Like many of Fassbinder’s melancholy melodramas, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant plants us in emotional malaise. Petra Von Kant (Magrit Carenson), a successful German fashion designer, lives alone in a posh Berlin apartment, waited on by a silent maid all in black. She provides for her daughter, away at “the best boarding school in the world,”and an older socialite mother; in an early interaction, Petra loans her 5,000 Deutsch marks to spend six months in Miami. Petra is rich and fabulous in her ridiculous, overdesigned costumes and fancifully poufy wigs, yet somewhere beneath the veneer is a deep loneliness.
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Producers: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler
Writers: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus
Editor: The Eymèsz
Cast: Magrit Carensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Eva Mattes, Gisela Fackeldey, Irm Hermann
Country: West Germany
Premiere: June 25, 1972 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 12, 1973
US Distributor: New Yorker Films
Fassbinder’s dramas always seem to be fascinated by the interior lives of their protagonists even with no external drama at all, like an art cinema approach to the golden-age Hollywood melodramas that Fassbinder held in such high esteem (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a conscious remake of Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, for instance). Petra’s wealth and social status mean that many problems are just not issues for her. She never worries for her personal safety, never worries about having enough money, and can eat all the fancy appetizers and drink all the gin she desires—just like most of Sirk’s aristocratic heroines. She orders and cancels several plane tickets without even batting an eye—an action that seems out of touch and irresponsible by today’s airline standards.
But inside, her character is a tumult of powerful emotions. Petra is divorced, after she came to hate her husband intensely. As she puts it, "He stank like a man. The way men stink. What had once had its charms now turned my stomach and brought tears to my eyes." That haunting hatred—something like the scorn felt by Brigitte Bardot in Contempt—is palpable beneath her false smiles, though we only get to see it truly when she snaps harshly at her servant, the ever-silent Marlene. The film takes place entirely in Petra’s posh apartment and focuses on a few moments in time, chronicling a relationship between Petra and a young model who she takes under her wing, Karin (Hanna Schygulla). Their interactions are charged, with every strangely performed piece of dialogue bearing deeper sexual implications. Though we never see any of their love affair played out on the screen, Fassbinder’s script makes it plain that if we did, it would be passionate. However, the fights, the bitterness and hatred, are shown in full force. Petra rages at friend and family alike, screams at Karin, and takes out all of that aggression on the silent Marlene, who is present for every moment in this affair.
All of this is set against the strange backdrop of Petra’s apartment, which has been painted up with renaissance-era tableaus featuring naked men. These are the only men to appear in the film, save for those mentioned in conversation, and something about their passive (and flaccid) nudity strikes a grotesque balance with the elaborate costumes and makeup worn by the women who populate the apartment. What statement Fassbinder’s film is trying to make is hard to discern, but it is beautiful, harrowing, and tragic, and the performances are haunting. Petra’s dismayed screams—especially as she lies waiting for a phone call from Karin—will haunt your dreams.