The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant (1972)

Dir. by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Images: Staged entirely in Petra’s bedroom and filmed largely in long takes, using slow tracking and deep focus shots. Mise-en-scene might be described as early-70s, too-hip opulence: bright colors, shag carpets, cutting edge (but impractical and uncomfortable) fashions. Characters are often dwarfed by a Michelangelo-esque wall mural, which is particularly interesting when the nude male figures can be seen (often only from the waist down) between the faces of the actresses. The film “feels” like a play — broken into several (6?) scenes, each clearly delineated by a fade-out/fade-in.

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The title character (played by Margit Carstensen) is a successful fashion designer whose happiness has been shattered by the death of her first husband and by a bitter divorce from her second. Her sad existence is reflected by the mise-en-scene: isolated (there are no windows), grotesquely fashionable, and charged with ambivalent sexuality (her bed is the only practical furniture). After relating to a friend the shameful details of her failed marriage, Petra is introduced to Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful young woman who apparently shares Petra’s bitterness with life and love. The two become lovers, living together for six months until Karin finds success as a model and returns to her husband.

Petra’s “bitterness” is more likely the frustration of a woman incapable of selfless behavior. She brutally dominates those close to her — including her mother, her daughter, and her silent servant, Marlene — as if she were a spoiled child. When Karin leaves her, for instance, Petra explodes into a gin-fueled tantrum, shattering her tea set and literally rolling on the floor, beating her fists. Petra is a tragic figure, beautifully realized by Carstensen and Fassbinder. With each scene, she slips into a new character, as if a new wig, a new outfit might offer the cure she seeks. She’s at her most honest and sympathetic, though, in the film’s opening and closing scenes, when we find her lying alone in bed without a wig or make-up.

Perhaps the most interesting character in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is Marlene, the silent and endlessly accommodating servant. She adds to the film yet another layer of strange sexual politics. (With her tight black dresses and straight-backed walk, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that oft-cited lesbian film icon, Miss Danvers from Hitchcock’s Rebecca.) But Marlene is different from the other women in Petra’s life in her refusal to be dominated. Their relationship, though clearly marked as master/servant, is also clearly founded on Marlene’s terms. When, at the end of the film, Petra attempts to lift Marlene onto an equal plane, Marlene refuses, choosing to remain silent and to leave.

Fassbinder’s experience in the theater is obvious here. In fact, I can think of few cinematic precedents for this film, but was reminded throughout of plays like Maria Irene Fornes’ Fefu and Her Friends, another experimental examination of heterosexual frustrations and repressed lesbian desire that also features an all female cast. Also, the constant tapping of Marlene’s typewriter feels like a direct allusion to Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, a wonderful piece of early-20th century expressionism.