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R.W. Fassbinder Deconstructs Feminity

The great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus immediately brings dimension into the deceptively flat environment that director Rainer Werner Fassbinder constructs for his characters in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The film is layered with imagery and the unusual angling of the camera is eye-catching throughout, beginning with the first shot, where the spectator’s attention is drawn to the cats sitting on the stairs, with a graphic red and white printed couch in the distance. For a film that is arguably about perspective, specifically female perspective, a master of space, shape and technique such as Ballhaus is essential to its complex make-up. Ballhaus’ visual nuances are every bit as essential to the shading of human behavior as the mise en scene, the acting style and the directorial vision. All of these seemingly disparate elements conspire to create the impression of a whole woman, as filtered through the lens of Fassbinder’s anarchical imagination.


Dealing with the female psyche in a probing way that recalls both Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant features prominently the relationship between one overly-talky woman (Petra, played by Margit Carstenen) with one who is essentially mute (Marlene, played by Irm Hermann) and learning through silent observation. In Fassbinder’s film, rather than making it a two-character chamber play about the appropriation of female identity, the director shrewdly adds in peripheral female characters such as Petra’s lover Karin (Hanna Schygulla), her old friend Sidonie (Katrin Shcaake), her mother Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey) and daughter Gaby (Eva Mattes) – all of whom seem to be another piece of the puzzle, another essential piece of the title character, who seems to be exploring her own female identity and behavior in a more extroverted way. Marlene observes Petra and does everything for her, even the professional work of fashion designing. Marlene must assume Petra’s point of view in her designs and essentially, her identity while performing these tasks for her employer. In a flat littered with hollowed out mannequins and age-inappropriate baby dolls, Marlene becomes the ultimate doll: Petra’s own personal marionette.


cover art

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla

(US DVD: 29 Oct 2002)

Dolls, mannequins, seamstress dummies and puppets are all easily controllable, their owners posing, dressing and treating them as beautiful possessions. This is what Petra wants from Karin, a nubile young woman with a desire to be a model. Petra, in her own way, is also doll-like, in the respect that she is packaged in a “box” of sorts – her bedroom. Here, in her hermetically-sealed plastic world Petra tries on couture and changes her wig to assume new personae, posing her own translucent limbs in a way that is very mannequinesque and fixing her expressions in way that mirrors that vacuous stares of her dress dummies.


In these initial scenes of the film, Ballhaus employs the stairs, screens, the blinds and the panes of windows to separate the camera and the characters, adding in an element of distance that not only separates the viewer from the characters, but also the characters from one another and from the mannequins who are silently posed in the background, omnisciently looking on. The dolls that Petra collects are at one point shown by the cameraman and director as being like the deer at the end of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows; curiously peering through the window, watching Petra tell the story of her latest marital break-up. There are dolls on shelves flanking the dress dummies on the right and the left, with Petra dead center, Sidonie is to her right more in the foreground, and Nicolas Pouisson’s rendering of Midas and Bacchus is behind everything as the backdrop. Ballhaus’ proficient use of deep focus photography to capture the multiple planes creates a full image out of a claustrophobic, agoraphobic set, where we don’t really see the outside until much later, and then, when we eventually do, it is ruefully brief.


Something similar happens in the following scene as Petra applies make-up to her corpse-like, yellow-gray skin with a hand mirror as Sidonie watches, fixated. Poussin’s work is again featured prominently in the background as Petra’s extended scene of getting dressed and made up, combined with her occupation (fashion designer), signal to the viewer that Fassbinder believes that much of a woman’s charms lies in the exterior and in deception; or in her “drag” or performance of gender. Much like an actress, complete with towering, volatile emotions to match the implacable, impenetrable superficial details of wardrobe, Petra is able to mask who she really is with little trouble. In fact, it seems as though none of the women in Petra’s life really know her. 


“He stank. He stank of man,” Petra says of her last husband, disgusted. It can be surmised by analyzing Petra’s divorce narrative that she resents men, even loathes them, both sexually and also in the business world. She is a successful entrepreneur but there is still a prevailing feeling that she needs a man to be a complete success. To compensate for not having a penis in the real world, Petra takes on the masculine – or “butch”—role in her sexual and romantic relationships with female partners such as Karin. It is in these lesbian relationships that Petra is able to assume the more powerful roles she feels elude her in her more public lives. She holds more power than her younger female lovers and assumes a more masculine posture, despite her attempts to don the uber-feminine drag of her fashion-world profession. Like a lecherous old man mooning over a pert cocktail waitress, Petra seems to have a vampiric taste for much younger women.


