In honor of the Criterion Collection’s release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, we’re rerunning our 2013 article on the film.
As l’enfant terrible of New German cinema, the frighteningly talented and devastatingly tragic Rainer Werner Fassbinder created his own world of film, making meticulously crafted pictures that existed in world entirely of his creation, where melodrama and the depths of human suffering live simultaneously. He made over forty films in his brief life and was a kinetic creative force of energy and life—both brutal and ferociously empathetic. Having been a playwright and actor prior to beginning his filmmaking career, a sense of theatricality and grandness of the stage is present in all of his films.
Rife with choreographed movement and static positioning, Fassbinder took his cues from musicals and art rather than traditional stage plays and the realism of film. Heavily influenced by Bertolt Brecht and his ideas of verfremdungseffekt, or the alienation effect, he crafted his films such that the audience is always consciously aware that they are watching a film, never losing themselves completely in the emotions and psychology of his characters. Rather, the viewer is consciously observing the work at hand, understanding that the world before them is a fiction they’re peering in on.
His early films work as an extensive of his theatrical career, whereas his later work plays more to melodramatic conventions, rooted in the influence of director’s such as Douglas Sirk. Troughout his films, whether it was desperate women in love or science fiction parables, there was a certain through line of formalist structure and examination of the importance of power structures in everyday life, family, love, friendship. He had a sensitivity for misfits and outsiders, a penchant for exploring sexuality, and an affinity for portraying a macabre view of contemporary German life.
It’s been said that Fassbinder was “trying to construct a house with his films.” Each of his films build a level of this house, a each picture a tier of the foundation built on desperation, hypocrisy, and love, “where desire plays a major supporting role but the will to power is sadly dominant.” Fassbinder was an extreme person in every aspect of his life— passionate and opinionated, he was a subversive force that made an effort to divert from societal convention that yearned for love and, like his characters, wanted to possess the world around him. His hunger to work and his ability to produce films in the rapid style that he did was one of the positive side effects of the incessant fire that burned inside of him. His films were populated with the surrogate family he created through the recycling of actors and crew that were extremely close to him and his work, yet his relationships were often violent and tortured.
Early in his adolescence he identified as a homosexual, but throughout his life had profound and tormented relationships with both men and women. His sexuality was something that seeped strongly into his work but was not something with which he struggled. And in turn, he formed relationships with those that understood him. Ingrid Caven, a longtime partner of Fassbinder’s, once said, “He was a homosexual that needed a woman. It’s that simple and that complex.” And although criticized for its limited view of sexuality, one of his most personal films, his 1972 psychodrama,The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, mirrored his own need for both sexes and his inability to full connect to himself and those he loved. But like John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is not a film about a woman’s desperate love for a woman, it’s about a person’s desire to possess another person, with gender being merely a coincidence.
Minimalist, austere, cruel yet astonishingly stunning, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a chamber drama at its finest. Fassbinder once said, “I don’t believe that melodramatic feelings are laughable—they should be taken absolutely seriously.” And although filled with melodramatic emotions and histrionics, the film still echoes the emotions of the confounding nature of being consumed by another. Unfolding in five elongated scenes, we meet Petra, a successful semi-alcoholic fashion designer. She is frail and pale, skeletally thin. There’s an erotic Egon Schiele-like pain to her boney frame, and although she never leaves her bedroom, she dons a multitude of wigs and lavish ensembles that bring her to life. These outfits and costumes act as a facade to her decaying form. Without them, as we see her in the opening of the film—wearing just a white sleeping dress, hair held back without a stitch of makeup—she is the physical manifestation of angst, longing, and pain.
When we meet Petra, she has recently broken up with a longtime partner and has since been sicken by the stench of a man. It’s apparent that she is insightful and intelligent women but cannot shake an arrogance that deludes her relationships with those around her. Petra moves slowly, as if in a trance, like the ghost of a person exacting the least amount of energy from physical movements—as if her emotional strain has left her incapacitated to physical exertion. A friend visits her and Petra paints her face with makeup as if a ballet dancer gracefully jetéing across a pale landscape while delivering a monologue on what caused the downfall of her relationship. Through this friend she soon meets a young, working-class beauty, Karin, and falls sickeningly in love with her.
