Cinema Club: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

Posted on November 29, 2013

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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

(First things first, the opening line of my notes for this film read ‘she’s got a slave and a wig‘. That’s about right)

‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ is not an easy film to watch. Two hours long, split into four acts and taking place within practically the same four walls with a grand total of six on -screen characters, it is visually and artistically minimal to say the least. What it doesn’t scrimp on is the intensity of emotion and human feeling. All six characters are desperate in a variety of ways, and no one holds back in showing this, with a very important exception. It takes a special talent to make a film as sparse as this so bewitching.

The title character is a fashion designer of some sort, who despite often speaking of a jet-setting lifestyle never seems to leave her bedroom, and barely her bed. Her cousin turns up, an equally upper-class sort, and they have a long discussion about the men in their lives and the disappointments that have stemmed from their relationships. All the while Petra’s assistant/servant/FULL BLOWN SLAVE Marlene paints away in the background, completely mute. Everything goes screwball with the arrival of Karin, a 23 year old lady who Petra is immediately attracted to. Karin, an aspiring model, visits the next evening to thrash out some work with Petra. Karin’s back story is aired, an often tragic tale softly spoken whilst Petra continually attempts to get closer and closer to the young girl. Her attraction is unquestionable. Marlene is still there, typing away frantically in the background. Petra insists that Karin move in, which she eventually agrees to do.

The film then fast forwards to act three, and we’re some time in the future, maybe not so distant. Karin is still at Petra’s, and the roles have seemingly reversed. Petra has become desperate for the affection of Karin, and it becomes obvious that Karin is taking advantage of Petra, only to drop her when the time is right. Petra by now has transformed from an arrogant, irritating woman into a lonely old lady, resembling the mannequins that stand all around the apartment. After the most subservient discussion in the film, Karin reveals that she is to return to her husband. Petra is distraught. The last legs of the film are set on Petra’s birthday, as the various characters in her life come around whilst Petra drinks herself silly desperately waiting for Karin to call. It’s concurrently hilarious and violently depressing. It all comes to a head, Petra starts smashing things and abusing all around her. We end with Petra worn out in bed, seemingly at peace after Karin calls. Petra apologizes to Marlene, which causes the much sat-upon slave to pack up and leave, in a beautifully rendered final shot.

If you decide that your film is only going to contain six characters, two of whom only feature in a single scene and one who doesn’t speak a single word, in a single location, you best make damn sure that those characters are full of life and engaging to say the least. Fassbinder accomplishes this and then some. The performance as Petra by Margit Carstensen is damn near titanic. Portraying a character that is first headstrong, then meek, then practically manic, she is quite blatantly having the time of her life. The supporting cast all put in strong performances as well, in particular Gisela Fackeldey’s brief cameo as Petra’s mother who can’t come to terms with the fact her daughter loves a woman. It’s borderline riotous.

The sleeper star character of the film that underpins the themes that hold it all together however is Marlene, Petra’s assistant/servant/FULL BLOWN SLAVE. Entirely mute throughout the film, she acts as the audience in some respects. She is consistently in the background of whatever is happening in the apartment, and is frequently on the receiving end of tongue lashings from Petra, in particular when Karin is breaking her heart. She is a terrifyingly clear window into the erotic and sexual side of cruelty, and the intricacies and complications of desire and lust. She is the only character, with possibly the exception of Petra’s daughter Gabby, that isn’t pre-occupied with a need to dominate their relationships. She is the put-upon, the weak, the dominated. She is the consistent unchanging character of imprisonment, whether it is self-desired or not we don’t know. Without managing to speak a word she captures so many different human thoughts. It’s a special, special character.

‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ walks a particularly thin tightrope of thrill and tedium, yet manages to stay away from the sea of boredom beneath it. A lot of this must go down to Fassbinder, as the whole thing is put together with incredible attention to detail. One of my favourite aspects of the whole film was the late birthday scene, and the evolution of colour with the arrival of each new character. Each character wears a different colour, each as stark as the next. It reminded me of Cluedo, all be it in the context of an artistic German film from the 1970s. The use of the huge classical nude painting as a consistent backdrop to the film is also a stroke of genius, providing the only visual male presence in the film whatsoever. It’s the little things that make a film like this.

This movie is full of the little things, enough of them to create a tidal wave of intense emotion. Good work.

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Posted in: Cinema