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The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: The Great Pretender

Petra von Kant

Elder camp devotees may remember how, in the title sequence of George Cukor's 1939 The Women, the all-female players are cruelly compared to dumb animals. Norma Shearer is a placid doe, Rosalind Russell a meowing tabby, and Joan Crawford a snarling leopard. That ardent Hollywood cinephile Rainer Werner Fassbinder would offer his own rendition of the bitchy comedy as Frauen in New York, made for West German TV in 1977. But already five years earlier, he had contemplated savage fauna in a monosex universe. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) begins with two house cats on a staircase, their small motions of eating and grooming intermittently visible under the credits. The shot tacitly references Cukor's opening gambit, anticipating a story where elegant surfaces hide tooth-and-claw instincts. Then, marking the passage from nature to culture, the camera deserts the felines and enters Petra's bedroom. Hereafter, spontaneous life yields to an extravagantly contrived mise-en-scène. As if transfixed by an inner emotional theater, the characters will forever strike hieroglyphic poses of love, enthrallment, anger, and pain.

The first we see of our protagonist, she lies asleep, body enshrouded in gloom and nearly cadaverous. Her general factotum, Marlene (Irm Hermann), who won't utter a syllable in the film, liftsthe blinds with the brusque movement of a stagehand ringing up the curtain. Petra (Margit Carstensen) stirs, grumbling about nightmares, but of what did the unconscious warn her? The subtitle Fassbinder appends is A Case History, from which we may surmise that Petra is sick—even unto death. For the next two hours, she will wander her flat, pale, ghostly, donning a succession of wigs and bizarre, picturesque outfits—trying, it seems, by the very masquerade to invoke a truth she has long forgotten but still dimly knows. Blue sky and trees, indicated through a window, afford the barest tokens of an external world. The action never budges from Petra's home, largely occurring on her bed—that primal scene of birth, romantic enterprise, and extinction. Ignoring Michael Ballhaus's alert, peripatetic cinematography, some have complained of filmed theater, yet Bitter Tears continues in a venerable German tradition. The 1920s Kammerspiel (chamber drama) restricted its compass to meagerly furnished rooms, where the walls close in and the people are typically driven to madness or suicide.

Fassbinder preserves that mood of tortured introspection but eliminates the social-realist drabness. For all we can tell, Petra's apartment is purely decorative. Though Marlene distributes tea, fruit, and sparkling wine at intervals, there's no definite proof of a kitchen or, as she abruptly ushers in guests, even a front door. Instead, Fassbinder congests the visual field with lavish bric-a-brac in the manner of Josef von Sternberg. It's hard to take our bearings amid the clutter, but physical geography forms no part of the idea. The chamber drama turns into a dream play. Petra's residence is an utterly abstract, expressionist space where concrete objects etherealize into uncanny signifiers of narcissistic fantasy. A huge wallpaper reproduction of Nicolas Poussin's Midas and Bacchus adorns her boudoir, its mounds of voluptuous flesh implying the erotic abandon she craves (but also that short-lived ecstasy must always be paid for). Weird dolls, perched on wooden beams, condemn her desire as acquisitive and infantile—though with a hint of charity, since Petra will ultimately prove another such manipulable plaything. Naked department-store dummies, arranged and rearranged by some clandestine window dresser, become a silent chorus, viciously lampooning her amorous misfortunes.

Ostensibly, she is a fashion designer, yet we never catch her doing a lick of work. All the quotidian chores—coloring in sketches, taking dictation, even slow-dancing with the boss when so bidden—devolve to Marlene, permanently arrayed in black as the symbol of thankless drudgery. You might say that she is the material base to Petra's superstructure: the blood and toil of ages underwriting cultivated, parasitic existences. One didactic image exhibits Marlene with head cast down in statuary woe, palm pressed futilely against a glass barrier; through it, we hear the consummate hostess trading banalities with her Kewpie-faced society friend Sidonie. Petra's worldly veneer soon crumbles, yet that only awakens her true vocation of looking fabulous in the thick of suffering. Carstensen appears to be channeling Joan Crawford, with her stiff, manly deportment and air of glazed neurosis. A star close-up midway through could serve as the film's totem. Beneath a russet pageboy haircut, Petra's features congeal into the metaphysical essence of despair, one perfect teardrop staining her alabaster cheek.

