Movies We Like
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
When choosing where to start in a director's filmography, I've always enjoyed picking at random. Recommendations tend to be fairly overwhelming and a total buzz kill. The themes of Fassbinder's films were always intriguing to me, and since I enjoy seeing filmmakers break down and interpret romantic relationships, I started with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The film surpassed my expectations in terms of human dynamics by exposing a character's relationship to the women in her life in such a constricting setting, from her lover down to her servant.
Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is as far removed from an overnight success as a person could get. As a fashion designer in Germany, she had to go through the process of constant rejection and a humiliating divorce before being taken seriously in her field. These experiences have turned her into a cynic in matters of work and love. Her daughter is away at boarding school and she lives alone with her servant/secretary/assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann). Marlene's role as a servant in her home goes far beyond the orthodox. In a sense, she's a broken extension of Petra, living vicariously through her disgrace and vanity. You get the feeling that she once aspired to be a self-sustaining fashion designer, but found herself tailoring not only Petra's designs, but her mess of an existence.
Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), an old friend of Petra's, comes into town for a visit. At once you become aware that there is a sexual tension between Petra and women. The two talk about Petra's failed marriage and Sidonie's rocky one until Petra's disregard for the feelings of others puts a halt to their passive-aggressive game of catch-up. As the conversation reaches a height of childlike hostility, there's a buzz at the door. Sidonie introduces Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful 23-year old woman without a sense of direction in her life. Petra is instantly drawn to her figure and youthfulness. She offers her a career modeling, promising exclusive work. In exchange, Petra wants her to move in so that she can be her lover. Though Karin is married, her unsuccessful husband is in Austria, leaving her alone to fend for herself. She accepts Petra's offer, and the two live together and do end up becoming lovers. However, Karin is still in many ways a bit infantile. Petra goes from being a manipulative seductress to a mothering fool who's madly in love and protective. Karin becomes unhappy and eventually unfaithful. As their relationship boils down to a bitter and inevitable end, Petra starts to abuse everyone within reach; Marlene, her daughter, Karin, Sidonie, her mother, and most importantly, herself.
Like a theater production, the film takes place in a single room with a lot of the story and atmosphere developed through dialogue. I find that I am more impressed with a condensed story when its characters never get a break from the audience. There are no distractions through multiple locations and conditions, and the real-time scenes keep you focused and invested. This isn't to say that any of these scenes are simple. On the contrary, they are developed and mapped out to perfection. For instance, there isn't any real lovemaking in the film. However, there is an astounding amount of sexual tension brought to the screen by the props and their placement within the frame. Unclothed female mannequins obscure a lot of the action between the women in many of the frames, and it becomes more unnerving and eerie than seeing actual sex.
Petra’s character is something that you can't help but tear apart while admiring its honesty. She's sort of like a vampire, feeding off the glow and vitality of young women. Without it being explicitly stated, you get the sense that she's sucked on the hopes and passions of Marlene so much that the poor woman became a phantom. But you begin to wonder if she was ever radiant in spirit, as her prey no doubt was or still is. It makes you feel for her because perhaps she was dragged through the same torment that she inflicts. The idea that Marlene accepts being verbally abused or simply doesn't have the strength to walk away is a mystery that sociologists have tried to unravel for centuries. Watching her character swim through self-hatred, all the while never uttering a word, was interesting in a way that I can't even begin to describe or critique, but it again seems to be a mirror for Petra.
Petra von Kant was a near perfect experience for me. Though it is perhaps typical to refer to it in a comparative sense, it reminds me of my favorite Bergman film, Cries and Whispers. Its design is rather simple in terms of form but it is controlled and executed so fiercely that you become completely absorbed. If you like stories about powerful women or people who've lost their power while being made mad by love, I highly recommend this movie. If nothing else, see it for a female perspective rarely breached within cinema.