The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is at its 50th anniversary this year and it deserves to be celebrated. It’s one of the films that made me aware of the creative process that is filmmaking, one of the films that made me love cinema. It remains my favourite Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. Seductive and beautiful and very stylised, it’s so impeccably done that it becomes a work of art. Timeless. Watching it, you get a sense of witnessing something very unique being made. That’s not to be read as an element of artificiality, but as a very rare thing. The costumes, especially Petra’s, are very stylised, too, but again a very rare thing happens; you relate to the character. Because what happens, as Fassbinder himself confessed, is that people identify with Petra, because “everyone has experienced pain in love and has wished (naturally enough) for a greater love than it was possible to have… most people suffer because they are incapable of really expressing their grief.”
Harry Bär, the assistant director, remarked that this “is a very important film, because the viewer is bound to realise pretty quickly that it’s a camouflage,” referring to how Fassbinder drew from his own life to portray the characters. “The part that Margit plays is, of course, Fassbinder himself, and the part played by Hanna is actually Günther Kaufmann. The silent maid is actually Peer Raben. That’s how you have to see it. And Fassbinder wrapped all this up very cleverly into the whole cultural problem which he had with himself. We laughed a lot during filming because I had heard all the lines in this film before. We had witnessed some of the scenes of jealousy in Fassbinder’s life, and sometimes we recognised sentences that had actually been said.”
A reproduction of Nicolas Poussin’s 17th century oil painting Midas and Bacchus fills a bedroom wall, presiding over every aspect of Petra von Kant’s love and professional lives. Petra (Margit Carstensen) is a successful fashion designer, with two marriages behind and an absent daughter brought up in a boarding school. She spends her time secluded at home, in a luxurious apartment, with Marlene (Irm Hermann), her faithful, silent assistant, an ever-present onlooker, a ghost-like figure always dressed in black, who obediently carries out Petra’s daily work tasks and authoritarian orders. Told in four acts, the film is based on the director’s own play, but there is nothing theatrical about Fassbinder’s story of anguish and tormented desire, of attraction and repulsion. The apartment is just a brilliant setting for revealing the claustrophobic angst of human relationships.
We are introduced to Petra von Kant as a woman in complete control of her life. She is conducting her business from her bed, takes care of her mother’s financial needs over the phone, and imparts with superior and cynical demeanor her love experiences. But when she meets Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a 23 year old up-start cover girl, Petra becomes infatuated with her. She makes up her mind to be her patron and help her make something of herself while keeping Karin under her control. Psychological domination and will to power are Petra’s strengths. Her view on love is also from a point of superiority and cold calculation, but her desire for a woman throws her off balance for the first time in her life, as she measures the worth of her existence in Karin’s feelings for her. And there’s not much to be found there. Karin leaves, which almost brings Petra to ruin. But at the first word from Karin, Petra reclaims herself and frees herself from the corrosive attachment and destructive fascination with her protégée.
Margit Carstensen delivers, truly, one of the greatest performances in cinema. Watching her is discovering one of the greats of film. She holds the screen, whether it’s through what she does, the way she moves or the way she talks. The way she says “bitte”, for instance… Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant wouldn’t have had the same effect in English. When you say “please” in English, it doesn’t sound too demanding, nor affectionate, no matter how many inflections in your voice you may try to find. When Petra says “bitte”, there are so many different emotions that she can speak, from common good manners and courtesy, to nasty demand, to insinuating silkiness. Even when she makes a kind request, that double consonant in the word comes out very strong. I wish that every time someone has asked me why I found the German language beautiful, I had referred them to watch this film. I am sure Fassbinder’s films are one of the reasons why I love German.
With every act, there is a change of costume and wig, and with it, Petra assumes a new identity, each one dictated by her will to power, or egotism, or possessiveness, or desperate obsession. The elaborate couture worn by Petra, designed by Maja Lemcke, the way she carefully applies her make-up and puts on her wigs evokes a strong sense of self and a fabulously constructed identity. A guarded character that hides so many facets.
The changes of costumes echo the ever-evolving nature of a human bondage. Except for Marlene, who is eternally clad in black, eternally resigned to her condition, Petra and her guests all wear fur-trimmed collars in the first act. Behind the fur-trimmed lavish loungewear, Petra is a great pretender, in complete control. In the second act, she wears an over-the-top costume, a sharply metallic conical bodice with a chiffon skirt that Marlene helps strap to her legs with leather bands. Petra becomes more and more attached to Karin. In the third act, she wears a ruffled dress, subtly echoing a harlequin costume – the image of Petra, red wigged and with a tear streaming down her face, is unforgettable. The doll-like nature of their relationship is reversed, and Karin, lazily lying on the bed, is in control and pulls the strings like a puppeteer. In the final act, Petra is wearing an off-the-shoulder emerald green dress. The colour stands out even on the background of the wall mural. In the apotheosis of her despair, Petra draws the viewer’s eye even more powerfully towards her. Her pain cuts deep, and the green dress and the red flower tightly tied on a black band around her neck make the viewer perceive that. She displays a feeling that is so crude and so innocent that it’s hard to swallow.
Every scene is meticulously built, with Petra melding into each composition, resembling still photographs, suggesting Petra’s entrapment in her own emotions, where darkness prevails over lightness and decor operates like prison bars, confining her to her apartment and distancing her from the others. Fassbinder made the design himself, he confessed, every colour and image carefully thought out and prepared. Petra’s life-size mannequins are always present, motionless and lifeless silhouettes repositioned throughout the film, as if freezing whatever emotion our main character projects. But not even their presence do I find theatrical. Nor the dialogue that often becomes a monologue. This perfect mesh of words and images is part of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s unparalleled style. Have I mentioned the music? Each act is not only punctuated by a different costume, but by a different song, too, which is a great way to use music in film and to walk you through the stages of a character’s evolution. There are four musical themes in total, if we don’t count Marlene’s relentless typewriting repeatedly heard in the background: “The Great Pretender,” by The Platters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” by The Platters, “Un di félice” from Verdi’s La Traviata, and “In My Room,” by The Walker Brothers.
Fassbinder understood how women feel and he portrayed them well, Irm Hermann (Marlene in the film), who was romantically involved with the director for many years, affirmed. Margit Carstensen further concurred that Fassbinder understood women’s psychology, that he knew all about it, and that he himself had a feminine side, admired women and gave them his full attention. The truth is that there is a sensibility to his female characters that is hardly explored by other filmmakers. Even if they are devoid of sentimentality, there is a truthfulness, and a tenderness and a profoundly wholehearted side to them that only he was able to show us. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is formed of love streams and there is nothing more intense and more real than that. That’s why it’s so relatable, even if the cruelty and suffering are amplified, even if the setting is very artistic. Maybe because he was such a sensitive soul and lived in a constant state of extremes and excess. Most definitely because he was brilliant at what he did… movie-making.
“You have to make films that are seductive, beautiful, about emotion or whatever…”
This piece is published courtesy of classiq.me
Editorial sources: “Role-Play: Women on Fassbinder”, a 1992 documentary including interviews with Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla and Rosel Zech / Interview with Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Tony Rayns, Sight & Sound, 1974