But underneath her chichi clothing, ‘60s-girl-group headpieces, and vaguely clownish makeup, Petra is miserable. Two of her marriages have gone off the deep end – the first as a result of a death, the second of hard feelings. She has a teenage daughter she never sees.
So her wealth, in many ways, has left her feeling even more dejected. Constant reminders from her pals that she has no reason to be so unhappy are as present as the garish ornamentations that cover her apartment.
In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), the film adaptation of the play in which she is the protagonist, we never leave her bedroom. And we want to so badly – it’s an assault on the eyes, the walls adorned with reproductions of Poussin's Midas and Bacchus (c. 1630), the floors shag-carpeted, the shelves and tables blocky and swallowed by shabby decoration. We feel trapped.
But Petra does too. And perhaps that’s writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s point: to essentially smother us with the psyche, and the various neuroses that dance about inside it, of our heroine.
Because the film is only populated by women – including Petra’s abused and silent (though codependent) assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), her cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), her daughter Gabriele (Eva Mattes), her mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), and, most prominently, her much-younger lover Karin (Hanna Schygulla) – it will in no doubt remind viewers of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) or Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977).
And not just because The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is so unwaveringly female. Reminders will also come from the way Fassbinder’s film is, ultimately, about identity. How all the women who step into Petra’s bedroom throughout the film are, most likely, simply variations of the person she used to be, the person she wants to be, the person she doesn't want to be, the person she might later become, and more.
Like the aforementioned 3 Women, though, we’re most fixated on a trio of characters: Petra (obviously), Marlene, and Karin. Much of the film’s running time is taken up by Petra and Karin’s romance, which we can immediately tell is a doomed one. Karin is first introduced to Petra through a mutual connection to Sidonie, and from the moment the twosome locks eyes, clear is that Petra won’t be able to get enough. Twenty-three and fleshy, Karin is everything Petra is not: effortlessly beautiful, accidentally elegant, instantaneously magnetic. Perhaps she even resembles Petra at that age. So full of life, so riddled with potential.
But also clear is that the love that eventually arrives on the scene is one-sided: Karin says she loves Petra, but it won’t take much for her to sacrifice their relationship for a faster, cheaper thrill. Almost an hour of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is spent simply watching these women converse, confessing their deepest secrets to one another.
But even in these exchanges can we tell that something’s off. Petra considers these heart to hearts to be special. She’s only telling Karin such dark secrets because she figures she’s finally found someone who understands her. (Or at least she convinces herself of this.) By contrast, Karin looks at Petra as if she were a sounding board: what matters to her isn’t the fact that the latter could be the one for her. What matters to her is that someone will listen to her unload, and Petra, coincidentally, is of the desperate sort.
Petra undergoes the biggest arc of all the film’s characters. Throughout the first act, we get to know the woman she tells the world she is: a glamorous artist in full control of her destiny. The second, especially spent with Karin, reveals the woman Petra actually is – an emotionally vulnerable individual who cannot persuade herself that she is not, in fact, internally withering. The last dramatically unveils Petra at her most worn down, when she’s decidedly lost in all and would rather wallow in her misery than pick herself up again. Will this cycle continue? Undoubtedly. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a three-dimensional portrait of a woman on the verge.
How interesting, then, that this movie was written and directed by a man. Fassbinder knows nothing about the female experience – and doesn’t really try to guess what such entails – and yet he paints a portrait so colorful and uncomfortably vivid that we find ourselves shaken by how well he both sympathizes with and judges his Petra von Kant.
He knows that she is imperfect, just as we do. But he’s willing to take us on this journey that is such a small piece of her wild life. So sensitive is his rendering that we’re almost desperate to see some sort of a news story or public reaction to Petra just to get a better idea of the difference between her public and private personae.
The film made for a transitional point in Fassbinder’s brief but prolific career. After nearly a decade of putting his attention onto avant garde projects, he began making melodramas that both paid homage to and subverted the characteristics found in the great Hollywood soap operas of two decades prior, particularly those of Douglas Sirk. Beginning with The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), this new aesthetic began grabbing the attention of both critics and audiences, so much so that the mere screening of his films at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the possibly catching a glimpse of himself and his dependable entourage wobbling around, was an event in and of itself.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, along with the acclaimed Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Fox and His Friends (1975), are universally considered to be Fassbinder’s finest films of the ‘70s. Considering he made a bewildering 29 films and three miniseries’ in a span of 10 years, it’s remarkable that he could even make such masterpieces at all.
Because The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant never changes setting, and finds its excitement purely in conversation, it will likely test even the most patient of viewers. There are certainly sections that drag. But the feature is such a multifaceted portrait, few and far between flirtations with tedium are just part of Fassbinder’s particular brand of realism. A-
Rainer Werner Fassbinder
2 Hrs., 4 Mins.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
etra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) has it all. A fashion designer at the height of her success – movie producers call her regularly, and so do admirers wanting to be part of her entourage – she’s at a moment in her career that could only rival Edith Head's at the peak of her Hitchcock years. She should, by all accounts, be happy. A dream has turned into a reality. So much money resides comfortably in her bank account, she’ll never have to worry about the repercussions of indulging in an extravagance ever again.