The prolific but short-lived German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder enjoys such an enviable reputation that nearly all of his films are considered milestones of international cinema. To some degree, Fassbinder’s demigod status is justified because he consistently explored nature themes in an idiosyncratic but intelligent manner. Nonetheless, not all films are created equal, so some of Fassbinder’s projects invite more divisive reactions than others. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which the director adapted from his play of the same name, is a good example. Admirers characterize the project as a probing investigation of the female psyche because the story depicts the complex relationships that the title character has with other women.
Yet The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is, by any estimation, a challenging viewing experience. Intentionally artificial and stylized, the movie takes place entirely on one set, with actors delivering their lines in monotones while barely ever moving. As photographed by Michael Ballhaus, who later became Martin Scorsese’s go-to cinematographer for an important period in the ’80s and ’90s (Goodfellas, etc.), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant possesses inarguable pictorial beauty, but watching the picture is a bit like regarding a series of still images. As such, Fassbinder’s refusal to exploit the full cinematic possibilities of his own narrative can be interpreted as either remarkably disciplined or remarkably perverse.
The title character is a fashion designer who became a lesbian following the dissipation of her marriage to a man. At first, her only companion is an ever-present assistant, whom Petra treats like a slave. But then a friend arrives—provoking a long conversation about the arc of Petra’s marriage—and then Petra meets a beautiful young woman whom she decides to mold into a fashion model. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is simultaneously about Petra’s manipulation of the women around her (with many relationships involving aspects of sadomasochism) and about Petra’s articulation of her grim worldview. Fassbinder’s script is full of grandiose declarations: “If you understand someone, there’s no need for pity”; “If there were no compulsion, I’d be totally lost at times”; “I’ve always been suspicious of hard women.” At one point, a character even articulates her “constant fear of existence.”
Meanwhile, Fassbinder juxtaposes the ugliness of his words with the beauty of his images—during the film’s most opulent passage, leading ladies Margit Carstensen (as Petra) and Hanna Schygulla (as the would-be model) wear ornately skimpy costumes reminiscent of Theda Bara’s provocative outfits in the silent-cinema classic Cleopatra (1917). Some viewers will feel more inclined than others to parse all of this philosophizing and symbolism for deeper meanings, and, indeed, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant has enjoyed a long life, as evidenced by an opera adaption that premiered in 2005. So, even though the picture’s entertainment value is dubious, what can’t be denied is the peculiar integrity of the piece. This is about as anti-commercial as movie storytelling gets.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: FUNKY