Watching over Petra’s world is her secretary Marlene (the always incredible Irm Hermann), who is more like a slavish handmaiden. Petra treats her like an animal, wasting no chance to humiliate her, yet expects her to act like a ghost at the drop of a hat. After Petra’s initial night with Karin in which the two exchange vows of devotion and friendship with a kiss, the film jumps six months into the future in which the two have been in an intimate relationship. Now manically in love with the subtle yet plain beauty that is Karin, Petra has used her for a new clothing collection that debuted to rave reviews. But by this time, Petra’s inability to truly connect and her obsession with her own extreme feelings have caused Karin’s affections to wane. That, or whatever she was using Petra for, has run dry.
Karin is a married woman but separated from her husband. Yet when he calls to say he is back in Europe, she jumps at the chance to see him, leaving a desperate and obsessive Petra behind, thrown aside without the slightest of care. Petra may be perverse and selfish in her uncontrollable love—but it’s a sadomasochistic dynamic on which she thrives. Karin sees no problem in hurting her incessantly. Filled with volcanic emotions, Petra’s behavior is absurd and ridiculous, but she too does not know how to behave like a decent human being. She spits in Karin’s face and likens her behavior to that of a whore and lashes out at those close to her. When her own daughter shows up at her home and tries to tell her that she’s in love, Petra acts as if disgusted, dismissing her own child.
Love may be an illness and a sickness in which recovery is never fully granted, but there are myriad ways to love, and the form each love takes is distinct. When love is mutual, expressive, and symbiotic, there’s a grace and beauty in the joining of two souls. But when one loves alone, when one desires with no reward, the pain can be exhausting enough to kill. That feeling that coincides with unrequited love—as if someone has removed your insides and spit them back out at you—burns deep, stemming from nothing more than the fact that, no matter the effort, those affections will never be returned. But there’s a fine line between the grandeur of love and an obsessive desire to possess.
That latter kind of love is an addiction. One clings to the desired one’s words, every gesture holding the weight of one’s happiness. You can process that perhaps this isn’t love at all, perhaps it is simply the desire to possess another soul. You can rationalize it to yourself, but to be in love or to be consumed by the need for another means existing without the luxury of rational thought. Love does take courage and strength, however, and if one is only willing to possess, that is a form of cowardice. If one is unable to open and free herself into the arms of another without expecting reciprocation of obsessive emotion, than person will remain alone.
And here, Petra is hindered by her unconscious adherence to patriarchal confines and societal norms, never allowing herself to truly connect with the woman she loves. Yes, this person, who so shamelessly flaunts her heartbreak and flounces around like an open would, is much more guarded than she wants to believe. It is as if her theatrics are her mask, when usually we make ourselves stoic in order to conceal from the world the inner melodrama that plagues us. Fassbinder has been criticized for his narrow depiction of bisexuality in the film, but the theatrical nature of the drama and visual world he creates brings everything into the realm of hyper-reality, which allows the film to transcend sexual politics.But when you understand that the person who crafted this world felt the same way as Petra and Karin himself, that he was someone whose desire to have men and women despite the psychologically dangerous territory, you see he is telling one unstable woman’s tale and not equating her nature of obsession and bisexuality as a universal truth.
One of the most evident and important factors of the film lies in the aesthetics of the picture. Fassbinder brilliantly establishes a mise-en-scene from the very first moment through the claustrophobic yet astonishingly gorgeous set design for this story to unfold. An enormous blowup of Poussin’s 1629 painting Midas and Bacchus covers Petra’s wall and plays as the backdrop to the most dramatic moments. It’s filled with a Schiele-like autumn palette of shimmering golds, deep reds, pale pinks, muted yellows, and emerald greens that are almost cartoonish in visibility. The languid and choreographed movements of the camera mimic those of the characters who exist in this confined space so perfectly; it’s as if Fassbinder yelled “Stop!” at any moment his audience could be transfixed by a baroque tableaux.
The mannequins that Petra has standing around her room act as doppelgangers for the characters. Because of this highly theatrical and elevated visual aesthetic, we feel as though we’re in a world that’s not quite of reality, existing out of time. In the beginning of the film when Petra goes over to her record player and puts on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” it comes as a shock. He has embedded us so deeply into this very specific atmosphere it seems bizarre that any reference to modernity exists.
In the final crescendo of the film, Marlene has walked out on Petra, and she is left alone with her suffering, sans wig or costume. Her indulgence of the fascist desire to control those around her has alienated her, and as “The Great Pretender” croons over her recorder player, we see her sink in her bed, imagining that she has finally succumbed and will stay there for eternity. Fassbinder once said, “It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful…it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deeply into yourself.” And our dear friend Petra von Kant has dug into herself so deeply that she may never fully return.