Monday Editor’s Pick: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

by on August 16, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Mon Aug 22 at 8:00* at IFC Center [Program & Tix]
*Introduction by Jack Fever

Rainer Wener Fassbinder, the New German Cinema‘s greatest filmmaker and most irrepressible bad boy, returns to New York via IFC Center’s Queer/Art/Film series. The director’s hermetically austere yet hyperstylized chamber drama The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant will be screened one-time only with an introduction by Jack Fever, a choreographer who has adapted at least two other Sapphic seduction dramas from screen to stage: Notes on a Scandal and Black Swan.
Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times describes Fever as “a choreographer who archly toys with several performance-art traditions”:

In 2008, Fever was the first choreographer to be presented at the [New Museum, where] he return[ed in 2009] with the premiere of “A Movie Star Needs a Movie,” featuring film and photography elements by the multitalented dance artist Jason Akira Somma. Performed by Mr. Ferver and the wickedly smart Liz Santoro, a frequent collaborator, the work look[ed] to continue his fierce, disturbing interrogation into America’s enduring preoccupation with fame.
With his mad blue Bette Davis eyes and penchant for public suffering, Mr. Ferver is well suited to such a task. He is good at making a spectacle of himself, and — more to the point — he excels at making his audiences deeply uncomfortable. While he constructs and subverts identity, presenting and manipulating images of sexuality, abuse and self-love, those of us watching are implicated in his physically raw, violent works. We can’t look away, and naturally, we don’t want to.

A supercut compilation of Fever’s choreography and performances, from his website:



Olga Solovieva revisits Bitter Tears in Film Comment (Jan/Feb 2002):

R. W. Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is all about dressing. It’s at the film’s center in both the literal sense of clothing the body and in the metaphoric sense of clothing as identity. Petra von Kant is a fashion designer and by nature a lover of artifice. Her relationship with her slave-like secretary Marlene and her love affair with a young model named Karin are commented upon throughout the film by the trio’s various dress styles. At the same time, in a figurative sense, Petra puts on her emotions and moods as if they’re fitted costumes.


The film’s opening image of two cats on a staircase grooming themselves for the day-the only instance of natural behavior in the film-ironically insinuates the central ambiguity: self-fashioning and artificiality might be the way of the world. In Fassbinder’s film, dress replaces the body. Mask-like makeup and ever-changing wardrobes take on a life of their own, representing the dynamics of the characters’ personalities. Naked bodies appear only as the lifeless mannequins in Petra’s apartment or as the dull, undifferentiated mass of limbs in the wall-size reproduction of Poussin’s painting Midas Giving Thanks to Bacchus in her bedroom.


The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is usually regarded as a conscious or self-reflexive melodrama. Indeed, the very title announces a melodramatic affect as the films subject, and the sober-sounding subtitle “A Case Study” implies the notion of a documentary inquiry. In one interview, Fassbinder stated that his films are about people and life in general but that he expressed himself better through female figures. The exaggerated accoutrements worn by the women in the film function as tools to construct femininity in service of an investigation of melodramatic power relations.



Matt Mazur for PopMatters:

The great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus immediately brings dimension into the deceptively flat environment that director Rainer Werner Fassbinder constructs for his characters in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The film is layered with imagery and the unusual angling of the camera is eye-catching throughout, beginning with the first shot, where the spectator’s attention is drawn to the cats sitting on the stairs, with a graphic red and white printed couch in the distance. For a film that is arguably about perspective, specifically female perspective, a master of space, shape and technique such as Ballhaus is essential to its complex make-up. Ballhaus’ visual nuances are every bit as essential to the shading of human behavior as the mise en scene, the acting style and the directorial vision. All of these seemingly disparate elements conspire to create the impression of a whole woman, as filtered through the lens of Fassbinder’s anarchical imagination.


Dealing with the female psyche in a probing way that recalls both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant features prominently the relationship between one overly-talky woman (Petra, played by Margit Carstenen) with one who is essentially mute (Marlene, played by Irm Hermann) and learning through silent observation. In Fassbinder’s film, rather than making it a two-character chamber play about the appropriation of female identity, the director shrewdly adds in peripheral female characters such as Petra’s lover Karin (Hanna Schygulla), her old friend Sidonie (Katrin Shcaake), her mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey) and daughter Gaby (Eva Mattes) – all of whom seem to be another piece of the puzzle, another essential piece of the title character, who seems to be exploring her own female identity and behavior in a more extroverted way. Marlene observes Petra and does everything for her, even the professional work of fashion designing. Marlene must assume Petra’s point of view in her designs and essentially, her identity while performing these tasks for her employer. In a flat littered with hollowed out mannequins and age-inappropriate baby dolls, Marlene becomes the ultimate doll: Petra’s own personal marionette.



Roderick Heath for Ferdy on Films:

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.


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.


