance of Bitter Tears is a psychodrama between Petra and her live-in assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Marlene does all of Petra’s chores and apparently much of her design work; she also suffers consistent verbal abuse from her employer. She doesn’t speak a single line in the film, and in taking orders silently, she comes across a bit like a soldier or a prisoner. In characterizing Marlene strictly through physical behavior, Bitter Tears harkens back to the dialogue-free observational scenes of Fassbinder’s first period. Yet Fassbinder also uses Marlene to consider the direct effect of domineering behavior, often presenting her in close-up while Petra is talking about herself. There are times, particularly at the end of the movie, when Fassbinder suggests that Marlene enjoys her relationship with Petra. Her masochism is a perfect fit for Petra’s sadism—a warped depiction of perfect love that Fassbinder would take to further extremes in his subsequent melodrama Martha (1974).