The weepy title alludes to melodrama, that most sublime of classical Hollywood brands, which elicits real feeling from uncompromising artifice. There's no need to belabor the familiar legend of how Fassbinder, at a crossroads in his career, saw half a dozen glossy sudsers by Douglas Sirk and underwent an epiphany. In 1962, twenty-six young German filmmakers had signed the historic Oberhausen Manifesto, declaring a “new film language" that would experimentally address both contemporary reality and the tragic past. Unsurprisingly, ordinary audiences of the resulting first wave of activity greeted the spatiotemporal juggling of Straub-Huillet's 1965 Not Reconciled (which the French filmmakers made in Germany) and the surreal collages of Alexander Kluge's 1966 Yesterday Girl with blank incomprehension. Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, and Wim Wenders beside him, Fassbinder led the second charge, yet his initial works fell on equally stony ground. One still detects a shy flirtation with genre enlivening their minimalism: the gangster film in Gods of the Plague (1969) and The American Soldier (1970), the spaghetti western in Whity (1970). He made ten theatrical features in his first year and a half. Even Fassbinder required a breather, though, and sometime in the following eight months, he encountered Sirk.

Here, he thought, was an auteur who squared the circle, joining critical analysis to irresistible pathos, keeping the poles in rigorous suspension. A Brechtian fifth columnist, Sirk showed women agonizing in impeccably ersatz House Beautiful spreads—the better to ironize a denunciation of complacent Eisenhower America. Yet his baroque imitations of life betrayed the deeper melancholy of a paradise indefinitely postponed, at which the artist's feeble ciphers could only gesture. Fassbinder seized on (and redoubled) the master's patented tricks of frames within imprisoning frames and mirrors endlessly throwing back the spiritual void. In Petra's tale, we are frequently jolted by the revelation of solid images as insubstantial reflections. But the tactical distancing in no way limits our ability to condole—that's what he learned from Sirk. The studio contract director defended his interior freedom as a political radical and mystic by outwardly delivering the goods. Thus, the prodigal avant-garde son rescinded Oedipus, embracing the Hollywood father. Bitter Tears was the second film (after The Merchant of Four Seasons in 1971) to reap the Sirkian inheritance. Fassbinder's quick emergence as the transcendent superstar of the New German Cinema can be explained by his headline-grabbing Warholian lifestyle, but no less by his rapprochement with popular forms.

He would reinvent Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), while the persecuted heroine of Martha (1974) actually lives at 21 Douglas Sirk Strasse. Like their older cousins in the nouvelle vague, the Germans were partial to these shameless winks and nudges. Early in Bitter Tears, Petra drafts a letter to one Joseph Mankiewicz—not by any stretch to be mistaken for the acerbic writer-director of All About Eve (1950). Without precisely attempting a remake of that iconic film, Fassbinder brings out its daring lesbian subtext and upholds Mankiewicz's philosophical nihilism. Petra earnestly diagnoses for Sidonie the causes of her recent divorce from Frank: She had wanted a marriage built on lucid understanding and mutual decisions. Sadly, his disgusting male ego poisoned the ideal. Sidonie is more practical: wives should obey the established codes, feign humility, and thereby gain the diplomatic advantage.

If Sidonie's attitudes hark back to a prefeminist dark age, Petra speaks for the May '68 generation, which imagined a wholesale remodeling of human relationships. Fassbinder shared that vision, gathering around him an anarchistic community of film workers, in defiance of hierarchical norms—yet somehow, acrimonious feuds would erupt, usually triggered by his volcanic personality. As for Petra, she methodically applies makeup throughout this high-minded dialogue on the value of honesty. Fassbinder enjoys deflating her gassy balloon—but then, no principles (least of all his own) can long survive that hardwired machinery whereby ancestral patterns of domination and submission are bound deathlessly to recur. The beclouding of fine theory is foretold when Petra spins the Platters' rapturous “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" on her turntable. Then she meets Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a delectable acquaintance of Sidonie's, and the wreckage is complete. Striped shadows on Karin's entrance create a touch of noir, auguring the femme fatale she will enact to Petra's eternal chump. Karin rests on the bed, forthrightly signaling her intent. Coolly assured, Schygulla enlists sympathy for the levelheaded tart, who unapologetically exploits her natural capital to grasp the main chance.

