Director/Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
By Roderick Heath
Among those in the wave of new German cinema to emerge from the mid-1960s and into the ’70s, the most restless, protean, and tragic figure was Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder’s relentless pace of work between 1970 and his death in 1982 would have been admired by old studio pros, whilst maintaining the strictest standards of artistic experimentation and expressive engagement. Fassbinder’s importance as a film artist manifested on several levels: in his rummaging through cultural detritus and worship of Douglas Sirk, he was a pop ironist, but also a fearless innovator and a key inventor of queer cinema. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an adaptation of his own play, is considered one of the pivotal works in his career in that he gained complete control over various themes and stylistic impulses here, ironically by zeroing in on the most limited drama imaginable: the film never leaves the ground floor of the title character’s house, and barely even moves from her bedroom space. As has proven true for many of the best directors, the challenge of such a limited, theatrical setting stimulated the most refined cinematic reflexes in Fassbinder: the visual style of Bitter Tears is subtly epic and consistently, arrestingly beautiful.
Petra (Margit Carstensen), our antiheroine whose capacious bed is the centrepiece of the film’s geography, story, and the fraught emotional and sexual warfare about to take place, is awakened by her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann), who draws up the blinds, abruptly showering Petra with sunlight. Petra’s at a crossroads in her life: a former model and jet-setting wife now gaining fame as a designer, she relishes requests for work from fashion houses that had turned her down not long ago. Petra’s marriage ended within the past couple of years, and she has a teenage daughter, Gabriele (Eva Mattes), who is a milk-fed calf of the most innocent and irritating sort.
Petra is visited at the outset by her sister, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), who’s lodged comfortably in a standard relationship with her husband, a baron, and she attempts to understand Petra’s lengthy, abstract explanation of why her union with her once slavishly adored husband Lester failed. Sidonie trumpets her own success in achieving a familiar balance in her own union—she lets her husband maintain an illusion of authority, but gets her own way in the end. This is precisely the kind of dishonesty Petra dislikes, for the refusal to sink into such hypocrisies defined her marriage, which actually disintegrated when she began to outearn her husband. Accompanying Sidonie is a young friend of hers, Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), who instantly fixates Petra. When Petra invites Karin to come back later, she does, dressed, like Petra, in the most ornate and displaying clothes imaginable. After a delicate process of teasing out Karin’s troubled past, including the fact she’s recently abandoned her Australian husband, Petra declares her love for the girl.
What follows is the definition of a chamber piece, but Fassbinder renders his limited setting almost impossibly lush by several tricks of décor, including, most obviously, a wall covered with a detail from Nicolas Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” with a nymph’s feminine form prominently sprawled. Mannequins and busts to support Petra’s array of wigs lend a kind of immobile chorus to the proceedings, and later, to mock her own situation, Petra arranges those mannequins in sexual positions. Fassbinder uses the layout of the apartment for the most cunning effects of mise-en-scène, like having Marlene watch Sidonie and Petra from a another room via two windows and fingering the glass with hopeless, alienated angst, or, later, using a bench top to divide the frame in such a way as to perfectly realise the sudden schism between lovers. He even plays games with the amount of available space in the apartment: in early scenes, Petra’s bed dominates the set, but later it’s pushed away so that Petra’s bedroom is a great wilderness of white shag carpet in which she flounders in an alcohol-pickled rage. The almost maddening closeness of the space is pushed even further in the scene of Petra’s seduction of Karin, as Marlene, present as always yet rendered a nonperson by Petra’s regime, bangs away relentlessly on a typewriter, her noise almost omnipresent and yet unprocessed. Pointedly, Marlene only stops typing, as she had earlier stopped working, when Petra begins to speak of her own failed amours. Marlene’s desire for knowledge of Petra’s mental landscape is matched only by Petra’s complete uninterest in the mental landscape of others.
That’s not to say that Petra is intended as a villain, but she is a thoroughly flawed human whose prejudices, blind spots, and self-delusion are gnawed to the bone as if by a school of piranha. Fassbinder’s drama carefully warps perspective and emotional response with such skill that it’s possible to hate and empathise with every character. Petra is able to write herself into the role of the distraught Pygmalion spiralling in despair of the amoral, ice-cold work of art she’s given birth to and been betrayed in the lowest way when Karin abruptly abandons her to return to her husband, now armed with the contacts and experience she’s gained as a model. But Karin, even in her stony, apparently contemptuous kiss-off, insists she loved Petra in her own way—that of a blithe young swinger whose willingness to take advantage of situations she stumbles into shouldn’t be confused with Petra’s own still instinctively materialist concept of love: having spurned her husband for trying to assert economic control over her, Petra has simply repeated the process.
As a fashion designer, Petra is an artist after a fashion, but a lazy one—she has Marlene do the colouring in her sketches—and her art form is always implicitly one of altering surfaces as though those acts could reconstruct the interior. Thus, putting on make-up and dressing are elaborate and overt acts throughout: Petra, after her rude awakening by Marlene, goes through the paces of adorning herself until she’s the image of what she wants to be: an empress, in command of the erotic, the fiscal, the emotional, and the social. Later, when she meets Karin, they have both dressed up in a fashion that’s both flesh-revealing and ornate: they’re like super-stylised fantasies of ’30s high fashion, pagan priestesses forming a new cult of love and ditzy narcissists all at once. It’s camp, of course, but subtler and less overtly amusing than that form is usually seen to be: Fassbinder’s love of femme glamour and formalist aesthetics is tempered by a coolly unsentimental, relentless study of games, pretences, cruelties, and vulnerabilities.
