I feel I can express what I want to say better when I use a female character at the centre. Women are more exciting, because on the one hand they are oppressed, and on the other they aren’t really, because they use this ‘oppression’ as terrorization. Men are so simple: they’re more ordinary than women. It’s also more amusing to work with women. Men are primitive in their means of expression. Women can show their emotions more, but with men it becomes boring.

–R. W. Fassbinder (1)

Music, moods, abandonment, subjection, dispossession, of course we are speaking of melodrama.

–Stanley Cavell (2)

The most perfect example of “the woman’s film” I’ve seen in thirty years presents a number of that genre’s key elements. Its subject matter incorporates numerous progressive and self-consciously female topics– both in narrative themes and in role models– and the film even makes use of some of the dominant strains of academic feminist film theory.

The movie has the structural outlines of the woman’s film down as well. In addition to the de rigueur first person confessional female point of view (think Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, 1940; or Jane Campion’s The Piano, 1993) there is a piercing re-interpretation of the maternal melodramas of the 1940s and 1950s which inspired so much debate in the 1970s when feminist film criticism in America was just finding its footing. A chilly mother is confronted by a daughter who in turn partly ignores her own daughter, while at the same time complaining of her own feelings of abandonment and, of course, is critical of heterosexual marriage and of men. And like many contemporary women’s movies, it takes up issues of role-playing, S&M, the confines of traditional heterosexual marriage, and the perceived (and real) dominance of men.

Yet while the above description makes the film sound like a recent entry at a women-and-film festival, or the latest movie by Jane Campion, it actually was an accidental viewing or more properly re-viewing. The title of this article, of course, gives it away: the physical space/place of the apartment of Petra Van Kant (Margit Carstensen), a cinematic apartment which has been alternately criticised for being limited and claustrophobic, and praised for its use of a dramatic interior clearly influenced by director-writer Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s simultaneous work on various television productions (aesthetically speaking, therefore a new creative solution was added to the usual challenge of opening up, or adapting, the play).

Seeing Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972) some decades after an initial viewing prompted a new way for this viewer to look at some old issues. Because at first it was a surprise to see that there was before me a near-classic “woman’s film.” It had a number of that genre’s key elements: subject matter incorporating numerous progressive and self-consciously female topics –both in narrative themes and in role models –and it also made complicated comments on women’s friendship: not just recording it, but prophetically noting some then politically incorrect facets, even at times implying schadenfreude.

There was additionally a full extension and working out of the genre of melodrama –the first form to yield to feminist working or re-working. Plus, it took it to its final extension (in the character of Marlene), what Helene Cixous describes as the last stage of hysteria: a character’s muteness. (3) Thinking of the mute Marlene (Irm Hermann), Petra’s “slave,” does dovetail perfectly with Peter Brooks, in The Melodramatic Imagination, declaring the last stage of melodrama to be “muteness, since it is about expression.” (4) Also, even if it was not a conscious intent, there is a kind of play on the mother/child/grandmother triptych and identity search explored in Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx a few years later in 1976, a standard set for other films –both mainstream and not– to follow in subsequent decades.

Another appeal was that the film presented and played with a new style and structure, a soap opera derived episodic form, though it is clear that, as with the Mulvey and Wollen’s film, Fassbinder could not have seen any of the soap operas on which a new feminist critical theory has platformed: dignified by critics including Tania Modleski, Robert C. Allen, and Ann Douglas (the latter mainly in her journalistic commentary). Characterised by disrupted narrative form, avoidance of closure, the open-ended format of television’s soap operas with their sudden often unexplained appearance of characters (particularly family members) and a constantly changing emotional landscape marked by continual crisis, and because frequently watched by stay-at-home women, the genre developed around an audience viewer pattern of continual interruptions.

