Sunday, February 5, 2023

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant)


Writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder with cameraman Michael Ballhaus

Fassbinder with Douglas Sirk









THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant)   A   Worpswede  (124 mi)  January 1972  d: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Marlene leaves because she had accepted her role as the oppressed and exploited one and because in reality she is frightened by the freedom offered to her.  Freedom means, specifically, having to think about her life, and she isn’t used to that.  She had always acted like a commando and never made her own decisions.  So freedom scared her, and when she finally abandons Petra, she doesn’t go towards freedom, in my opinion, but in search of another position as a slave.       —Rainer Werner Fassbinder

I feel I can express what I want to say better when I use a female character at the centre.  Women are more exciting, because on the one hand they are oppressed, and on the other they aren’t really, because they use this ‘oppression’ as terrorization.  Men are so simple: they’re more ordinary than women.  It’s also more amusing to work with women.  Men are primitive in their means of expression.  Women can show their emotions more, but with men it becomes boring.      —Rainer Werner Fassbinder, from Christian Braad Thomsen five interviews from BFI, 1972-75 (pdf), fassbinder - Thought and Image – Humanities 425  

During the period of the mid 60’s to early 70’s, a group of young directors whose work is collectively known as the New German Cinema became the most exciting development in cinema since the French New Wave, using aesthetics that challenged the established bourgeois view of the world at a time when Germany essentially had no film industry.  Despite their enormous promise, even the best known and influential of these directors seldom achieved the box office equivalent of second-rate Hollywood films.  As one of the most fortunate among them, Fassbinder was able to make films for West German television, as that was where the money was at the time.  Fassbinder was the most prolific of these young directors, making his 13th feature in just three years, ultimately 41 films in a 14-year period, with the American premiere at the Chicago Film Festival, but he was also one of the most controversial, despised by conservatives, angering many leftists as well, including communist artists and intellectuals, with feminist groups protesting outside the Alice Tully Hall screening in New York, as reported by The Village Voice [Molly Haskell], including a group from the Lesbian Feminist Liberation, hissing throughout the screening, producing many walk-outs, apparently angered by the exploitive advertising and the camp depiction of lesbians as perverse and manipulative, accusing him of misogyny, another male director complicit in women’s oppression, yet camp can be subversive, as the film is not so much about lesbianism as women’s place in society, applicable to all of humanity.  Making films that are unconventional and highly unsettling, this is intentional, as Fassbinder is a disciple of Bertolt Brecht, admired by radicals and film lovers alike, described by critics as the “savior” of German cinema, winning a mass audience, especially through his TV films.  Fassbinder was one of those rare modern filmmakers who actually succeeded in entertaining audiences while also making them uncomfortable, one of the few to unashamedly explore the tortured connections between desire, power, and liberation, both on a personal and collective level.  His anger at the prevailing order is pervasive throughout his work.  Despite artists like Godard who called into question previous concepts of cinematic image, Fassbinder decided the point was not to convince viewers of the sophistication and depth of his own mind, and instead chose to remain within the realm of cinematic realism, making no secret about his desire to be popular.  While he never achieved the kind of popularity enjoyed by Lina Wertmüller, for instance, whose comical farces were more comfortable to live with, Fassbinder may have succeeded beyond his mentor and father figure, Douglas Sirk (who he visited in Switzerland), in creating a critical and subversive cinema for mass audiences, employing numerous Sirkian framing devices, like window panes, doorways, banisters, or staircases, while preferring to utilize shadows, mirrors, and reflections. 

Combining motifs from the Hollywood women’s films of the 40’s, like George Cukor’s THE WOMEN (1939), which he rewrote for the stage and for television entitled WOMEN IN NEW YORK (1977), but also Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), and an irrepressible Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz’s soapy Mildred Pierce (1945), which inspired so much debate in the 70’s feminist film criticism in America, this deeply melancholic film allows a gay man to fully explore and expand the genre of the maternal melodrama, with performances that powerfully underline the emotional claustrophobia of the film.  Using bold variations of style, displaying a concern for form and experimentation, it deliberately avoids disguising its theatrical origins, acknowledging a debt to Brechtian anti-theater, with its desire to revolutionize theater’s bourgeois values and bring about social and political change, clinically distancing us from his characters while remaining suspicious of an over-reliance on a dry, cerebral cinema that held little interest to non-intellectuals, acknowledging “In theater I always directed as if it were a film, and then shot the films as if it were theater, I did that fairly determinedly.”  At the core of Fassbinder’s political analysis is his recognition that those interested in producing social change need to see clearly into the social and economic forces designed to keep them down and prevent that change from occurring, while at the same time destroying any bourgeois notion of an independent individual, suggesting all social relations rely upon an interdependence, people working together, as no one survives alone.  Yet the tragedy is that our social relations with others, and within ourselves, have been impaired by ideologies we have been fed since infancy, placing human consciousness at the foreground of political struggle.  According to Fassbinder, “Hope does not exist in my films.  It must be born in the head of the viewer.”  His complete distrust of all authority has led some to describe him as an anarchist, yet the tension of Fassbinder’s work comes from a Brechtian passion for form and structure combined with a Sirkian humanism, producing a vision of the world that is uniquely his own.  Under his stern direction and critical eye, Fassbinder mediates the world of today through a carefully choreographed theater taking place in box-like rooms, commonly recognizable paces like bedrooms, kitchens, offices, restaurants, or people’s homes, giving priority to emotional dilemmas using an over-the-top aesthetic, where the psycho-dynamics of the characters takes precedence over issues of political economy, as class backgrounds, religious beliefs, social pretensions and tastes are immediately recognizable, yet these common, ordinary spaces are not places of peace and refuge, but prisons, windows into the desperate psychological situations his characters find themselves, unable to claw their way out, caught in an entangled web of lies and deceit, with no spiritual consolation, staring into the face of personal destruction, as that promised liberation never comes, Three Reasons: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant YouTube (1:38).