Karin is Petra’s antithesis – a girlish little churl who comes on strongly, opportunistically like a gold digger, preferring to let someone else do all the work while clearly reaping the lion’s share of benefits. Karin plays to Petra’s vanity, to her masculine notions that such a young, hot thing as Karin could genuinely love a wretch like Petra for something other than her celebrity, her connections, her money and her power. Karin is a bruised damsel in distress in that way, desperate for status no matter what end she must go to to achieve it. When Petra hobbles in, and she is shown from an odd angle in a restrictive bondage dress of her own design, the spectator is meant to ask how this kind of couture relates to the relationship between the women. To me, it indicates Petra’s willingness to masochistically play a role to get what she most desires at that second: the conquest of Karin. In talking about fighting, and how she had to fight to get where she is, during this seduction scene, the literally restrained Petra asserts her dominance over Karin and demonstrates her strength of will. “Nothing is simple, nothing at all,” says Petra, in what could be a reference to her clothes, her love life, her mental state, or maybe all three of these things.


The deceptively simple Marlene only expresses herself through art. Writing on a typewriter or sketching, she seems to be frustrated with what she sees, though offers no direct form of intervention. Marlene is positioned as Petra’s conscious at key moments throughout the film. Perhaps this is Fassbinder exorcising his own demons through writing, making, and producing rather than loafing. Perhaps he considered himself a passive observer, a mere recorder of those more flamboyant performers that surrounded him. The director was constantly working, much like Petra claims to when it is really Marlene doing it all. Petra, Marlene and Karin feel like they could be three facets of Fassbinder’s own psyche shattered into reflective fragments like the mirrors he is so fond of shooting through in his films. Marlene is his reality (his “ego”), and Petra is his super ego,  clashing with his id, Karin, representing his fantasy self. The character of Petra resists submission to her own fantasy, that she works hard, and lives in a dream, in the constructs of her imagination, which I imagine Fassbinder’s reality to be like. Marlene is then the director’s fantasy of what he is like, a distorted image of himself. Each of these three women is an extension of Fassbinder’s own personality. There is one character in the film, not three, all three add up to one whole.


The cruelty that age and experience brings out of Petra, and how those who are older can become both repulsed by and obsessed with youth and the ideals of youth, are expertly mirrored in Fassbinder’s choice to make the character’s profession “fashion designer”. Petra’s monstrous interest in Karin suggests that her motives are in fact far from love, but closer to the possessing of her youthful essence and control of her supple body, much like Fassbinder sought to do with his own male lovers who were often heterosexual and in desperate situations that he could manipulate into sexual relationships. Is this film Fassbinder’s comment on the cruelty of youth and its ripe, goading promises of a fleshy pay-off? “Yes” is the most likely answer, and Fassbinder covets this lost youth and tries to reclaim it both in actuality and in the cinematic rendering of his own complex psychological make-up as an aging, queer film director as refracted through Petra, Marlene and Karin.Karin never really gets the dressing down she deserves from Petra in the film, but Marlene, who is apparition-like, is the one who unfortunately bears the brunt of her employer’s acid wrath. Petra lets her fury unfurl, and if Marlene is indeed Fassbinder’s supplicant, perhaps he is nihilistic in saying that hard work and dedication get one nowhere and that hedonism is the true path to artistic fulfillment.


Just as Fassbinder and his characters must be filled with nuance and layers of meaning, so do the physical planes of existence that Ballhaus creates to mirror these fragile psychological planes. As Poussin suggests in the painting that looms over the mise en scene, one must always be careful what one asks for. There are consequences to fame, to leisure, to success and to addiction whether you are a filmmaker, a bon vivant or an actress. Each of these occupations requires a mask and Fassbinder shows, contrary to Poussin’s depiction of Midas in the painting, that damage is irreversible. This makes the inevitable breakdown of Petra—in strikingly melodramatic kelly green chiffon, a blonde bouffant and a carmine red corsage choker lying in ruins on the shag carpet of her empty bedroom—even more real and more terrifying. This room is her desolate, alcoholic mind and it isn’t so hard to imagine Fassbinder or oneself being in this exact spot if you haven’t already been there before many times. It is even more frightening to see Petra’s toxic behaviors spilling like chemical sludge into her daughter’s own dysfunctional romantic relationship.


There is very little hope towards the end of the film, except for Sidonie’s ironic, macabre birthday gift to Petra: a new, naked, plastic baby doll with blonde ringlets. A new child that will turn out differently from Gaby and from Karin and from all the others who came before them. The doll represents a new hope for Petra to love again. “You make me sick, all of you,” Petra hisses at the women who loom over her in judgment as her body is twisted and prone on the floor. This abandoning of decorum is a revelation for Petra, and marks her at this point as brimming with a spiteful self-reliance that has not been seen up until this point. Does the bitter Petra break the cycle along with the Sirkian blue and white teapot? Or does the romantic fatalism of Fassbinder’s depiction of a very personal narrative landscape indicate that there will never be love for Petra, for him or for anyone, tomorrow or ever? According to Fassbinder and Petra, love just gets in the way of achieving success. There is no hope for love and there is no optimism in loving. Humanism is a cardinal sin in the director’s universe, where tomorrow will be just as lonely as yesterday for the characters and for Fassbinder himself.


Matt Mazur is a Brooklyn-based film publicist who works on campaigns for documentaries, independent and foreign language films. A die-hard cinephile and lover of pop culture, he spends his free time writing about what he is not working on. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Mazur


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