Love and Claustrophobia in ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant’

Fassbinder's stifling drama about the sufferings of dependence is high camp, where the sparks fly with radiant colours.

Rainer Fassbinder’s strange study of unrequited love finds a sincerely emotional pivot buried deep within the drama of the lavishly high camp shenanigans. The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is one of the cornerstones of New German Cinema, one that gave face and name to its now most celebrated stars, Hanna Schygulla and Margit Carstensen. A study of the trials and rituals of a same-sex relationship, Von Kant slowly works its way up the emotional incline, looking for the certitudes of love amongst a highly disinterested and spoiled generation.

The titular character, Petra Von Kant (Carstensen), is a haughty fashion designer who vamps around her bourgeoisie apartment, leisurely (perhaps lazily) setting to work on her designs. Meanwhile, she bosses her young housemaid (Irm Hermann) around with a contempt that seems to suggest a relationship almost proletarian. Von Kant is soon introduced to the young Karin (Schygulla), a shy, pretty ingénue as unworldly as she is eager to explore. Petra offers the young hopeful a job as a fashion model, promising her a world of glamour and success. The catch? Karin must consign to a lifestyle of which she will be a complicit muse and lover to the adoring Petra, who lavishes her protégé with praise and affection. Fairly quickly, Karin loses interest, absorbed only in her career pursuits and a seemingly insatiable desire for one-night stands with the men she picks up at bars on her evenings out. This drives Petra wild with envy and soon there is a subjugation of power within the household, with the two women struggling to maintain a residing position of command.

Need and power are the two reigning themes here, with each actress carving out the motives for each of their cases. In order to be released from an emotional prison that begets failure and disappointment, Petra needs to restrict Karin to a regiment in which she solely depends on Petra alone. For her part, Karin needs the financial security with which Petra provides her, but also the freedom to evolve into the resolved woman she so desperately hopes to become. Both women are headed for a foreseeable breakdown, a slow, methodical unhinging that will see the emotional and psychological structures fall away from their seemingly ordered lives.

If it takes too long for Fassbinder to set up Petra’s psychological frames of longing and supremacy, perhaps the slow build up can be forgiven once the film enters its second phase, in which the two women will battle it out for control and dominance. Indeed, there are a few misses in Fassbinder’s set-up; he has the camera languorously fixed on Carstensen for too long while she spews reams of dialogue, lounging about rather stationary, like a high-mistress cat on her satin-sheeted bed. It proves a frustrating viewing for the film’s first third, and the details of Petra’s life are leisurely revealed; there’s a strange and suffocating sense of time and place, the action restricted to the cramped quarters of Petra’s enclosed living space. When Karin makes her entrance, we have yet another spell of back-history to sit through as we listen to her life-story unfold with the same meticulous detail. Once introductions are made and out of the way, we can begin to appreciate what Fassbinder was trying to approach in the way of co-dependent relationships.

The interactions between Carstensen and Schygulla are not exactly nuanced; this is high camp after all, and the sparks fly with radiant colours. In the static setting of a bedroom furnished with unadorned mannequins, it’s fairly obvious that talk will supersede action. But the delicious cattiness with which the barbs fly make this stationary drama worth sitting through. Carstensen attempts her best Dietrich, swanning around in silk and curtailing the frosty remarks of her would-be lover with a pitiful display of diffidence, only lashing out when she feels threatened by abandonment. Schygulla makes disaffection seem like a worthy pastime, doling out blasé rejoinders with economy and style. Rudeness has never looked so stylish and the two actresses turn banter into an artform of hissed comebacks and monotonous rebuttals. Perhaps Fassbinder means to essay relationships as the tragicomic disasters he feels they really are. Reputedly based on his own attachment to a young male actor he had been smitten with, the director finds a caustic balance in these two women who can’t decide which of them needs the other most.

Criterion’s transfer is perhaps not as immaculate as one might have liked it to be. There are some points of damage in the print, though it’s nothing too severe. There’s also some grain saturation that, on just a few occasions, threatens to overtake the image. But for the most part, the film is nicely presented with sharp and clear colour tones. Criterion’s release also keeps the full-frame 1:37 ratio; not knowing the original ratio of the film, it can be argued that whatever the case, the clipped and claustrophobic confinements of a full frame actually work here to greater effect: with seemingly no escape from these two exasperating women, we are further imprisoned by what we do not see out of frame — and most of the time that would be a doorway or a window. If there is anything to add to the static and stagey photography, it’s the muted colours of rust, brown and dulled oranges, a horrible and sickly wash of a colour scheme that smacks of early ’70s wallpapered gloom.

An extra disc of supplements is added to the package and these are most enjoyable. We hear from two of German film’s most important figures, Carstensen and Schygulla, who each gave the world a cinematic-consciousness of Germany in their most prolific years as actresses. They discuss their work with Fassbinder over the years as well as in this film (both actresses featured regularly in his work), in addition to their ideas on what these kinds of characters mean as a reflection on any sort of relationship. Ultimately, however, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is about the sufferings of dependence and what the need for others reduces humans to. Here, Fassbinder makes it clear that when you are knee-deep and sinking in your obsessions, any thoughts of a clean escape are futile.

RATING 7 / 10