According to American director Todd Haynes, “They were films about every possible minority: people of color, gay people, anarchists in the 3rd generation.  All of the subjects of Fassbinder films are as much the victims and perpetrators of the power dynamic; that is his real critique in these films.  He’s very interested in the ways in which victims in fact participate in power dynamics that are ultimately the products of societies.  It’s a very different kind of approach.”  With the assistance of his extraordinary cameraman Michael Ballhaus, Michael Ballhaus on THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972) YouTube (7:04), who came to America after Fassbinder’s death and worked with Martin Scorsese on films like Goodfellas (1990) and The Departed (2006), Fassbinder completely transformed the Hollywood idiom into his own, implementing a uniquely stylized cinematic perspective, where he wanted “to learn how to show viewers the things they don’t want to see in such a way that they will watch because it’s excitedly made.”  Written during a 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles, the play was dedicated to lead actress Margit Carstensen, having directed her in stage productions of Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House, premiering at the Frankfurt Theater Experimenta, an experimental arena presenting new ideas in Germany, and bombed, yet it was adapted into one of Fassbinder’s greatest works, an elegantly directed Sirkian melodrama and remarkably detailed character study transformed to lesbian camp, featuring an all-female cast.  Unlike any other film he ever made, expressing the director at his most impulsive, the film is introduced as “A Case History,” or a 1920’s Kammerspielfilm (chamber drama), with the work hinging on the ambiguous female ménage à trois between the designer Petra, her assistant-servant Marlene, and the young Karin, with its shifting emphasis on sexual and class differences.  All taking place in a single room, the elaborate studio bedroom of the narcissistic protagonist Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen, in her third of 14 Fassbinder films, shot in nearby Worpswede to simultaneously accommodate her evening theatrical performances in Bremen), a prominent fashion designer in Bremen, it follows the changing dynamics in her relationships with other women.  On display is a cramped, but wonderful look at the personal interplay between three lesbians and their struggle for dominance — no men, except for a Renaissance phallus on the wall overseeing all, a gigantic wall-sized blowup of Nicolás Poussin’s 1629 painting Midas and Bacchus (1,065 × 772 pixels), depicting a nude Bacchus and partially clothed men and women, as Fassbinder explores the motivating and destructive forces of love, the mechanics of sexual captivation and its emotional upheaval, featuring a brilliant style and drama, with extraordinary character development.  What’s especially interesting to see is Irm Hermann as Marlene, Petra’s devoted assistant, appearing in 20 of Fassbinder’s films, never once in a starring role, yet this is her most accomplished screen presence, never uttering a word, a passive, slavishly subservient figure who is always on the outer fringes of the frame, as if she’s not allowed to protrude any further, where disempowerment is reflected in her positioning on camera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant YouTube (1:07), with Fassbinder adding a dedication, “To the one who became Marlene here.”  Offering insight into his female characters that is barely explored by other filmmakers, void of any sentimentality, yet mystifyingly honest and direct, Fassbinder creates a hermetically sealed environment, like a laboratory, to explore this elaborately artificialized world of swirling emotions, always curious about examining what’s under the surface, accompanied by the music of Verdi and The Platters, providing a release from the suffocating space, upbeat and energized, where every single song features a male voice, with suggestions that a patriarchal presence is always intruding.        

