In the early 1970s, Rainer Werner Fassbinder discovered the American melodramas of Douglas Sirk and was inspired by them to begin working in a new, more intensely emotional register. One of the earliest and best-loved films of this period in his career is 'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,' which balances a realistic depiction of tormented romance with staging that remains true to the director’s roots in experimental theater. This unforgettable, unforgiving dissection of the imbalanced relationship between a haughty fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) and a beautiful but icy ingenue (Hanna Schygulla)—based, in a sly gender reversal, on the writer-director’s own desperate obsession with a young actor—is a fully Fassbinder affair, featuring exquisitely claustrophobic cinematography by Michael Ballhaus and full-throttle performances by an all-female cast.
Think about how many times in a day or in your entire lifetime that you’ve said “I love you” to someone. How many times did you hear it back? Did it feel like it had the same meaning coming from them as it did coming from you? Did it have any meaning at all? Or was it said as a matter of politeness because it’s what is expected when someone speaks those words? If there is a central premise that you should keep in mind before starting Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,’ it is “I love you” and the meaning and power those three little words have - or for that matter - any of the words we speak to one another.
‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant,’ is a fascinating exploration of roles in relationships. Not simply gender roles, but position of dominance and submission and what in our personalities lends us to live out these specific roles. Because we were submissive once before, are we incapable of becoming the dominant? Or is there ever truly a balance to these roles in our lives? We watch our title character Petra, played brilliantly by Margit Carstensen follow her own self destructive path as she attempts to define her own role with her new lover. While this is a film about two women, it’s easy to see and perhaps even place yourself into their shoes.
Petra is a successful, arrogant, and manipulative fashion designer who lives her life the way she wants to without much care for the feeling of others. Her live-in maid, secretary, and apprentice designer Marlene, played incredibly by Irm Hermann, suffers the brunt of Petra’s volatile mood swings in absolute silence. While mute throughout the entire film, Marlene proves to be the most honest and selfless character as she endures Petra’s life. Every horrible thing Petra says or does is echoed on Marlene’s expressive face.
Through a chance meeting, Petra meets a young aspiring model, Karin, played by Hanna Schygulla, and immediately the two begin an affair. It’s difficult to call what Petra and Karin have a love affair, even though they frequently tell each other “I love you.” Throughout the film, you’re left watching these two move about each other, speak to each other in ways that feel cold, calculated and clinical. You wonder what their motivation could possibly be.
If you’ve ever been through a relationship that you knew was bad from the start, or watched a friend go through one, Petra and Karin’s tumultuous affair feels like watching a car accident in motion. You see one driver’s bad decision and how it’s going to impact another driver, smash both vehicles and destroy at least one of the drivers. You can see nothing good is going to happen. You know there is nothing you can do but watch; and you can’t look away.
Shot brilliantly by Michael Ballhaus, every excruciatingly long claustrophobic take gives this incredible cast an amazing opportunity to shine. The entire film takes place in Petra’s bedroom/studio that it feels like there is no place to run or hide, you have to live here with the characters. This isn’t a film where the performances are saved by quick editing, this is a film where the performances are allowed so much room to live that they feel raw and honest. Like you’re watching a little microcosm of life exist, it doesn’t feel like anyone is acting.
During school, I’d heard this film described as a mirror to Fassbinder’s own life, albeit with opposite genders, and it’s easy to see how. Fassbinder was a man in conflict with himself and his art. As an openly gay man, he married two women and lived a life of constant conflict and excess - much as Petra has. An adaptation of his own play, you can feel Fassbinder work out the roles he played with his various wives and lovers. Was he dominate? Was he submissive? Was he honest in his expressions of affection, or was he using emotion to manipulate someone into becoming someone else entirely? As each act ends and we’re reintroduced to Petra who has changed outfits and wigs, and we learn more about her history, her personality and who she truly is. It’s quite easy to imagine Fassbinder himself struggling to define himself in this way - constantly changing and rearranging himself to fit some kind of mold he was never intended for.
This is not a film that you watch so much as it is one that you experience. Some viewers will no doubt have an adverse reaction to the proceedings, while others will be captivated. From the opening shot of two kittens scratching and skittering around on a flight of stairs to the heartbreaking grand finale, ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ is a passionate film that will leave you breathless by the end.
Minted from a fresh 4K restoration that was supervised by Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus, ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ is breathtakingly, claustrophobically beautiful. The 1.37:1 aspect ratio is astoundingly detailed. Pay close attention to Petra’s garish costumes and wigs, her shag fur carpeting, or even the simple line strokes of Marlene’s sketch, everything comes through in incredible clarity. For a film where drab browns dominate much of the scene, it’s the pops of vivid color that are truly striking, particularly in the cast’s makeup and eyeshadow.
Contrast is under control and not overblown and black levels are rock solid. Particularly with Marlene’s deep black outfits and her pale white makeup, never once does she “disappear” into shadows and become a floating head.
What keeps this from getting a perfect score is a strange anomaly in the print. Appearing near the last third of the film is a strange vertical line that stretches along the far left side of the frame. It almost looks as if the print, or even the negative was folded through this segment as you can see through it so it isn’t a scratch, but it is a slight distraction none the less.
For a film that is 99% dialogue, this German LPCM Mono track is beautiful. Voices are crisp and clear and don’t compete with a composed score. Because the audio is virtually just the cast speaking and moving ar, it does tend to rest in the midranges. Some moments sound soft, but I gather that is by intention since the next moment the cast could be screaming at eachother.
During the film’s third act I did detect some intermittent hissing sounds that would appear and disappear from one cut to the next. This hiss or noise doesn’t overpower the voices, so you won’t have to adjust the volume, but because it bounces between shots, it is noticeable and while you’re trying to pay such close attention to how the characters are saying their lines, it does become distracting and knocks the score for this near perfect audio track down a couple pegs.
In true Criterion fashion, the incredible assortment of extras presented on this disc are well worth your time and attention. Not only are you given more of an opportunity to learn about the production, you gain a fantastic sense of what it was like to work with a man like Fassbinder from those you knew him best.
Outsiders (HD 30:16): This newly produced documentary by the Criterion Collection features key actresses Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake and Hanna Schygulla recounting their time working on the film and their experiences working with Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Michael Ballhaus (HD 7:04): Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus is interviewed here discussing his experience shooting the film. It may be short but it’s worth the time.
Jane Shattuc (HD 23:08): Author Jane Shattuc discusses her interest in Fassbinder’s work. It’s a fascinating look at Fassbinder’s work and in particular ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.’
Role Play: Women on Fassbinder (SD 58:43) 1992 Documentary for German television directed by Thomas Honickel and features interviews with cast members Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, and Rosel Zech.
‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’ is a tough film to say the least. Some may consider it indulgent of the director and others may find it to be a searing dissection of human relationships. The long takes force you to watch and digest every moment. It’s a brilliant film with an outstanding new transfer, and solid German Mono track. The fantastic assortment of extras also make this a must own for Fassbinder fans. Even if you’ve never seen it or watched a Fassbinder film, it is worth your time.