Directed by Ranier Werner Fassbiner (1972)
The last time I tackled a Fassbinder film it was 1975’s FOX AND HIS FRIENDS, and I’ll admit it didn’t sit especially well with me fifteen years ago. The gaps in my Fassbinder resume are therefore large, and I’ve wanted to give the man another couple of “go’s”. I resolved to do so this past weekend with 1972’s THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, which, it turns out, I enjoyed immensely – if by “enjoyed” one means reveling in the intricacies of what it must have been like to craft and film a tight emotional drama in a one-room setting, with inventive camera work showcasing how one man and his team were able to transcend an exceptionally small space, and make it into something big and brash.
“PETRA” is very much like a stage play, with characters entering and exiting a common set, which is the titular Ms. Von Kant’s (Margit Carstensen) lavish and bizzarely-decorated bedroom. Turns out this tale of relationship angst is adapted from Fassbinder’s own play. It concerns an idle and bored/boring fashion designer, who is somehow successful and much in demand, lounging in her room while alternately babbling or barking orders to her mannequin-like and wholly mute servant/slave, Marlene. Cameras roam the room in slow movements and in sweeping close-ups to heighten the tension of secondary characters actually having to be in same room as Petra, who is quite obviously a horrible person with very little regard for herself or others.
When her sister Sedonie drops in with a visitor named Karin (played by Hanna Schygulla), we get more nature-of-love ranting from Petra amid a general softening, as it becomes clear that the divorced Petra is quickly falling for the pretty Karin. Fast-forward to approximately six months later, the two women are lovers living together, but it’s clear than Petra has already become quite overbearing and a real bore for Karin. Petra says “I love you” - Karin typically responds with “I like you”.
Meanwhile, the weirdly ever-present Marlene often pauses whatever she’s doing to listen attentively from a doorway whenever Petra’s spinning some implausible lie about her former life with her ex-husband, which we presume Marlene was also a mute part of. When Karin does finally leave for good, we get all sorts of strange, self-destructive, deep-end behavior from Petra: mannequins from her room arranged in a sexual position in her bed, with a third mannequin watching on, a la Marlene; she breaks a glass in her hand; drunkenly drools on the floor; insults her mother and her daughter, who drop in unannounced for Petra’s birthday; and weirdest of all, accepts an unexplained birthday present baby doll from Sedonie that looks exactly like Karin.
A great time at the movies? Sure! I see it a few ways. It seems like a very early 70s commentary on the inevitable shortcomings of the sexual revolution, in which freedom and role/gender-swapping isn’t as fun as it might’ve been cracked up to be. It’s a bag of camera and visual tricks as well, with lots of filming into mirrors, unusual framed shots, and as assortment of gaudy dresses and make-up choices. At the end, when a chastened Petra finally says something nice to Marlene, that she’ll have “freedom and fun” in the future, doormat Marlene takes it as a queue to immediately throw off the shackles of her bondage, and packs up a suitcase to the wafting sounds of The Platters’ “Great Pretender” on the stereo. Fin! Definitely a testament to some pretty powerful and inventive filmmaking, and one to jump-start my paused Fassbinder studies in a big way.