Shot in just 10 days, with little to no rehearsals, with a reputation for working very quickly, often getting what he wants in a single take, Petra’s story is told in a boldly theatrical claustrophobic setting in five acts, each depicting her state of mind, with visual cues coming from her changing hair and clothes, as the women often appear as statues, fixed to their positions, like the various dolls that are prominently on display, along with numerous life-size mannequins repositioned throughout the film, though only Marlene is shown using them.  These women become moving silhouettes in a meticulously designed theater of extravagantly designed clothes and emotional suffocation, where Petra’s arrogant, absurdly self-centered histrionics eventually drive everyone from her life, even those closest to her, with Marlene, the all-seeing witness, having the final word in an insurrectionist rebellion, finally having enough, taking center stage in a hilarious Chaplinesque sequence of silently packing her bag, moving back and forth across the screen, furiously dropping one item after another into her bag, as her defiant exit brings down the curtain, Ending Scene - The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) (Rainer Werner Fassbinder) YouTube (2:39).  A common cinematic motif of unrequited love and suffering is displaced from a heterosexual couple to a lesbian one, a minority group generally ignored by films, becoming an exploration of emotional codependency, where one person enables another’s self-destructive behavior.  What’s ultimately so fascinating is to see Fassbinder himself in all the roles he writes about, including Petra von Kant, Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Franz Biberkopf, each one representing the various layers of his own existence, using his creative talent to examine the underlying social and psychological implications, where his own tortured relationships often end up onscreen, never more devastating than when two of his lovers, El Hedi ben Salem and Armin Meier, both of whom also acted in his films, later hanged themselves, foreshadowing his own tragic demise.  Weaving together several long and self-dramatizing conversations that abstractly reveal the loves and desires of the characters, among the more revealing moments comes early, with Petra slow-dancing with Marlene, their only tender moment together, with the sadness of the song foreshadowing events to come, The Platters - Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (from "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant") YouTube (2:57).  Marlene is always dressed in black, in stark contrast to Petra’s constantly changing outfits, one per act, assuming a new identity with each change, where the costume department headed by Maja Lemcke takes on a narrative role.  The Baroness Sidonie (a variation on bisexual author Colette’s real name, Sidonie Gabrielle Claudine, played by Katrin Schaake, working in her tenth Fassbinder film) visits Petra to console her about the collapse of her marriage, with Petra going over her past, offering intimate details explaining how the relationship deteriorated, her second marriage to end tragically, expressing an inability to live and act freely, outside the bourgeois norms of patriarchy, where the brutal honesty of this description and the reality of the suffering are vividly accurate (representative of Fassbinder’s own societal limitations), yet the most theatrically compelling moment comes when Marlene, working studiously on a sketch design near the edge of the frame, suddenly stops and takes notice, staring intently, with the camera fixated on her infatuated interest, looking mournfully on, with a tear slowly coming from her eye, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant 1972 scene YouTube (57 seconds).  As the story unfolds, the extent of Petra’s sadistically cruel and demeaning treatment of Marlene becomes more evident, a truly strange and mysterious example of how a muted secondary character who is otherwise ignored in the development of the story ultimately becomes a dominating dramatic presence. 

As it turns out, Petra has rejected marriage and swears off men in general, the aftereffects of an oppressive marriage where the romantic ideal turned to disgust, but falls obsessively in love with Karin (Hanna Schygulla, in the 12th of her 20 films with Fassbinder), where the roles reverse, with Petra suddenly the captivated servant and adoring slave to her radiantly beautiful Karin, an opportunistic working class ingénue she helps transform into a successful model in the fashion industry, yet Karin’s brash air of confidence takes her by surprise, strong-willed and fiercely independent, hardly the passively objectified figure she hoped to control her through her wealth, as Karin eventually grows tired and abandons her.  Their spectacular courtship is an overly theatrical dance-like ritual of seduction and melodramatic intensity, both wearing outlandish Wagnerian costumes, with Petra envisioning their future together, jumping ahead, controlling the dream, while Karin, the object of her fascination, allows the eyes to follow her, as if posing, as she slowly moves to different corners of the room, Fassbinder Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant 1972 clip YouTube (1:31), where dreams are fabricated through appearances and images, staples of both the fashion and movie industries.  Karin is much less assertive, basically going along for the ride when Petra invites her to move in with her (to save money!), where her manner of speech, the slowness of her delivery, the halting expression, and icy demeanor is in stark contrast to Petra’s adoring enthusiasm.  The narrative is an unexplored labyrinth of continually changing shapes, a kaleidoscope of statuesque faces that are constantly in motion, becoming a hall of mirrors, revealing an abusive power play between Petra and Marlene, the reversal of roles with Petra and Karin, underscoring the extent to which this device is used throughout Fassbinder’s career, perhaps reaching the apex with Chinese Roulette (Chinesisches Roulette) (1977).  A newspaper photo of their first success together includes the director himself, where this is a parallel with his own infatuations with men coming from lower class backgrounds, recounting a tortured affair with actor Günther Kaufmann, but also musical composer Peer Raben, who scored the music to nearly all of his features, once living as a threesome in Irm Hermann’s one-roomed apartment, with the two men sleeping in the bed while Hermann slept on the concrete floor.  Blurring the line between life and art, Harry Bär, the assistant director, remarked that this “is a very important film, because the viewer is bound to realize pretty quickly that it’s a camouflage.  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 recognized sentences that had actually been said.”  Fassbinder was famously hurtful to those around him, working with a loyal acting troupe, with whom he was frequently intimate, living in a commune early on, developing a hierarchy that kept actors struggling for status and attention, as jealousy and dependency thrived, playing mind games and using tactics that included insults, inducing humiliation crucial to the roles, while also encouraging no-holds-barred truth games that were notoriously cruel, evolving into this theater of punishment and cruelty, exploring the introspective dynamics of dominance and submission that lie beneath the surface, perhaps his answer to the catastrophic fall from grace in von Sternberg’s The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel) (1930), revisited again in LOLA (1982).  Less interested in healthy depictions, Fassbinder was more about grim realism.    

