and with that, review #1, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 Golden Berlin Bear nominated feature, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
One of director RW Fassbinder's great attributes was to make tragic bigger-than-life characters (if only so to themselves) and place them in a dramatic environment that has the air of melodrama fused with a more grounded reality than something like one of the director's idols, Douglas Sirk. This isn't to say that Fassbinder doesn't want to make his characters and style unsubtle. The emotions in his films run deep, but at the same time he's influenced by a mood that can be called... well, anguish really. A film like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a very different creature emotionally than All That Heaven Allows, even as it's an adaptation of that similar material. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant fits perfectly into Fassbinder's realm of obsessions of characters caught in alienation, made for by their own design or by the people around them, and it's nothing short of memorable on all artistic fronts.
The film is a chamber piece set in the house/apartment (could be either, maybe easier to settle on loft) and all about the fashion designer of the title (Margrit Carstensen), as Petra sits or stands or leans back in bed while she orders around her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann) and spends her time doing... well, not exactly 'work' per-say, though she does love to get the newspaper to see her latest work on display. She mostly leans back with a friend, like also fashionista Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) and complains about her ex-husband who she divorced ("He stank of man," she declares dramatically, among other put-downs), and acts her arrogant way she does. But then one day she meets a model, 23 year old Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulia), who has a tragic past involving her parents and needs some help adjusting in the new city she's in. Petra takes her in, and falls madly in love... too mad, perhaps, as Karin is still technically married to her husband.
As the film is nominally about how Petra gets into this relationship, it becomes more about The World According to Petra, and about how she is on the surface a drama queen but possibly more tender and easy to hurt than many might realize. Or maybe not; maybe what we see with Petra is what we get, except for one factor: Marlene. This is the aspect of Fassbinder's direction and writing that makes things most peculiar and fascinating; in a sense Hermann is the most subdued but fascinating actor to watch in the film, almost as if she's playing Liv Ullmann to Carstensen's Bibi Andersson ala Persona. She doesn't say a word through the entire film, but whether it is because she is mute or chooses not to speak ever is left unclear (and rightfully, wonderfully so).
She is the one who has been with Petra the longest up until now; while she has a daughter, who we only really know exists and see in the last act of the film on Petra's birthday, and the ex-husband she so derides to her friend, Marlene, being there for three years, has definitely had more than she can bear. It's in the body language, and how she just looks at Petra at times, particularly when Petra is talking about her past relationships. She's almost, whether by choice or by just the general hard nature of living with this difficult person, like a droid in a Star Wars film minus the beeps. There's one scene where she just stands and leans against a door, silhouetted in black, looking on at her master without Petra seeing her, and finally snaps out of it as she is called to duty to do something else: make coffee, type something, even paint one of the dresses meant for design.
|Well, we didn't say it'd be the 'happy' tears, did we?|
And speaking of direction, how Fassbinder frames his women and has them interact physically in the frame is very important. Sometimes they're quite close, and sometimes far apart in a setting, or a head may appear on one side and then another. And then there's the aspect of these bodies being the way they are in a room (a cut-away at a crucial moment to two mannequins in an 'embrace' is startling and important), or how Petra is in an empty room with nothing except a telephone, picking up and hanging up as she expects to hear from her obsession Karin. It's a closed-off world that Petra has made in her loft, but the camera is not entirely stationary (though when it is it's for good psychological reason); sometimes it will move for emphasis, or Ballhaus will do a rac-focus that is meant to stun as when Marlene is looking on in her sad (or just empty?) face from a point across the room, it zooms a little bit out from her, and then goes to Petra's face in the same frame: pale, eyes excited and/or delirious. It is THE Petra after all.
Yet the film wouldn't be quite as great as it is without the performances here. Most of the actresses I could see were Fassbinder regulars, most notably from the also-shot-in-1972 Merchant of Four Seasons. It is, by nature of the character and how she fits in her own story, the Margrit Carstensen show, and she takes Petra into a realm of hyper-drama at times; she can be gentle and cool and understanding, but usually with a cruel undercurrent, mostly at Marlene, and then later can be one of those 'force of nature' women that is comparable to a character out of a Bette Davis movie.
She's a character who tries to hide her weaknesses- of being completely alone and without hope, which she very well could be- by acting outward and lashing out at others who do help. And even with Karin she has a scene (one of the more explosive ones in the film) where she goes too far and pushes her away. For Castensen it's a chance-of-a-lifetime performance and she takes it wholly. And so, too, for Schygulia, who basically has two scenes but sticks out wonderfully (especially as she wears a 'fashionable' golden neck-brace in a scene), and Hermann, who unlike the others has to underplay everything so much that she gives possibly the best performance of anyone.
In the director's vast-but-short body of work (a few dozen films from the late 60's to 1982), this stands as one of the films that encapsulates so much of what is daring and resonant by Fassbinder. We can hate these people, or love them, or both, but we can't reject them or act so indifferent, and his style of direction and camerawork to keep everything tight in closed quarters is the correct choice. The world of Petra von Kant, set mostly in a bedroom or in a living room and tinged with bi-sexual (or any sexual) indulgences with flamboyant dresses and wigs, is not very pleasant, but people may come, and may return, because she is powerfully, painfully human, for all of her wants and neediness and flaws.