Too, the film’s exploration of anxiety, an examination most intense –sometimes even draining– took the form of constant playing with identity, masks, roles, and other forms of identity facades and quests. It thereby provided a “cover” and thus seemed to sidestep some of the issues of scopophilia, and consequently some concerns about voyeurism, the gaze, and the shifting emphasis of power depending on the sex of the director/subject. In this (new) viewing, it became essentially a-scopic, or perhaps, pan-scopic, and therefore questions of victimisation, both for star and viewer, were avoided. Another way of putting this is, as Jane Shattuc declared in an article in Wide Angle, was that the “presentation of feminine sexuality is so stylised that one is forced to remove oneself from the visual pleasure.” (5)

Since we (as spectators) as well as the director, are both observing and part of the varying positioning of the characters, no clear statement about the characters’ objectification is offered. Or more precisely, there are too many statements for any conclusive position. Can scopophilia truly perpetrate patriarchy when the characters themselves not only willingly (albeit at times compulsively) participate in a kind of self-fetishism, and we as spectators are increasingly distanced due to their role-playing?

While watching the film, and feeling that there was an ameliorating key to some of the theoretical issues in the early days of feminist film theory that had troubled me, it did seem as if I were at a contemporary woman-and-film festival. Yet in fact the film was made in the early 1970s, and was written and directed by the flamboyantly gay (if sometimes married to or living with women) Rainer W. Fassbinder. And while Douglas Sirk’s, and thus the maternal melodrama’s, influence on Fassbinder had been well-documented there are many other elements in Petra –just some of which are mentioned above –that apparently demanded that the film be looked at anew.

It also became clear that some of the more recent critical approaches, such as queer theory, might work for me in explaining my re-found enthusiasm for the film. As Richard Dyer’s breakthrough work pointed out, since there were for many years no positive images of gay men in movies, one option was to intensely identify with female stars. Petra van Kant, or Margit Carstensen, is not strictly speaking a “star.” But Dyer’s insights provided a plank for the erasing or blurring of the directorial gaze, for a different viewer-subject identification, perhaps even a more direct and intimate one. This intersection of the subsequent “new” queer theory with women’s studies (though some have contested this connection) connected the two “out groups” as each searching for new images with which to identify. That was another breakthrough. (For a full discussion of the various and potential facets of that intersection, see Feminism Meets Queer Theory, edited by Elizabeth Weed and Naomi Schor.) Pam Cook concurred, in her Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema: “Dyer’s account of the responses of gay men to female star images implied that the process of identification between viewer and star was less straightforward (less gender-linked) than had been claimed,” concluding that such a blurring of the lines, “softening,” argues for the possibility of a more humanistic, because less strictly patriarchal, world. (6)

But why did it matter so much? This film in particular seemed to provide a way out of an old dilemma of mine. A number of decades ago, feminist film theory broke for me on the shards of the semiotic, structuralist, Freudian and sometimes Marxist based film theory which dominated the 1970s. Though I was fascinated with the general topic, and wrote about it often, and while I could see that an “image of women” was not a sufficiently theoretical tack to take, I never completely bought into the other. It was intriguing to deconstruct a film, or a scene, and while an alternative consciousness was a sympathetic sister for a second class gender, the hegemony of the patriarchal gaze often left me out in the cold. I understood about objectifying and fetishising an image. But not always, nor in every cinematic case. That was just one rub. So was the continual reliance on Freud, in employing Lacan and an Althusserian Marxism. It seemed that the feminist response and theory coming mainly from England (and Screen and structuralism) constantly referred to Freud and an Oedipal-based theory to decode and analyse films while still trying to undermine a patriarchal society presumably based on Freud.

Happily, other critics in the following years staked out positions depending more heavily on viewers’ reactions to movies, taking into account audiences’ gender, race, and class. (To take an even longer view, things may have come full circle: a good deal of attention was given to audience analysis in the sociologically-inclined 1950s; for instance in the work of Leo Handel.) (7) Janet Staiger’s Interpreting Films in 1992 both heralded and concretised a shift to “Reception Studies,” permanently removing the apologetic tone from this approach. Ultimately, one of Staiger’s standards became contemporaneous film reviewers of the film under discussion, and while one may take issue with one or some of the reviewers, or that method, the precedents she cited for her reception studies were unassailable: Aristotle, Plato, I.A. Richards. Professor Deborah Knight came on board with a thorough overview of the challenges to the first two waves of feminist film criticism in her article “Reconsidering Film Theory and Methods.” And in a parallel universe, Professor Nina Baym went on record with her concerns that a psychoanalytic, Freudian, and Lacanian interpretation of literature was forcing feminist critics to be pigeonholed into “psychoanalytic pseudo-explanations that pathologised our intellectual aspirations as penis envy or masculinity complexes.” (8)