Time Out (London):

If Fear Eats the Soul used Emmi and Ali’s improbable relationship as a key to deep-set patterns of social prejudice and fear, then the slightly earlier Bitter Tears sketches the currents of dominance and submission that lie beneath the surface of any human relationship. This time, the focus is gay rather than straight: fashion designer Petra (once widowed, once divorced) develops a fiercely possessive crush on her model Karin, and, as soon as the one-sided affair reaches its necessary end, starts wallowing in theatrical self-pity. Coldly described, the set and costume design and the hothouse atmosphere represent so much high-camp gloss; but once again this careful stylisation enables Fassbinder to balance between parody of an emotional stance and intense commitment to it. He films in long, elegant takes, completely at the service of his all-female cast, who are uniformly sensational.



Ed Gonzalez for Slant:

Not exactly the most comfortable film of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s career, the Sapphic haute couture bitchfest The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (a major influence on Francois Ozon’s 8 femmes) is also his most oft-quoted. And it’s easy to see why, what with rhythmic rants like: “He stank like a man. The way men stink. What had once had its charms now turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes.” Margit Carstensen stars as the film’s eponymous fashion designer, a divorced whiner who falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with one of her models, Karin (Hanna Schygulla). Fassbinder uses the claustrophobic geometry of the film (for two hours, his grueling camera never leaves Petra’s hermetic quarters) to strangle the film’s women and to distance them physically and emotionally from each other, cataloging the various force du jours their individual hysterias provoke. Having divorced some time ago the husband she no longer loved, Carsensen’s bored fashionista now grapples with the implications of her love for women. She’s drawn to Karin not only for her beauty but for the subservience the up-and-coming ingénue seems to promise her. But in Karin’s emotional turnaround in the film’s nihilistic last act, Fassbinder envisions a proletarian uprising against an oppressive bourgeois. Irm Hermann stars as Petra’s perpetually silent servant girl, who spends much of the film typing in a corner for her master and observing her eventual downfall. And in Petra’s relationship with her daughter, a naïve little baby dyke fresh out of boarding school, Fassbinder allows Petra to declare and define her notions of maternal power and female control. The film is a fascinating but strange document of the trickle-down effects of power and an even stranger observation of the way women treat and sometimes enslave each other, but Fassbinber’s galvanizing aesthetic approach to the material, however fitting, is so unbearably oppressive that it borders on the pathological. For his audience, the only points of departure are the high-camp exchanges between the film’s actresses.


Derek Smith for Cinematic Reflections:

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is the perfect example of a film that has no business working, but that somehow finds a way to be a beautiful and affecting piece of cinema. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a brilliant depiction of the manipulation inherent in every relationship (even between friends and family) and the lengths to which people will go to stay with the ones they love. At its core is a women’s picture in the spirit of Douglas Sirk and the lesbian relationships and absence of males occurs not to be racey but rather to explore the emotions of its characters free from the constraints of the male-female relationship. The performances are truly inspired, especially Margit Carstensen’s tour-de-force turn as Petra, and along with Fassbinder’s set pieces, framing, and composition help us look into the souls of the characters and see that their pain is our pain, their defeat is our defeat, and that their relationships are not as far-fetched as they first might seem. In a way we can all identify with Petra’s need for love and control, and in her character we find the very essence of human suffering.



In the academic’s corner, Peter Tyson analyzes the influence of Sirk and Brecht on the film for Bright Lights Film Journal:

Petra von Kant has been called “one of Fassbinder’s most controversial films,” with some viewers “outraged by the harshly limited view of women in this film, from bitchy couturier to slavish secretary.” Feminist and gay critics have even labelled the film “both homophobic and anti-woman.” Elyse Sommer describes it as a “steamy Lesbian love triangle,” while Ryan Gilbey calls it “a berserk, angry, funny and exhausting analysis of sado-masochistic power games masquerading as loving relationships.” The releasing company Connoisseur tried to hype sales of its video by calling it “a super-charged melodrama of sado-masochistic passion.” The film has also been seen as autobiographical with Fassbinder turning his own gay relationships into a lesbian melodrama. Gilbey quotes Robert Katz, who describes Petra von Kant as “the story, transsexualised into a lesbian love affair, of Rainer’s relationship with Gϋnther.” However, despite the sensational descriptions of the film “as a lesbian slumber party in high-camp drag,” it seems by modern standards remarkably tame, with any steamy lesbian sex taking place between the scenes and off-camera — disappointingly, we just have to make do with a kiss, a bit of fondling, and a pair of amorous mannequins!


Structurally, the film is the opposite of Brecht’s epic style. Instead of open form and loose, fast-moving, episodic scenes, we find a tightly constructed, upper-class chamber piece in five acts with a small cast of six actresses and the classical unity of place. Petra von Kant started out as a stage play,22 and the film makes few changes. It is very self-conscious, wordy, and “theatrical.” Mannered, artificial, and highly formalistic are the usual descriptions.


