2016 Film Essays

Of Love and Other Demons: ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’ (R.W. Fassbinder, 1972)


Like a lost chapter from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has the trappings of an ancient story of Gods and monsters: a stiff poetry of immeasurable beauty, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s magnificent romance transcends human drama. As Petra Von Kant (Margit Carstensen) loses herself to love, which gives way to obsession, her status as an immortal becomes ruined. And like in Ovid’s mythology, the natural order becomes reversed, as the immortals are destroyed by human whims and passions, but especially by love.

When Petra sets up her first meeting with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), the two are dressed in costumes echoing the art of classical revivalism. Most than others, Petra’s outfit (which evokes not only the ancients but the vamp costuming of Theda Bara) showcases her delicate physique. Two ruby nipples burn like medusa eyes and shine brightly on the barely-there top that mixes the sensibilities of the Bronze Age and Hellenism. The greys, silvers and dull gold of her costume accent the white of her skin, and allow her to fade into nothingness when she steps out of the light. Only the pearls and shadows that adorn her shine in the darkness, reinforcing Petra as a vision of a decorated Goddess on the verge of being fallen by love.


Karin’s comparatively cherub face and fleshed out figure (bathed in white and gold cloth) seems forged of the earth. Her perfectly crooked teeth, broad shoulders and flowing hair are imbued with life and strength. Like a child, she seems to know little of the world and has only vague fascinations with the numbers that make up our universe. Incurious, self-centered and mean-spirited, her beauty and naivety mask her mortal faults. Petra falls in love as though she was the one who built Karin of earth and water; her perfect creation unimpeachable in her eyes.

In the background of this seduction, a loyal servant (Irm Hermann as Marlene) pounds away at a typewriter. Ever present, Marlene slaves away for Petra, whom she loves with the devotion of the most loyal parishioner. Like the rest of us mortals, Marlene toils and adores a Goddess who seems only tangibly concerned with her fate. But this relationship built on inequality works somehow: as long as Petra remains strong and callous, Marlene will be her subject.


Like many of the fallen Gods, Petra believes herself exempt from the passions of humanity. As she discusses her previous marriage or even her child, she treats love as something that can be controlled and managed. Just knowing that her daughter is enrolled in the best boarding school in the country fulfills her quota of love, so how could a simple creature like Karin disrupt her world? Self-destructive and irrational love — living on the edge of danger and hatred — was never a part of Petra’s plan. 

Throughout all of this, Petra takes for granted her status as a Goddess, uware that without humanity and without her adoring devotees, she has nothing. You cannot be a parent if you don’t have children to care for, you cannot be a lover if you have nobody to love, and you cannot be a Goddess if you are not worshipped. Like the Gods of the ancient world who lost their divinity when people stopped believing in them, Petra gives way to nothingness.

Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.


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