Critic Kathy Fuller-Seeley, guest editing an issue of the Journal of Popular Film and Television devoted to spectatorship studies in 2001, sees feminist film criticism as co-existing with broader based cultural studies, citing in particular the work of Robert Sklar and Garth Jowett. (Though social change was the overall, frequently stated ultimate goal of stage One (and Two) of the feminist film theory of the 1970s, which used as underpinning and not always in mutual exclusion –Freud, Marx, Lacan and Althusser often in the service of semiotics –most analyses focused on individual films, an irony which ultimately led David Bordwell in Making Meaning to characterise feminist criticism as sometimes “ad hoc” and “piecemeal.”) (9)

I started to trust my own reactions to Petra, no longer feeling I had to reject or accept a movie according to the code of criticising the patriarchal gaze. It was not a new issue. While taking some baby steps in writing about women in film, and admittedly in a sociological mode (“the original American, so-called sociological approach” as exemplified by the “dismaying example of the decadent strain of this approach [in] Joan Mellen’s mid-70s book Big Bad Wolves” as B. Ruby Rich once proclaimed in her subsequently widely anthologised piece originally published in Jump Cut) (10), I was taken to task by a professor at another branch of the university where I was teaching in the late 1970s. He asked to meet me at the Éclair Bakery and Coffee Shop on New York’s Upper West Side so he could explain to me where I was “going wrong” in my responses to women and film in not adhering to the prevailing code. I didn’t go to the proposed meeting, not because I was afraid of any intellectual blandishments, but because it seemed more than a little condescending. Instead, though not as a direct consequence, I went out into the field to practice the craft as a film reviewer at a large metropolitan daily, where the word “semiotic” would probably not pass the copy desk.

Gradually there came a refinement of the transformative insights of Laura Mulvey’s breakthrough article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, even by Mulvey herself in subsequent pieces. Other feminist critics were taking a broad cultural approach: Jackie Stacey in Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Jacqueline Bobo in Black Women as Cultural Readers, Sharon Willis in High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film, Jane Gaines in Fire and Desire: Mixed-Race Movies in the Silent Era. On a wider level, in their highly insightful textbook, The Film Experience, Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White were bold enough to declare that subsequent generations of students may have accepted the idea of the male gaze in numerous mainstream films, but they reject the castration interpretation of the Mulvey tack. (11)

For this non-resistant reader, the work of these critics –along with others proposing queer theory as expressing the double consciousness of oppressed groups, added to by new female if not feminist forms (if nothing else, readings of them) such as the new interpretations of the form of the soap opera – provided an underpinning for what seemed at first to be my own perhaps overwrought response to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. To recap a bit, Petra was a movie about women, was in the melodramatic genre, the first peg upon which much early feminist film criticism was hung. And since it was not directed by a straight male –nor even an American one – the film might therefore avoid the patriarchal “male gaze”’ and of course the narrative structure of the Hollywood mainstream film, demonstrated to be inherently oppressive, because of forcing women viewers to participate in their own objectification, to make a perhaps simplistic paraphrase.

Refreshingly, there were no secret messages to be decoded in the film. Fassbinder is forthright in declaring his subjects alienated, both as having “failed” at heterosexual marriage and as being lesbian and/or bisexual. Especially, Richard Dyer’s Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society came to mind, in which Dyer so eloquently wrote about Judy Garland as the star with whom most gay men identified: a lead or even star-auteur, with a persona of someone who never quite fits in; she often fails at something, but is still indomitable. (12)

Another important critical essay in re-defining The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant became Kaja Silverman’s “Fassbinder and Lacan: a Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image,” demonstrating that Fassbinder whenever possible uses a kind of modified directorial gaze. “Fassbinder further denaturalises identity by emphasising at every conceivable juncture its imaginary bases. Thus he never misses an opportunity to point the camera at a character’s mirror reflection rather than at the character him or herself, and he shoots almost compulsively through windows as if to deny any possibility of the camera’s scrutiny,” decides Silverman. (13) The article also spoke to the standard idea of narcissism. Silverman, to extend her argument a bit, saw constant mirror checking as a way of reassuring oneself that one exists, not just as an example of vanity: “Consciousness as it is re-defined by Lacan hinges not only upon the internalisation but upon the elision of the gaze; this ‘seeing’ of oneself being seen is experienced by the subject-of-consciousness –by the subject, that is, who arrogates to itself a certain self-presence or substantiality – as a ‘seeing of [itself] seeing [itself].’ “ (14)

