The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a scalding feat of hermetic obsession, another of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films that locates the not-quite-tangible overlay between passion, empathy, titillation, and debasement. Typical of Fassbinder’s work, the contrast between the characters’ displays of unqualified tenderness and their exertions of manipulative, resentful power is embodied by the push and pull between the stark, self-conscious symbolism and the comparatively more intuitively performed melodrama. Watching Fassbinder’s films, one feels as if the director is attempting to rationalize their emotional approachability with the expressive density of his blocking, and that quality, both incredibly confident yet just a teensy bit uncertain, directly parallels his characters’ simultaneous and unmooring desires to announce themselves to the world while fleeing it.
The world of this film particularly lends itself to symbolism. The pronouncedly theatrical single set represents the loft inhabited by the titular character (Margit Carstensen), who’s recently ascended the social ladder as a successful fashion designer given to creating works that are boldly retro and progressive in equal measure—not unlike Fassbinder’s films. The place is a marvel. Viewers who don’t speak German may find themselves distracted from the subtitles, attempting to drink in the set’s many shelves, rafters, mirrors, mannequins, plush carpets, ornaments, and other almost subconsciously discernable bric-a-brac. Casting the most bluntly decadent light on the proceedings is a wall comprised solely of a blow-up of Poussin’s painting Midas and Bacchus. The film may be Brechtian, but it’s also totally glam rock—ruing objectification while eroticizing it.
And that’s not even taking into consideration the elaborate subliminal art that is the characters’ evolving methods of dress. Petra, an angular, androgynous beauty who simultaneously suggests Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, and David Bowie impersonating Marlene Dietrich, treats her personal life as an extension of her fashion shows. (The few times we see her scrubbed of makeup are revelatory, as she never looks more beautiful, or soft and exposed to potential attack.) The film is composed of a handful of long dialogue-driven movements, and Petra looks notably different in each one, whether she’s wearing another wig, a new robe, or an elaborate dinner dress that suggests what an Egyptian queen might wear to a ceremonial parade. Karin (Hanna Schygulla), the object of Petra’s tormented obsession, is a contrast in every way: favoring simpler, cream-colored assortments that emphasize her beautiful skin and her gorgeous, voluptuous body. You can see, from their differences, why Petra would fall instantly and deeply in lust with Karin: The latter resembles a plush animal lost in a labyrinth of jagged edges and hot, druggy colors (courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus). It’s telling that Marlene (Irm Hermann), Petra’s oft-silent, long-suffering assistant, wears nothing that this viewer can specifically recall a day after watching the film. She’s a ghost, and also a symbol of free-floating emotions that are tamped way down, threatening to blow this entire ecosystem to bits, as well as a potential harbinger of things to come for Petra. Talk about a world on a wire.
Bitter Tears offers a sensory feast that’s expanded on by the elaborate dialogue, which is poetic even as translated into English, and by the astonishingly sensual and fluid movements of the actors and the camera. The central irony, also characteristic of Fassbinder’s work, is that the protagonist is an egomaniac who comes to be undone by objectifications that have previously served her. We know Petra’s setting herself up for a downfall when she speaks haughtily of a prior marriage that didn’t work out because of her husband’s wounded pride and blossoming vulnerability. She’s the kind of person who hides behind a devotion to “truth,” and to implicit gender equality, as an excuse to tear someone to pieces, and that’s precisely, of course, what Karin does to her. Petra fetishizes Karin as a downtrodden doll to be upgraded, and thusly opens herself up to the sort of catastrophic humbling that, in German cinema, at least goes as far back as The Blue Angel.
Fassbinder’s despairing romantic puzzles have clearly inspired a number of contemporary directors (most obviously Lars von Trier), but few have grasped, or managed to replicate, their ironic yet defiantly raw sense of vulnerability. You don’t have to be a cinephile or a professor in post-war German nationalism to be moved by Bitter Tears or any other of Fassbinder’s masterpieces. The formalism acts as a counterpoint to Carstensen’s extraordinary performance, which is an essay on control that gradually crumbles into chaos. As Petra becomes more unhinged, she appears to belong increasingly less and less to her impressive yet creepy and overbearing habitat—an impression that’s affirmed by the filmmaker’s bold decision to empty her bedroom of its elaborately ornamental bed for a late scene. This brief alteration of set design makes no literal sense (why would the bed disappear?), but this change allows Petra to sit on the floor, with a bottle of gin, waiting by the phone, seemingly roasted by the room’s newfound emptiness.
Fassbinder uses his other props to equally ingenious effect. Bitter Tears has perhaps the most rigorous frames-within-framing of the director’s career, particularly as fashioned by the rafters and the shelves that cordon the women off into separate squares, reducing them to isolated sculptures that appear to be ready to join all the other artifacts that have been assembled for Petra’s elaborate loft, while mirrors provide us brief, jolting X-rays-within-X-rays of their souls. One image, strikingly irrational and symbolic, requires the camera to remain on Marlene as she freezes herself in a fixed pose with her right arm in a crook against a window, which in turn reflects a conversation that Petra’s having with a guest about a past relationship. It’s a heartbreaking embodiment of loneliness and exclusion, and nearly every image (particularly a stunning Janus-like juxtaposition of Petra and Karin’s faces) conveys a similar sense of emotional desolation.
Supervised by director of photography Michael Ballhaus, this transfer sports an image that’s revelatory in clarity of detail. The setting, already a thicket of the protagonist’s mental associations, abounds in tactile texture. (One example: You can now see the shadow of a model of a fox, or maybe a dog, over one of the set’s entrances.) Colors are rich and intoxicating, particularly the reds, blues, and various cream colors that dominate Petra’s makeup base. The sound mix, which is important for a film that’s aurally symbolic as well as visually, is dense and percussive when it needs to be, such as when rendering the piercingly shrill sound of a phone, or the invasive tick-tacking of Marlene’s passive-aggressive typing, as well as soft and subtle, which is evident in the delicate orchestrations of the noises that accompany small human movements or the clinking of everyday objects.
New interviews with director of photography Michael Ballhaus and actors Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla emphasize familiar components of working with director Rainer Werner Fassbinder—namely, that he was an empathetic control freak given to playing mind games with his beloved cast for the sake of emboldening the film in question. And, even though this is also well-established, it’s always remarkable to hear how fast Fassbinder worked. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant boasts a Kubrickean level of obsessive accomplishment, but it was shot at a Roger Cormanish kind of pace: in 10 days, and with little rehearsal. A new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc compellingly dissects the film’s themes and Fassbinder’s general concerns, while wrestling with whether or not his work can be read as feminist or even as queer progressive, despite the director’s obsession with gender politics, socially forbidden relationships, and women in general. Shattuc is dubious, and it would’ve been nice to have heard an audio commentary that allowed her to wrestle with these impressions at length. Ballhaus’s interview is also too short, only hinting at the tensions of working with an iconoclast who had to be forever in center ring. "Role Play: Women on Fassbinder" is a 1992 German television documentary that allows the women in Fassbinder’s life to speak about him at greater length. Rounding out the package is an elegant and insightful essay by critic Peter Matthews.
A stunning transfer of a gorgeous Fassbinder debauch that would prove to be a key work in his evolution as a purveyor of boldly symbolic class-conscious tragedies.