By this film, Schygulla’s relationship with the director began to rupture, as her desire for more naturalism in her performances was at odds with the director’s stylized formalism, taking a five-year break after EFFI BRIEST (1974), allegedly offending him by asking for a raise, replaced by Margit Carstensen, who became his new muse.  Described by Andrew Sarris as an “extraordinary mixture of stylization, sensuality, passion, and disgust,” Schygulla’s seductive style captivated audiences, playing characters ranging from prostitutes to nightclub singers and servants, figures with bourgeois aspirations who dream of escape and happiness until disillusionment leads to betrayal and revenge.  We witness a stunning change in Katrin’s sullen demeanor over time, expressing a disinterest in Petra altogether as she continually ignores her, indifferently leafing through a fashion magazine, openly acknowledging that she still enjoys obligatory sexual adventures with men, which only makes Petra squirm in discomfort, something Katrin obviously enjoys, becoming a sado-masochistic spectacle with Petra catering to her every whim.  Yet when Karin leaves, viewed by her as an act of insolence, Petra’s psychological disintegration begins, with her behavior only growing more wretchedly cruel, becoming a thoroughly overwrought melodrama as she mistreats everyone around her, yet what’s also revealed is that she exploits and degrades women in the exact same manner as a male-dominated society and film industry.  The opulent décor of this psychosexual drama is quite eclectic, with a Baroque feel, with the prominence of Petra’s double bed centrally located, strangely disappearing after Karin’s absence, with mirrors adding yet another Sirkian touch, while the German language itself is at its most angrily and aggressively blunt.  It is not by accident that the only scene where Marlene is absent is the one where Petra becomes most unhinged, spiraling into an out of control emotional tailspin on her birthday, utterly distraught over the absence of Karin, rolling on the floor with a bottle of gin in a liquor-generated despair, waiting by the phone for Karin to call, spending every conceivable second thinking about her, railing against all those present, “You make me sick, all of you,” including her boarding school daughter Gabriele (Eva Mattes) and mother (Gisela Fackeldey), who offers her own poetic insight, “The panic, when it comes, always makes us vulnerable,” where having to confront her mother reveals an absence of control, with Sidonie bringing her a girl’s doll that resembles Karin, a sly, sardonic reference, with Marlene making sure she scoops up the doll when she exits.  Every bit as oppressive as Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris) (1963), this is a culmination of Fassbinder’s work in modernist theater combined with his ongoing preoccupation with the politics of sexuality, where in film after film, he seems to be making the same point, that to fall in love is, quite simply, masochism, a pretext to pain, allowing your exposed feelings to be trampled upon.  Stylistically, Fassbinder is always experimenting, using the camera here to actually explore the shifting power dynamic as he keeps arranging people around the room, exhibiting his customary sense of dramatic symmetry and devastating irony, reaching an emotional crescendo with Verdi’s operatic La Traviata - Atto 1 - Un di felice, eterea - YouTube (6:26), a haunting moment when music suddenly becomes the driving force, omitting Violetta’s part in the duet, leaving audiences both bewildered and fascinated, becoming one of his great international triumphs, and a great influence on Ozon’s 8 FEMMES (2002).  Nearly forgotten in the modern landscape, the film feels timeless, as if it could exist from any era, even feeling contemporary, as it never fails to provoke, though it was made half a century ago.  What’s often overlooked in Fassbinder films is the extent that he choreographs his scenes, employing an obsessive framing of the images, something he continued to do even late in his career, where his operatic style matches his Sirkian melodramas, with this film being the prime example.      

Rainer Werner Fassbinder actresses - YouTube  Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, and Margit Carstensen share their reflections, by Thomas Honickel, 1992 (58:32)

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