Petra continually applies make-up throughout the film, and just as constantly if more self-consciously studies her own image, not in the self-admiring fashion of Karin (Hanna Schygulla), her love object in the film, but rather in the mode of a nervous, obsessional habit. One has to think here that Fassbinder has not let us forget, in the beginning of the film by his epitaph “To my Marlene,” that Petra may be a stand-in for the director himself, and by extension his own ontological uncertainty (as well as his own not occasional sadomasochistic tendencies). For this viewer, it added a rich dimension to the large canon of women looking at themselves in mirrors in films, after or re-applying make-up, especially lipstick. Vanity, plus existential uncertainty.

In the collection Fassbinder edited by Tony Rayns, in the essay titled “Murder, Merger, Suicide: The Politics of Despair,” Thomas Elsaesser has a very clever argument merging identity issues in Fassbinder’s films with the genre of melodrama: “The melodrama . . . provided a rigorous narrative closure (tragedy, the vicious circles) and it problematised identity as a process of perception, the self forming itself in a struggle between `the way the characters perceive others and the way that others perceive them’. The melodrama in this sense dramatises the failure of subjectivity –any subjectivity, but quite often a specifically female subjectivity –to inscribe itself permanently into the space of the fiction (the play of seeing and being seen as a conflict of forced self-images and social roles). . . . The second reason for Fassbinder’s `discovery’ of the melodrama was that it seemed to posit the question of identity and subjectivity in the context of socially and ideologically explicit sexual relationships.” (15) Earlier, in The Melodramatic Imagination, after tracing melodrama’s roots to the eighteenth century, Peter Brooks also suggested that “melodrama may be born of the very anxiety created by the guilt experienced when allegiance and ordering” are challenged. (16) Melodrama is thus moved squarely into the mainstream of modernity, if not post-modernity.

In her 2005 book referenced above, Pam Cook observed that in melodrama “there is often a softening of sexual difference, and a merging of masculinity and femininity,” going on to observe that “In the women’s picture, the female protagonist’s perspective is presented through a combination of first person (subjective) and third person (objective) strategies . . . In practice, the distinction between tragic melodrama and women’s melodrama is not so clear-cut; to imply that a masculine point of view predominates in tragic melodrama is not to suggest that it does not also offer feminine points of view, and vice versa in the woman’s melodrama, or that real spectators simply identify with one or the other according to their sex.” (17)

I also saw Jack Babuscio’s definition of camp in “Camp and the Gay Sensibility” as applying perfectly to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, an adjunct of queer theory which expressed the point of view of the doubly oppressed, by virtue of their “out” status, almost automatically more empathetic with other disparaged groups. (Curiously, lesbian groups protested shortly after the film was released, simplistically and literal mindedly taking the title of the film as well as some of Petra’s “acting out” as an indication that the film was critical of lesbians, and a lesbian lifestyle. But thirty-five years has smoothed out those protests.) Babuscio observes that “camp can be subversive –a means of illustrating those cultural ambiguities and contradictions that oppress us all, gay and straight, and in particular women.” (18) His four-part definition of camp, while initially looking perhaps a bit too much like “categories” next to Susan Sontag’s flashier and earlier “Notes on Camp,” is nevertheless an across-the-board, very good working definition still. Camp, says Babuscio, is characterised by irony, humor, aestheticism and theatricality.

Dyer’s work also observed that gay men identified with certain female stars because there were simply no other role models available to them. This is amplified in the description of Judy Garland that Janet Staiger attributes to Joe McElhaney, summing up Dyer’s contributions and insights: “Her [Garland’s] failures, her chaotic life, her problems with her appearance, her men, her career, could also be used as an expression of what a mess gay men thought they were,” and that Garland’s appeal is located in the fact that she still fights back at life. (19) Generously though, these critics did not exclude the straight world from their own theory or responses: the feeling seemed to be that such a sensibility broadened the viewer’s humanity, or was indicative of it.

