Wednesday, August 09, 2023

281. German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 11th feature film “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant “(Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant) (1972): A fascinating original script built on interactions of five German ladies captured on a limited spatial stage, with the overarching power of money influencing their actions past, present and future



“Of course, he took me seriously, respected my opinions.. but, nevertheless, he wanted to be the breadwinner. That way, oppression lies; that’s obvious. It’s like this, ‘I hear what you are saying and, of course I understand, but who brings home the bacon?’ So there you are—two sets of rules.” ---Petra von Kant on her professional success as a fashion designer breaking up her once perfect marriage 

“I may seem hard, but it is because I am using my head.  You’re evidently not used to women using their brains” -- Petra von Kant to her cousin, Sidonie   

 (Key lines spoken in the film)

My first viewing of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was some 40 years ago. The single take-away from that initial viewing was the awesome performance of Ms Margit Carstensen as Petra, who is on screen most of the time, expounding a varied range of emotions--smiling, crying, sniping, begging, recalling, feigning, lying, and even worrying. The range of emotions she exhibited is staggering. When I learnt of her passing in June 2023, I took considerable efforts to view the film a second time.   

The second viewing enabled me notice details other than Ms Carstensen’s performance and the obvious overarching bitterness of the break-up of a once perfect 15 to 18 year marriage that had resulted in the birth and development of her teenage daughter, Gabriele, now studying in an expensive boarding school and experiencing and acknowledging for the first time a pristine love for ”a tall, slim, boy with long hair and who looks like Mick Jagger.”   

The film does go beyond the very obvious effects of a marriage break-up and the need for emotional co-dependency (male and/or female) for four women in different situations, direct or indirectly linked to Petra. There are no men in the entire film though the ladies talk and discuss various men, real and possibly imaginary ones.  One of the five women, Marlene (Irm Hermann), who is Petra’s creative assistant and hostess at Petra’s residence, plays a major role silently, except to announce the names of Petra’s guests on their arrival at the apartment.

Fassbinder subtly introduces the power of money into the emotional equation, both visually and verbally. The verbal reinforcement is in the first quote, from the film, stated above. The visual reinforcement is achieved by a blown-up painting that covers an entire wall of Petra’s room that is often in the background of almost all the action in the film. That painting is important when one appreciates that it provides a stark allegory of this Fassbinder film (never referred directly in the film per se). The painting in question is artist Nicolas Poussin’s 1689 work  Midas and Bacchus. I had not heard of this artwork even when I was a student of aesthetics. What does it depict? King Midas of Greek mythology (when he was asked for any wish for having taken care of the inebriate satyr Silenius) was endowed with a gift by Dionysius (Bacchus) to turn anything he touched into gold. Midas’ happiness was short-lived—the boon had become a curse as food and family members turned to gold at his touch. The Poussin painting depicts King Midas, in blue garments, kneeling before Bacchus to remove the gift he gave him that turned anything he touched to gold. This visual comparison is deliberately introduced by Fassbinder and production designer Kurt Raab. Viewers who are unaware of the subject of the painting will miss the connection, just as I did on my first viewing.

Poussin's 1689 painting Midas and Bacchus with King Midas
on his knees imploring Bacchus to remove the gift of turning
anything to gold at his touch (courtesy: Web Gallery of Art,
Wikimedia Commons) 

Petra (Carstensen) dictates a letter to the Hollywood director 
Mankiewicz on being suddenly unable to support him
financially, with the Poussin painting in the background 

What is the connection of the painting to the Fassbinder film, one could well ask.  Petra, who was not the main bread-winner of her nuclear family, had for long enjoyed a perfect husband-wife relationship, while she gradually built her career as a successful dress designer. The marriage collapsed as her designing work gradually became world famous (unlike Petra’s mother Valerie, who Petra alleges never worked) and gradually became the main bread-winner of her family. Early in the film, we could infer that Petra had become so successful that she could bankroll Hollywood director Joseph Mankiewicz (of Cleopatra and The Barefoot Contessa fame).  She opts out of that commitment to Mankiewicz when her marriage breaks up and her mother Valerie asks her for considerable financial support as well.  Like Midas, success in the world of design caused the collapse of Petra’s marriage, as her husband  Frank wanted to continue to be the person who ‘brought home the bacon.’   

