Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972
Starring: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Katrin Schaake
Petra von Kant, a well-known fashion designer, is introduced to a beautiful young woman named Karin. Despite the fact that Petra’s live-in assistant and design partner, Marlene, is in love with her, she begins courting Karin and invites Karin to move in. She falls desperately in love and turns Karin into a successful model; meanwhile she becomes increasingly cruel to Marlene, who is essentially her slave. When Karin abruptly leaves her to return to her estranged husband, Petra begins to have a breakdown and is desperate for Karin’s return.
Based on Fassbinder’s play of the same name, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is one of Fassbinder's most beautiful films and marks another turning point in his career. This was his first true melodrama and the first concerned chiefly with the agony of love. It is also the first to loosely remake or be inspired by a classic film. While this is reminiscent of Joseph L. Mankiewicz All About Eve (1950) — Mankiewicz is even referenced in the dialogue — Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) is Fassbinder’s reimagining of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Lola (1981) is his 1950s West German version of The Blue Angel (1930). In all of these, a main character is driven to despair and nearly insane because of a difficult romantic relationship.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant also boasts one of Fassbinder's strongest casts. Made up entirely of female characters surrounding Petra — her assistant, lover, mother, daughter, and cousin — some of these were career-making performances, particularly from Margit Carstensen (Fear of Fear) as Petra. While Fassbinder-regulars Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla also appear, Hermann, for the first time in her career, nearly steals the film despite the fact that she has no dialogue whatsoever. Her presence is heavy and oppressive, despite the fact that she’s basically Petra’s slave and is treated with great cruelty.
In many ways, this film provides an interesting counterpoint to Fox and His Friends, which is all about the complicated relationships between a gay man (played by Fassbinder) and his lovers. Fassbinder received some criticism about his depictions of lesbian women when this film was released, but like his body of work as a whole, he is depicting the general experience of emotional pain, rather than pain specific to one type of person. Petra’s relationships with men — two marriages — ended in an accidental death for her first husband, and a divorce for her second. Though men are mentioned, this is a world entirely of women and the action never leaves Petra’s apartment.
Petra is a fascinating, Joan Crawford-like character who dons a rotating series of wigs to express her changing identity. She begins as a brunette, when she is at her most confident and superficial. After she’s fallen in love with Karin, she wears a red wig the same color as Marlene’s hair, signifying her association with submission, victimization, longing, and suffering. After Karin leaves her, Petra’s hair (and makeup and clothing) match Karin’s. Finally, when all is stripped away, she is shown without a wig, with her natural auburn locks lying lank and unwashed. Petra’s suffering — and her obsession with sex, beauty, and the naked body — is also expressed through her visually fascinating apartment, which is adored with dolls, mannequins, figure drawings, and paintings of nude figures (namely a wall-sized reproduction of Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus”).
The color palette of red, orange, brown, gold, and black, suggests richness, fertility, and warmth, but also decay. Fassbinder’s director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, captures the detailed rooms with an almost dizzying splendor and there is never a dull scene — a true achievement considered the film is made up of six scenes. The apartment also highlights another of Fassbinder’s favorite themes: class tensions. The working class Karin is constantly contrasted with Petra’s well-off, bourgeois background and lifestyle, and it is clear that — much like in Sunset Boulevard — Karin is attracted to Petra because of her fame, success, and inherent vulnerability.
Even the way the two women express emotional pain is connected to their financial situations and different upbringings. Karin has a had a life of real pain, including an abusive husband and parents who died in a murder-suicide similar to that in Fassbinder’s earlier Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? But she is unable to focus on this due to the very real need to focus on survival and employment. She tells Petra that her parents’ story usually turns people away, but for Petra, Karin’s poverty is a source of attraction, a window of easily manipulated vulnerability. Petra’s pain, on the other hand, is represented by more superficial traumas, including a truly Joan Crawford-like scene where her female relatives show up for her birthday party and she smashes an expensive china set by stomping on it, all while her mother discovers that she’s bisexual and is pining over a woman.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant comes highly recommended and is perhaps more accessible than Fassbinder’s earlier films. It is also somewhat representative of his career as a whole, with themes like cruelty, manipulation, suffering, loneliness, and willing victimization. Criterion will release a two-disc, special edition version of the film on January 13 of 2015 with plenty of new interviews and a documentary; you should wait the two and a half weeks, because this will undeniably be the best way to see this work of brilliance on region one DVD/Blu-ray.