Karin starts the campaign by wondering: how can one so “distinguished" be so young? Petra waxes maternal. She will take the poor chick under her wing—meaning she hopes to nail her. Karin is at any rate no hypocrite, but Petra throws away the book, plying in the seduction scene that follows those retrograde wiles Sidonie urged. All the while, Marlene types steadily in the background, almost drowning out Petra's latest musical selection, by which she pleads her loneliness, the Walker Brothers' mournful “In My Room." Ballhaus constantly reframes the Poussin to measure the seesawing power game, the male organ of Dionysus dangling first over one, then the other. Karin clinches it with the avowal that her estranged husband, Freddy, was a brute. Additionally, Dad killed Mom and hanged himself. Petra commiserates, pledging a bright future on the catwalk. For the moment, though, since Karin's hotel is so very expensive . . . Fade in, and the cozy nest has grown dysfunctional. Karin flips idly through magazines, while Petra begs for attention, covering her need with haughty sarcasm. Desperate, she wheedles caresses, but the languid nymphet recoils, then maliciously describes making love to an American soldier the night before. Fassbinder situates Petra ever lower in the frame as she plumbs the depths of histrionic misery. Her deposed Majesty hits rock bottom when the social-climbing trollop, having secured her booty, announces she is returning to Freddy.

Petra's sadomasochist ordeal was autobiographical and evidently therapeutic for Fassbinder. He admitted that his volatile affair with the actor Günther Kaufmann had brought him close to the edge. If so, Bitter Tears is an exorcism by ritual self-abasement. In the penultimate scene, the bed has been removed, leaving a clear stage for Petra's arias of fear and loathing. We discover her on the floor, swilling gin, alternately reviling the “dirty little slut" and imploring her to call. It's Petra's birthday, and the celebrants duly arrive: daughter Gaby, mother Valerie, and Sidonie. As the three surround her with recriminations, ignorance, and mock concern, she explodes, damning them to hell for the leeches they are. Every illusion broken, Petra is cleansed. She has descended into a state of total abjection, and therein finds peace.

Yet behind the mask, another mask. In the troubling coda, Fassbinder seems to revoke even so qualified a happy ending. Denuded of wigs and makeup, Petra reconciles with Valerie. And what of Marlene, the vassal she has deplorably abused? The contrite mistress vows that henceforth they will work together, receiving a tender kiss on the hand in gratitude. “Not like that," Petra barks, either chagrined at the display of servility or merely reverting to form. Marlene is just one of the wallflower roles Fassbinder perversely delighted in having Irm Hermann play. Marlene, who voicelessly witnesses the melodrama, could be a stand-in for the audience or (busy at her easel and typewriter) the artist. Now Petra asks her to speak, beckoning a millennial age of liberty, equality, and sorority. The director's theater version, mounted just a year prior, closed on this affirmation. But here, the slave declines the overture, packs her bag, and leaves. Among her chattels is a previously unsuspected gun. It appears that Marlene was a contented flunky who turned bondage into a choice. With merciless inevitability, Petra's final anthem is “The Great Pretender"—its confessional lyrics travestying her or anyone else's dreams of change.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant had a mixed reception when it was first released. Lesbian groups protested what they saw as a morbid freak show, while leftist critics censured Fassbinder's defeatism. He responded, customarily, that revolution doesn't belong on the screen but in the world outside. The melting pageant of cinema bounces back our own phantasmal unreality—all those glib cultural and ideological disguises that blind us to truth. Uncomfortably for modern tastes, he would sometimes remark on the beauty of suffering. Deluded though Petra is, overblown affliction confers its own reward, as it did in the classic women's films. “Too real when I feel what my heart can't conceal," swells the song. If Petra loves still with no object, the nothingness enveloping her at last perhaps bestows a kind of grace.

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