Petra recalls the good times with her former husband Frank

When the silent and ever subservient Marlene (foreground)
leaves the mean and self-centered Petra, Balhaus' camera
deliberately avoids the Poussin painting--the "Midas gift"
has allegorically been removed from Petra.

The connection with money and relationships continue. Petra wanted to “possess” her cousin Sidonie’s (Katrin Schaake) friend Karin (Hanna Schygulla), soon after her their first meeting, with the lure of money, asking her to work for her and later to move into her apartment instead of the expensive hotel, thus saving Karin money. Petra already has Marlene staying with her who is her butler, typist, and errand woman, again using her money power allowing Petra to treat her shabbily in the process. Petra provides money for her mother Valerie and her daughter Gabriele. Like Midas, who could turn everything to gold at his touch, Petra could achieve a lot of control of people with her money. Ultimately, her hubris, associated with growing wealth turns out to be her undoing. After 6 months with Petra, Karin decides to return to her husband who has moved to Zurich from Australia and asks Petra for money and air tickets. Petra gives Karin twice the sum asked, hoping that would lure her back her apartment. It does not. When Petra calls her a whore, Karin observes her time with Petra was easier than working the street –again an indirect reference to money.   

Beyond the role of Poussin's painting in the film, one has to split the excellent Fassbinder script into 5 Acts, in the vein of a Shakespearean play. Act I:  Petra meets Karin, introduced by Sidonie. Act II: Petra gets to know Karin and promises to transform her into a great fashion model. Act III: In spite of living with Petra for 6 months, Karin decides to return to her husband in Zurich.  Act IV: Petra, on her birthday, devastated by Karin’s absence, is lying on the carpet for the first time in the film as her daughter, her cousin and her mother drop in to see her on her birthday. Petra is uncharitable to all and asks them to leave. Act V: Petra now sees Marlene as a replacement for the absent Karin, and uses the same opening lines she used with Karin to snare Marlene as future lover. Marlene silently packs her bag and leaves Petra.  

Petra (with her back facing the camera) spews her outburst
(from left to right) at her mother Valerie,
her daughter Gabriele and her cousin Sidonie

There are no curtains to separate the Acts as when a play is performed in a theatre. Fassbinder uses Petra’s natural hair and four wigs to separate the Acts. In Act I, Petra wakes up with her natural hair and wears her first wig; in Act II she wears a second one; in Act III a third one; in Act IV a fourth one; and finally in Act V, she reverts to her natural hair, visually and structurally completing the Aristotelian unity proposed in his Poetics

Opening image of the film of the two cats on which the
opening credits are super-imposed. The cat with white fur moves
away from the black cat to a few steps below

If one recalls the opening shot of the two cats on the small stairs (the cats are never shown again); they are together initially. One of them moves away to sit on a separate step eventually. That is indeed the tale of each of the five characters shown later on screen in the film. 

What a wonderful screenplay conceived and written during a 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles by the director.  While Fassbinder and Carstensen drive the film, Kurt Raab’s production design and Michael Ballhaus’ indoor cinematography contribute considerably to the holistic effect, especially when you realize the entire film was shot in 10 days.   

As Petra's life and confidence unravels with the departure of Karin, Ballhaus'
camera captures the the activities from the carpet level, complete with 
the doll (presented to Petra on her birthday), the phone and the bottle of gin

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant offers a near flipside of Fassbinder’s final film, his adaption of Jean Genet’s play Querelle (1982), in which the male protagonist, not unlike Petra, manipulates his lovers for thrills and profit.   

 R.I.P. Ms Margit Carstensen, February 1940 to June 2023.