The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant) Review
Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is a successful designer. Twice divorced, with a daughter in boarding school, she lives and works in her apartment along with her silent secretary and lover Marlene (Irm Hermann). Then she meets a young model, Karin (Hanna Schygulla), and a ménage à trois is soon established...
There's a long tradition of gay male writers producing work about women, stories with strong, complex female protagonists. This was particularly the case before gay liberation when censorship would have prevented a more direct expression of a gay man's experiences. Brief Encounter, for example: a story of a taboo heterosexual relationship written by a gay man, Noel Coward: whole theses could be and probably have been written as to the extent of this story reflecting even more taboo relationships which couldn't have been depicted on screen at the time. Another question that could be asked is to what extent these protagonists are women, or women seen via a male gaze, or men in disguise. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant ), originally a stage play in 1971 and filmed in 1972 (shot in ten days), follows in this tradition, except that the principal characters are lesbian, something which would only recently have been possible in the cinema. In fact, it's an unusual film with no male characters at all, and the only men to be seen appear in a newspaper photo. (Is one of them Fassbinder making a Hitchcock-like cameo? It certainly looks like him.)
The other big influence on this film is Douglas Sirk. Fassbinder had in the early 1970s discovered Sirk's films, many of them highly-coloured melodramas and “women's pictures” made in Hollywood in the 1950s. They had been critically dismissed at the time, but their reputation has grown considerably since, for their often subversive angles on American life at the time. Sirk himself was not gay, but it's noticeable that many of the directors most strongly influenced by him are or were: as well as Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar and Todd Haynes particularly come to mind. Fassbinder went as far as to seek out and meet the German-born director, then living in retirement in Switzerland. Sirk's influence began to be felt in Fassbinder's work in his 1972 film The Merchant of Four Seasons and Fassbinder remade Sirk's All That Heaven Allows in Fear Eats the Soul, made in 1974.
Set entirely inside Petra's apartment, Bitter Tears is notable for the its cinematography (Fassbinder regular Michael Ballhaus), production design (Kurt Raab) and costume designer (Maja Lemcke). It makes much use of the painting covering the entirety of one wall (a reproduction of Poussin's Midas and Bacchus), and some highly elaborate and surely impractical dresses worn by the cast (the film is surely an endless source of inspiration for cinephile drag queens). Only Marlene is dressed rather dowdily in black: much is made of her facial expressions as she has no dialogue at all in what is quite a talky film, its stage origins not unobvious. You can even see where the divisions between the play's five acts are, and each one is signalled by a Petra costume change.
These lesbians are anything but sisterly and supportive: the story is a struggle for power and dominance between the three principals. Marlene is on the surface submissive but in reality less so, and some have found echoes of Fassbinder's offscreen relationship with Irm Hermann, not least because the film is dedicated to her. While there are no bearers of Y-chromosomes among the on-screen cast of six, men do have an effect on the film: Petra has been married twice (her daughter Gabriele, played by Eva Mattes, is at boarding school) and another man is the reason her relationship with Karin breaks up. In his staging, Fassbinder makes use of the Poussin painting: a highly visible penis often placed between Petra and Karin. This is not a love story at all: perhaps Petra likes playing the wronged and tragic one, and love is a form of possession of someone else.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant had a slightly belated UK release in 1975, following Fear Eats the Soul into cinemas by a few months. (The two films were two years apart, and in between Fassbinder had made two TV serials, the five-part Eight Hours Are Not a Day and the two-part World on a Wire) and the features Bremen Freedom, Wild Game aka Jail Bait and Nora Helmer. A step down from his work rate earlier in the decade, but still prodigious by most people's standards.)
For most of the country, it was first shown on British television on Channel 4 on 21 July 1983, but two ITV regions (HTV and Southern) had shown it in 1978, unknown if subtitled or dubbed. Petra von Kant has also been namechecked, along with another West German gay-themed film from 1980, in a UK Top Forty single: Tom Robinson's “Listen to the Radio: Atmospherics” from 1983, cowritten by Peter Gabriel. (“In the city late tonight/double feature, black and white/Bitter Tears and Taxi to the Klo” - Robinson claims artistic licence as the two films are actually in colour. The promo video was directed by Nicolas Roeg.)
(Thanks to Sheldon Hall for information on the television showings.)
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is both a standalone release and part of the ten-film, seven-disc limited edition Rainer Werner Fassbinder Collection blu-ray box set. The latter is available from Arrow here, though may have sold out by the time you read this. There was a previous VHS release from Connoisseur and a DVD release from Arrow as part of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Commemorative Collection box set. The latter was reviewed by Noel Megahey here. The film ends with a fade to black and no end titles, but this edition adds a page of restoration credits.
The film gained an X certificate on its cinema release, no doubt for the lesbian theme as well as the “moderate sex references” it now earns a 12 for. The BBFC's site gives a running time of 131:57 for the cinema release, but that's likely an error: the Monthly Film Bulletin review of May 1975 gives the present running time of 124 minutes.
The Blu-ray transfer is from a 2K scan of the original camera negative, supervised by Michael Ballhaus. The aspect ratio is 1.37:1, unusual for the time but it seems habitual for Fassbinder through much of the decade. I have no doubt it's correct, though I'm sure it was shown in 1.66:1 in many cinemas. The colours are strong and the grain, of which there is quite a bit in some scenes, is natural and filmlike, and shadow detail is excellent.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well-balanced, for a dialogue-driven film with only diegetic music. English subtitles for this German-language film are optional.
The commentary is again ported from the earlier Madman DVD release. This time it's the work of Australian academic and filmmaker Diane Charleson. Her commentary is a detailed one, with an emphasis of the fine details of Fassbinder's mise en scène, informative with the occasional dead spot.
Also on the disc are two documentaries. First is an interview with Fassbinder from 1978, made for a West German television series called Life Stories (Lebens Läufe) (48:29). Fassbinder, smoking pretty much throughout, is interviewed by Peter W. Janson. Given the extended time, this is quite a thorough talk, and often quite personal, as Fassbinder talks about his childhood and parents, and also the effect his celebrity has had on them and him.
Role-Play (Rollenspiele) (58:41) is a 1992 documentary which interviews some of the women who acted in his films and figured otherwise in his life. Rosel Zech speaks at the beginning and the end, but the majority of the hour is taken up by Margit Carstensen, Irm Hermann and Hanna Schygulla. None of them are identified on screen except for a listing in the opening credits, which won't be a problem for aficionados (although all of them inevitably look a little older than they do in his films) but may be a little confusing for newcomers. However, all five are frank about the experience of working with Fassbinder, and do address the question of how much of him was in the characters they played. They also talk about the actor/director relationship and the workings of that, and talk about the contradictory aspects of his personality. This is well worth seeing.
Exclusive to the boxset is a 192-page hardbound book. This contains an essay on Petra von Kant by Nick Pinkerton, “All Who Love Are Blind”, which covers most of the bases, beginning with the play which came towards the end of a particularly workaholic period of Fassbinder's life and career, even by his standards, with the film following his break and his taking on board the influence of Sirk. He also covers Irm Hermann's role and how it reflected her place in Fassbinder's life offscreen and how he seems to have been aware of that. Also in the book are film credits, colour stills and transfer notes.