In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus craft a dense image that combines cinematic techniques with theatrical traditions and elements from painting and portraiture. The intersection of all three is a film of rare visual splendor: rare, because hardly ever does a filmmaker savor the basic kinetics of motion, the texture of fabrics and the collision of fashions from disparate time periods like Fassbinder does. The story concerns fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) who invites Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla) to move in with her in order to play a dual role as both model and lover. Marlene (Irm Hermann) is Petra’s secretary, who bears witness as Petra and Karin’s relationship disintegrates under their struggle for power and domination over one another takes precedence in their relationship.
Fassbinder stages his characters in a tableau-style manner, often choosing to have them recite their lines while standing still, as though they are portraits speaking the lines. Sometimes the camera stays still, respecting the characters’ poise, while other times it navigates the set, highlighting the complex layers of visuals constantly at play: always choosing the long take, the camera racks focus to shift from Petra speaking to Karin listening, then it pans across the room, passing by statuesque mannequins on its way to Marlene who, in the corner, has stopped typing to stare at the two lovers philosophize about the politics of relationships.
Confined to only Petra’s apartment, the film’s theatrical origins are apparent (Fassbinder originally wrote The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as a stage play). At the same time, the film feels organically cinematic: the intimacy of the shots often reveals details that would not be noticeable from the audience’s perspective in a theatrical setting. So much is conveyed through the actors’ subtlety—Margi Carstensen and Irm Hermann’s facial nuances are particularly revealing. Likewise, Fassbinder and Ballhaus’ compositions are equally telling, be it through the positioning of mannequins in the background that mimic the characters or the use of mirrors and windows to symbolically represent deception and disconnection.
Poussin’s painting of “Midas and Bacchus” covers an entire wall in the bedroom. As Petra and Karin sit on the bed in front of it, they begin to take on iconic statures like the characters depicted in the painting. The irony is that, if Petra, Karin and Marlene are to be idealized like the nudes in the painting, they are anything but perfect: they are constantly donning eccentric costumes (jeweled brassieres and long flowing robes) and covering their faces thickly with make-up in comparison with the bare skin in the painting—this, perhaps, reflecting the layers of deception and costumes worn by the characters. Too, the presence of the painting forges a bond between disparate time periods, commenting that the conflict between Petra and Karin is timeless, and has been performed throughout history. The parallel between Midas and Petra is not so obvious. Both are stories of ironic comeuppance: Midas received “the golden touch” as a reward, only to discover that it made life impossible for him to live. Petra’s comeuppance is less straightforward, and thankfully less moralistic: after recognizing Marlene’s loyalty, Petra decides to love her as a human being and not a servant. Hearing this, Marlene packs her bags and walks out the door, all the while “The Great Pretender” plays on the stereo. The song says it all: “Oh yes, I’m the great pretender / Pretending I’m doing well / My need is such I pretend too much / I’m lonely but no one can tell.” Petra’s “pretending” is her undoing: she doesn’t care for Marlene, and is only reaching out for a replacement for Karin, who has left her. Marlene, well aware of Petra’s motivations, prefers true insensitivity to false affection. As Petra says, “It’s easy to pity…but so much harder to understand. If you understand someone, don’t pity them—change them. Only pity what you can’t understand.”
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