Written and directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Lermontov’s Pechorin, protagonist of A Hero of our Time, said that in every friendship, one person is the slave to the other’s master. With The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, director Fassbinder says the same is true in love, only the fallout is more acrid, self-bereaving and pitiful than a heart can bear.
It stars Margit Carstensen as Petra, a spoiled socialite clothes designer, who spends her day not far from her lavish bed and the comfort that seems her birthright. She throws orders at her assistant Malene, doing so with the playful upwards lilt of a child struck by inspiration for a fun game. What makes it near unbearable is that Malene bears it because she’s in love with the very person behind her debasement and torment. Then, when Karin, a cherub, glides into Petra’s life, another rung is added to a ladder where devotion flows up and callous disdain trickles down, and Fassbinder, the master misanthrope, gets to work.
It makes for electrifying viewing, especially the performances by Carstensen and Irm Hermann as Malene. Like a heroin addict, fully aware of the damage being done, she can’t walk out, a glutton for Petra in whatever form she can get it seems. Throughout it all she doesn’t utter a single word, and I can’t think of a similar experience where a completely non-verbal performance underpins and changes a scene by its simple presence – Hermann simply adds a thousand-pound heaviness to every shot she’s in, a silence cursed by its longing for the sounds that surround it.
Carstensen gets to do both sides of an emotionally toxic relationship, and she’s fearsome in both, purring in her place of power, and writhing when she’s underfoot. Slap a camera at medium length, and let the two of them play it out for two hours and it’s still worth watching, but Fassbinder’s work in constructing these power dynamics and describing these womens’ inner life through pictures is what makes it a masterpiece.
Fassbinder’s direction is laser focused in its simplicity, meant to amplify his cast’s performance and let the ornate production design of Kurt Raab come to its full expression, with Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus and its plum bodies filling one side of the room and scarecrow mannequins cluttering the other, like the rise of fall an civilization in two acts. Where most of what’s on screen in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is very ornate, Fassbinder’s direction is the opposite, with its power vested in the long takes, measured compositions and the interchange between its characters.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is about human ugliness in gilded trappings, and while its setting is confined to almost one single space, it’s a grand drama about people at their smallest in terms of power and proportional personality. It’s an ugly picture to witness, but whose artistic beauty is obvious, and a melodrama executed in almost barbaric fashion.