The work of all these critics and others seemed to give me license to enjoy, and to understand how and why a movie by a gay man so fully explored and expanded the genre of the maternal melodrama, took up so many themes “exclusive to” women, and even touched prophetically on what was to be deemed a new female form: the soap opera. As I applied them to Petra, a kind of three-pronged platform of argumentation and aesthetics emerged: this film is a melodrama with its genre-based heightened emotion, appeals to the double consciousness of the oppressed as in the more recent queer theory, and demonstrates the new female aesthetic in the soap opera format: disrupted narrative, avoidance of closure, and an open-ended structure wherein can be found the often unexplained appearance and disappearance of characters, especially family members, and a constantly changing emotional landscape marked by continual crisis.

All good. But beyond this, and most amazingly, the movie seemed “girlie” long before anyone knew that a post-feminist age would be celebrating some of the formerly-thought-of as frilly feminine accoutrements, including the corporeal rewards of worldly success. The movie Petra, like its lead, takes delight in the material rewards of its heroine’s having made it.

In the new century, the film spoke to me in ways in which other promoted and standard feminist film texts did not, or hadn’t for awhile. For instance classics read afresh such as Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), texts “acceptable” to the first generation of strict film theoreticians, and no disrespect, including even the wonderful directorial work of Nelly Kaplan, Agnes Varda, Marguerite Duras or Leontine Sagan.

And all this in spite of the film’s obvious flaws: the whine-y self-indulgence of its lead Petra, the stiffness of some of the scene transitions, the artificiality and not infrequent awkwardness of much of its posing, or role-playing. Some critics have seen the playing with costumes as a comment on pre-and post-Nazi Germany, but it may also be a working out of Petra’s essential personal shakiness. Here is Babuscio’s description: “This artificiality is the camp aspect of Bitter Tears. A highly theatricalised world devoid of the very passions that constitute its subject is provided by the director’s formalised, almost Racinian dialogue: his elaborate, careful calculated compositions locked into theatrical tableaux, the anachronistic costumes and mask-like makeup that reflect the psychological situation of the characters.” (20) Clearly, such masks can be used to cover over a deep existential uncertainty. Elsaesser broadens this out to other characters of Fassbinder films, declaring that they only know they exist by the “negative emotion of anxiety” after describing their identity as “a movement, an unstable structure of vanishing points, encounters, vistas and absences. “ (21) And the angst of the characters –or in postmodern terms, their instability of identity– is shared by the director, here by his stand-in, Petra.

As well as Elsaesser’s comments on anxiety within the melodrama, his thoughts on the autobiographical interpretation seemed to apply particularly well to the film. In “A Cinema of Vicious Circles,” Elsaesser says, “At no point during his career has Fassbinder renounced the autobiographical element in his films.” (22) This fits in with Fassbinder’s using overtly “in charge” attitudes at times, not infrequently bullying his actors, even having been described as occasionally using “emotional terrorist” techniques. This behavior is most entertainingly underscored in the 2000 documentary Fassbinder’s Women by Rosa von Prauheim which features recent interviews with Irm Hermann, Hanna Schygulla, and other women Fassbinder directed (unhappily Margit Carstensen is not among them). All spoke of the power plays of Fassbinder as both director and friend/lover.

Ironically, Petra could also be seen as in synch with some of the earlier dicta of feminist theory, particularly an Althusserian interpretation. The recounting of Karin’s brutalised youth, and the terrible story of her father’s being put out to pasture by his company, consequent murder of his wife, and then suicide, perfectly fits such a class analysis. Judith Mayne is speaking of Angst essen Seele auf (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, 1974) in her article “Fassbinder and Spectatorship” but her conclusion draws the two strains together when she says that “the film relies heavily on conventions of the Hollywood melodrama perfected in the 1940s and 1950s. It is tempting to refer to Fassbinder’s use of genre as a politicising of the melodrama. Certainly Ali reflects upon the social reality of West Germany and modern capitalism. Those political realities so often repressed in mainstream cinema appear to surface in the film, creating a confrontation between melodrama and politics.” (23)