Rhetorically, Fassbinder achieves a number of entwined, but distinct ends. Overt gay themes were still relatively fresh to the screen in 1972, and Fassbinder’s disquiet about exploring his own homosexuality is partly distilled through the use of lesbians (he’d get around to looking at gay men with 1974’s Fox and His Friends). But that is not to mistake the film for naïve or shy in any fashion, and it’s a choice he makes the most of, considering he could also encompass questions of women’s lib and social restructuring through his protagonists here in a uniquely holistic tale. Fassbinder manages to tease the strands apart with surprising care at the end, chiefly through the late entrant to the tale, Petra’s mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), who separates her surprise and emotional uncertainty over her daughter’s homosexuality (“My daughter loves a girl…how peculiar!”) and her solicitous rebukes over Petra’s willingness to hurt others to make herself feel better. Thus, Petra’s sexuality and her personality are carefully distinguished. Petra’s in rebellion against familiar patriarchal structures and convenient fictions, but also utterly in thrall to them and, though she doesn’t perceive it, she’s actually an enforcer of a system of power. She emphasises the freedom that she and Lester sought in their marriage, which finally curdled when financial freedom was in her grasp (“That way, oppression lies, that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you’re saying, and, of course, I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’”), at which point she developed a loathing for what she describes as the “stink of men.” And yet, the tendency to turn a lover into a possession to be bought, however subtly and in whatever good faith, is one that Petra reproduces in her relationship with Karin.
In the third act, months after Petra and Karin’s relationship began, Petra needles a calmly indolent and purposefully resistant Karin about who she was with when she went out dancing the previous night until she delivers what is, tellingly, both the film’s funniest and most merciless line: she was with “a big black man with a big black dick.” It’s a memorable crux not only for the way the revelation acts like a bucket of cold water on their relationship, but also for the instantly codified racial and sexual anxieties with which Karin skewers Petra. The title’s specificity is worth noting: Petra von Kant weeps a lot of bitter tears indeed, but only for Petra von Kant. Even her name has meaning as one that marks her as a member of the German aristocracy (she herself notes with humoured weariness, “Nothing ever changes in Germany.”), and her rhetoric about freedom is entirely hypocritical: “It’s a waste of time being nice to servants,” she says with contempt for the slavishly devoted Marlene. Fassbinder here manages the genuinely sophisticated job of pointing out that liberation in one segment of a society quite often comes at the cost to someone else, and he refuses to let Petra off the hook for her sense of entitlement and personal arrogance.
If Petra is still doggedly interesting and compelling in spite of all her appalling behaviour, it’s because she’s absolutely fearless in confronting her shifting sexuality and is at least searching for a genuine alternative. The film’s course has an almost Buddhist logic to it, as it essentially strips her of everything she possesses at the start, until she’s left alone, dishevelled, and humiliated, but finally, fundamentally aware enough to smile as she watches Marlene pack her things and walk out on her. She even finally comes to doubt she loved Karin, but rather that she made her a doll to act out a psychodrama (Sidonie sparks Petra’s vicious final tirades with the gift of a blonde doll that resembles Karin), but the evidence that Petra’s emotional reflexes, intensity of feeling, and commitment to an ideal make everyone around her look puny is hard to ignore. Bitter Tears has a lot of similarities to the first mainstream, lesbian-themed film, The Killing of Sister George (1968), but unlike in Robert Aldrich’s film, where Beryl Reid’s George is left alone and devastated by her unremitting nonconformity, Petra’s journey to a similar end entails more contradictions and even a degree of desired necessity. Petra needs her betrayal to take the liberty to firebomb every smarmy platitude and straw-dummy social role around her, and the sequence in which she tries to terrorise and emotionally flay her mother, sister, and daughter with truly loathsome force,sees her spurning not just them, but also what they represent—the nagging, settled aspects of femininity and the inevitable of past and future.
Bitter Tears is a bitterly funny film in spite of, and partly in service to, its intensity of feeling, as in the spectacle Petra makes of herself and her insults to her family, at once mortifying and giddily hilarious as Petra is unspeakably honest in calling her daughter a nasty little monster and accusing her mother of having been a passive whore with a fancy title who never did a day’s work in her life. Although there’s nothing to entertain anyone searching for vicarious soft-core thrills detachable from context—Petra and Karin only even kiss once—it’s also a lividly erotic film. That’s because of the way everything on screen is charged with beauty through the terrific, crisp cinematography of Michael Ballhaus. The carefully coordinated colours in the set design and costuming start to resemble art nouveau in their careful clash of tones, and those great nude figures on the wall in turns mirror, mock, and contrast the characters in front of them. The film builds to a conclusion that seems initially funny and facile but is actually curiously cryptic: Marlene’s final walkout, packing away belongings including a revolver, in her declaration of independence, comes not from some final straw of humiliation, but because Petra, having attempted to free her, takes away even the dignity of Marlene’s masochism, a dignity Petra herself has indulged to the limit. l