Fassbinder’s film is not 100 percent Brechtian. The structure is more classical, and there remain some unresolved mysteries, although, if we accept Fassbinder’s explanations, the film is not as open-ended and enigmatic as the Whites suggest. There are also many Sirkian elements. However, these do not dominate and Fassbinder cannot arouse the key Sirkian ingredient — powerful cathartic empathy. Sirk’s audiences are moved, whereas Fassbinder is too stylised and Petra too distanced to provoke such feelings. Petra may display volcanic emotions on the screen but is unable to generate them in her audience. Although not totally consistent, the Brechtian devices are still strong enough to prevent identification with Petra. Because of this lack of empathy, Petra von Kant cannot be considered a synthesis of Sirkian feeling and Brechtian reflection. If we make use of one of Brecht’s favourite images, that of the boxing match, we could conclude that neither Sirk nor Brecht achieves a knock out with regard to their influence on Petra von Kant. In the heavyweight contest between Sirk the Sentimentalist and Brecht the Bruiser, it is my opinion that Brecht just about edges it, on points.


Marsha McCreadie‘s very thoughtful and thorough essay on the film’s relation to feminist theory, for Senses of Cinema:

The most perfect example of “the woman’s film” I’ve seen in thirty years presents a number of that genre’s key elements. Its subject matter incorporates numerous progressive and self-consciously female topics– both in narrative themes and in role models– and the film even makes use of some of the dominant strains of academic feminist film theory.


The movie has the structural outlines of the woman’s film down as well. In addition to the de rigueur first person confessional female point of view (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, 1940; or Jane Campion’s The Piano, 1993) there is a piercing re-interpretation of the maternal melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s which inspired so much debate in the 1970s when feminist film criticism in America was just finding its footing. A chilly mother is confronted by a daughter who in turn partly ignores her own daughter, while at the same time complaining of her own feelings of abandonment and, of course, is critical of heterosexual marriage and of men. And like many contemporary women’s movies, it takes up issues of role-playing, S&M, the confines of traditional heterosexual marriage, and the perceived (and real) dominance of men.



Susan Sontag interviews star Hanna Schygulla for the Village Voice:

The films that seem most deep are very structured and formal, like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which is such a tour de force because you have one space, and to find so many different ways of shooting. There must have been a lot of rehearsals.

That was the film that was shot in the least time. It was done in 10 days.


With just one camera?

Just one. He never shot with two cameras as far as I know because he made the choice in his head before he started shooting. That’s why it all went so fast.


Petra von Kant was first of all a play . . . ?

It was written as a play but it was first realized as a movie.


Did you have the complete script before the 10 days of shooting?

No. The way things happened with him was not that you get everything and then you prepare yourself. You came on set and you got your pages and you did it. Even from the beginning, he liked to invert . . . something that is destined to be on stage, all of a sudden put it into another medium. Even onstage, he was giving it a timing that was sometimes like in movies. He began in theater because he didn’t have the means to make movies and they didn’t accept him at film school. Twice he tried and he didn’t make it because of a lack of talent. This is to encourage everybody who fails.


Jonathan Rosenbaum for his blog:

Even though the intellectual and emotional battle waged throughout The Bitter Tears is ultimately lost, it remains alive as long as the mise en scène might be said to persist as a mode of inquiry. One of the most telling signs of life in this inquiry appears to be Fassbinder’s desire to keep his camera in motion, within or between shots (to mark changes of camera angles), whenever it can still function as a means of discovery or rediscovery, a way of redefining or potentially breaking free of compulsive behavior and oppressive power relations. It hardly seems coincidental that the plot’s overall development towards defeatism can also be traced to some degree in the growing proliferation of long, static takes filmed from fixed angles, when neither the camera nor the actors seem able to budge. (Another growing tendency —- the habit of characters speaking to one another while looking in opposite directions —- reflects the possible influence of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud, with its own tragic stalemates between freedom and some form of predestination. But properly speaking, the rather reductive and vulgarized fusion of Dreyer and Fassbinder wouldn’t come about until some time later, with the arrival of Lars von Trier.)


The broad issue of how and to what degree freedom can be said to exist within a sadomasochistic relationship is an ongoing preoccupation of Fassbinder’s work, and here it can be said to surface periodically in the costumes (e.g., the “slave” dresses worn by both Petra and Karin), in the placements of both the actors and the camera (which sometimes juxtapose characters in relation to their relative degrees of power and/or mobility, and sometimes juxtapose them with mannequins and/or diverse figures in the Poussin painting), and in the degrees of mobility or stasis assigned at various junctures to the camera. That it ends with a fixed angle framing the departure of Marlene–an act positioned as a kind of bitter punch line–suggests that at some point between the premiere of the play and the ten-day shoot of this film, half a year later, Fassbinder lost faith in his own capacity for change.


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