Movie Review – The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
Written & Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder

We only see one room of Petra Von Kant’s home for the entirety of this film, creating a sense that we’re in a realm of metaphor rather than concrete reality. This is a crypt, and we watch her rise from her grave at the start, only to return to it. The all-female cast understands what Fassbinder is doing; this is a camp film, not as extreme with filth as John Waters and not as on the nose as what camp became in the 1960s. This is camp in the traditional queer definition, the actresses summoning up the energy of women like Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, and their peers. It’s a lot of talking, but you might learn something if you pay attention.

The great madam herself, Petra Von Kant (Margit Carstensen), rises like a corpse with high cheekbones & gaunt physique. But, she won’t stay this way and will don various wigs and outlandish outfits for the next two hours while never leaving her home once. Petra is a fashion designer though she seems to never do any work. That is put on her silent housekeeper, Marlene (Irm Hermann), who we see working on coloring a sketch Petra cranked out some unknown time ago. Though there are windows, the audience never feels any natural world lies outside them. 

Not only are we confined to Petra’s house, we only ever see a single room, a sort of ample open space encompassing living quarters, a bedroom, and a kitchen. This increases the sense of claustrophobia. Guests come and go, and Petra greets them in whatever garish look she’s picked out. Marlene silently hands out fruit, tea, and wine. Because we are in one space, it is cluttered with objects. There are a variety of mannequins, presumably for dressing with fashions but also some unexplained elements. There are strange-looking dolls posed on exposed wooden beams. Where Petra sleeps is merged with the floor covered in thick white shag carpet. One wall of the sleeping area is adorned with a recreation of Midas and Bacchus by Nicolas Poussin, which serves as the erotic subconscious of Petra; she can never seem to reach this ideal with her lovers.

The dynamic between Petra and Marlene is a familiar one: that of capital and labor. Petra doesn’t do much of anything but pity herself while Marlene silently toils to keep her employer happy. Petra’s face betrays the truth; she’s utterly self-absorbed and nearly a paranoiac. This film came at a point in Fassbinder’s career where he had spent a long time revisiting the work of fellow German Douglas Sirk.

Sirk moved to the States when the Nazis took control and, in his American films, would spotlight how conformist upper classes paralleled the social control done by those he fled. Sirk’s movies are also glamorous and centered on female actresses caught up in melodramatic stories. Fassbinder’s experience absorbing Sirk’s work profoundly affected what came next. You can check out a recent episode of the PopCult Podcast where Ariana & I discussed Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a remake of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. At one point in this film, Petra drafts a letter to Joseph Mankiewicz, an apparent reference to All About Eve written and directed by him and another influence on this picture.

The film revolves around the failed relationships of Petra, hence her titular bitter tears. We learn early on that she is a sadistic person; she gets off on having other people beneath her. Things change (maybe) when Petra meets Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a beautiful but shallow 23-year-old woman. Karin is hired as a model, and the next day Petra begins her seduction. Karin is married, though; her husband is back in Sydney. The more they learn about each other, the greater the class distinctions become. Karin was neglected as a child and struggled in school. Petra was coddled and constantly provided for. Eventually, the older woman suggests Karin move in with her to save money instead of spending it on an expensive hotel. 

We rejoin them later only to find Karin has become bored with Petra, who loves booking flights and then calling in the morning to cancel them. It’s a way she can convince herself that leaving is an option instead of the reality, which is that Petra is frozen in place. Karin had implied she would divorce her husband, but after an argument, she plans to meet him in Zurich. Petra becomes drunk and books a flight for Karin gives her 1,000 DM in cash, and Marlene drives her to the airport. The next time we see our protagonist, she’s returned to the cadaverous form in the opening. Make-up gone, wig tossed aside, fashions discarded. This is a cycle; she churns through people and returns to the same miserable state. 

When we examine Fassbinder’s personal relationships, we can see Petra serves as a cipher for him. He isn’t beyond dissecting himself, his proclivities, and his cycle of love & loneliness. The codependency and the clinging to others like a leech to feel valued are all things Fassbinder did in his relationships with men & women. Yet, he finds beauty in suffering. Otherwise, he would have killed himself earlier. Instead, that yearning for something to be treasured kept him hanging on. The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” plays a prominent role in the first act of the film, and it’s lyrics are strongly tied to the story we see unfold:

Oh-oh, yes I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Oh-oh, yes I’m the great pretender
Adrift in a world of my own
I’ve played the game but to my real shame
You’ve left me to grieve all alone

Too real is this feeling of make-believe
Too real when I feel what my heart can’t conceal


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