Home Video Hovel: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, by Scott Nye
Films adapted from stage plays that stick close to the text are often accused of feeling too stagebound, not “cinematic” enough in translation. Indeed, there is something stagey about Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, which takes place entirely in the apartment of the titular character, over the course of several months during which she seduces and eventually debases herself before a young married woman. Adapted from the semi-autobiographical play by the filmmaker himself, the film does leave one yearning for the physicality of the stage, just as, too, the stage might leave one yearning for the perspective Fassbinder guides in the film. The apartment seems to transform over the course of two hours, from humble and a bit worn to theatrically lustful to claustrophobic to, finally, an unfillable void. Without “expanding” the text, Fassbinder has expanded his world.
Much of Petra’s (Margit Carstensen) sudden turn towards homosexuality is unexplained, if indeed it’s sudden at all. We learn she was married, twice; one ended tragically, the other bitterly. She relishes the freedom she’s since been granted, but also doesn’t seem to know what to do with it. The first act is, frankly, a bit of a chore, heavy on exposition. Or so it seems. What we come to realize over the subsequent three acts is that this was largely posturing on Petra’s part, her way of explaining herself to the world (via her cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake)), and to herself. And then Karin enters the picture, and everything changes.
Karin (Hanna Schygulla) is a twenty-three-year-old married woman without a care in the world. She hasn’t been getting along well with her husband (much of the film’s subtext explores the way women negotiate their lack of power in marriage), and, since she is temporarily living out of a hotel, fashion designer Petra suggests she become a model and move in with her. This initial seduction almost plays like a game. It’s clear Petra is drawn to Karin, but not so much that she couldn’t give her up right away. She almost seems to be daring herself to see how much she can get away with. And once she gets away with it, she’s too far gone to possibly look back. The second half of the film deeply and uncomfortably explores the degree to which Petra has given herself over to her conquest, and the complete indifference with which her supposed subject receives it.
Meanwhile, always silent, always in the background, Petra’s actual servant, Marlene (Irm Hermann) busies herself with the chores of a given day, including what seems to be much of Petra’s actual designing. Her presence is oblique – sometimes seeming like little more than one of Petra’s mannequins, sometimes known only through the dissonant sound of her typing, sometimes not seen or heard – and often distant, but still in some aesthetic or emotional sense felt. It could be said that we’re seeing all this through her eyes, but of course, we’re seeing her, too. She has her own private tragedy, and Fassbinder hints occasionally at an entire world of private debasement we’ll never access.
It is the sort of film for which a single viewing is woefully insufficient, so its availability now on Blu-ray through The Criterion Collection is most welcome. The new 4K digital restoration, approved by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, is lavishly realized, beautifully representing the film’s bold color scheme. Depth and contrast are very well-rendered in this crisp image.
The film is supplemented with an excellent half-hour documentary, featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schaake, Schygulla, and Eva Mattes (who plays Petra’s daughter). They discuss Fassbinder, the film’s unusual production, as well as the even-more-unusual artistic climate in which the play was originally produced (much of the company in which Fassbinder belonged lived and slept together), and how the 70s free-love ethos could be just as emotionally punishing as the supposed constrictions against which they were rebelling. We also get an interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc of Emerson College (my alma mater, what what), who literally wrote the (well, a) book on Fassbinder. She discusses the way Fassbinder inherited and perverted Douglas Sirk’s melodramatic form that so famously inspired him, but unfortunately does so in a way that sort of throws Sirk under the bus, which not only does that great director a disservice, but also reduces Fassbinder’s accomplishments to merely reactionary. Next, a short interview with Ballhaus, who reflects on how combative he and Fassbinder could be. After that, there’s a 1992 Germany documentary, interviewing Carstensen, Schygulla, Hermann, and Rosel Zech, a frequent collaborator of Fassbinder’s. Finally, scholar Peter Matthews provides very good analytical essay, though it is unfortunately presented in a large foldout sheet rather than a booklet format, making for cumbersome reading.
Throughout the supplements, each participant continually references Fassbinder’s “troubled soul.” It’s a phrase so often said of artists that it starts to lose the impact of its meaning. But in putting so much of himself so masterfully onscreen, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant forces us to wrestle with some darker aspects of at least one human being, and thus many darker aspects of humanity. The folks at The Criterion Collection have done very good work in presenting an uneasy piece of melodrama.