2015 Film Essays

New German Cinema: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder puts emotion at the forefront of his manipulative, Douglas Sirk-styled melodrama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Loneliness, fear and desire collide in Fassbinder’s one-room crucible; his female-centric cast seethes with passion as even the slightest interaction causes a life-altering reaction for all involved.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant opens with the eponymous von Kant (Margit Carstensen) being snapped out of a deep sleep by her ever-silent assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann). Most of the film revolves around this bed, as various characters come in and out of von Kant’s eclectic life. A chance visit from Sidonie von Grasenabb (Katrin Schaake) affords von Kant the pleasure of meeting the lovely young Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla). Von Kant falls immediately in love with the 23-year-old beauty, promising her a good life and a strong career in modeling. Fassbinder — never content with a standard tale of love and infidelity — refuses to sway to convention by dissolving the relationship in spectacular form and leaving the shattered von Kant to pick up the pieces of her fractured psyche.

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Shooting from the confines of von Kant’s curious bedroom and studio, Fassbinder utilizes an eye-catching décor and idiosyncratic camera movements to propel his narrative and maintain audience interest. A room divider and curio shelf is opposite a massive reproduction of Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus,” allowing the director ample chances for unique framing and striking shots. Marlene’s servility is compounded by her constant presence in the background of shots or through the gate-like framing of the room divider. Further enhanced by the fact that the secondary room is sunken, von Kant’s higher bedroom seems like a throne from which she wields power and shouts demands.

Fassbinder marks a major shift when Karin becomes the center of influence in the household. An aloof ruler able to control her subjects with an acerbic inattention, Karin relaxes in the plush bed, as von Kant is shown alongside Marlene in the background — the master has become the slave. Fassbinder revels in exploring this one room space, finding nearly every possible unobstructed vantage point. Exploiting audience focus to transmit emotion, a beautifully accomplished series of focus pulls suggests a devastating personal blow or a passage worthy of special attention.

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Margit Carstensen is particularly astounding alongside a cast composed primarily of Fassbinder regulars. Beginning with her brutal coldness towards Marlene, Carstensen commands attention from her co-stars. Exercising her abilities, she glows through the theatrical long takes positioned around her various monologues, which highlights a dynamic range well beyond that of her peers. Descending into possessive madness, Carstensen’s unnerving von Kant somehow becomes both pitiable and detestable. As the empathetic core of the film, it is Carstensen’s emotions that we are made to feel. She’s infuriated by men, given hope through love and ultimately consumed by it. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is an intelligent, considered drama masquerading as melodramatic fluff.

A film that would have persisted through aesthetic and imagery alone, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant‘s unimaginable beauty is nearly overtaken by a fascinating performance from its lead, and the exceptional performances of its sparse supporting cast. An emotionally existential journey through the cycle of love, Fassbinder’s film conveys an incredible power for empathy, and a profound understanding of deeply human characters.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of sunny San Diego, California. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.

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