Even Fassbinder critics who do not primarily define themselves as working in feminist criticism –writers such as Elsaesser and Corrigan– see Fassbinder as using melodrama in a new way. Jane Shattuc in her 1995 book Television, Tabloids, and Tears marries the strains: “This emphasis on women and the domestic realm emanates from Fassbinder’s use of the melodrama genre. His television adaptations are marked by a high degree of emotional subjectivity endemic to the melodramatic style. In melodrama everything is subsumed by the subjective display of emotion,” (24) and in her article “R. W. Fasssbinder’s Confessional Melodrama: Toward Historicising Melodrama within the Art Cinema,” she breaks down Fassbinder’s films into the following divisions: “Fassbinder’s melodramas fall into two historically determined categories: melodramatic adaptations of literary works for West German television produced early in his career, and international art films, which I have termed ‘confessional melodramas,’ which he produced later. The melodramatic television adaptations fit into the classic national art cinema paradigm. At least half of them were produced or financed in part by West German television.” (25)

In contemporary thematic terms, surely it is true that Petra contains a not-to- be-ignored structure of what might even be taken for a contemporary film pitch. A chilly mother is confronted by a daughter who in turn ignores her own daughter while at the same time complains of her own exploitation by her mother. It is critical of heterosexual marriage and men, and of human relationships in general. As Petra says in a cutting if bittersweet way, “People need one another, are built that way. But they haven’t learned to live together.” And there is a prophetic play on the grandmother/mother/child generational model of matriarchal roots reached for and celebrated in numerous American features, one being Callie Khouri’s Something to Talk About (1995) with Julia Roberts as mother and Gina Rowlands as grandmother.

Yet the emergent theme that runs through Bitter Tears is that of domination. This was driven home when I showed the film to mainly sophomores and juniors in university film classes, and they mostly ignored the lesbian/bisexual issues, focusing instead and perhaps appropriately for their generation on the continual power shifts in the film, and the resulting emotional exploitation demonstrated in relationships. A more prescient critic might have expected that sort of reading, perhaps referencing Lynne Kirby’s clever article “Fassbinder’s Debt to Poussin” in Camera Obscura which points out that the Poussin mural overhanging much of the film features a pansexual, protean Dionysus –albeit with prominent phallus– which dominated the film visually, and makes a parallel with Petra’s ever changing discourse on power. Kirby concludes: “. . . all that can be pinned down in terms of the significance of camera/character/painting positioning is that the stability or instability of this system of identity and difference hinges on relationships of power, which do not depend on constancy of gender-coding, but rather, on the constancy of power.” (26) This is reinforced by Elsaesser’s general overview of Fassbinder in “A Cinema of Vicious Circles”: “The central experience –one might go so far as to call it the trauma that motivates his productivity– is emotional exploitation. His films are fictionalised, dramatized, occasionally didactic versions of what it means to live within power structures and dependencies that are all but completely internalised.” (27)

Only a few other very early commentators on the movie managed to cut to this kernel in the first critical reactions to the film. In Red Rag no. 10, Elizabeth Wilson said, “Petra is not about lesbianism, but about women’s place in society.” (28) This straightforward, deceptively simple comment is particularly impressive, for other reviewers got caught up in what now seems a silly controversy: accusations of Fassbinder’s possible anti-lesbian bias. It is enlightening here to briefly look at some of the contemporaneous journalistic comments about the film. For instance, Molly Haskell in her review of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in the October 25, 1973 Village Voice described the protests thusly, “The outcry was presumably sparked by the title (since the demonstration was planned before anyone could have seen the film) with its politically unacceptable implication that lesbians are unhappy.” (29) Wallace Steadman Watson summarises, in his thorough-going book Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Public and Private Art: “[that] lesbian and feminist groups accused him (Fassbinder) of misogyny, in presenting women as complicit in their own oppression in his ‘women’s pictures.” (30) (In what is truly an odd pattern, all throughout his career Fassbinder was accused of being “anti-woman” in his plays, films, and television work.)

In my reading, the film also explored an aspect of women’s friendship only just now getting attention in a less self-consciously p.c. world. The love-hate –perhaps more properly termed competitive– nature of much of women’s friendship was simply a potato too hot to handle in a brave new world of feminism promoting mutually supportive sisterhood. (31) The scenes with “best friend”/cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) are particularly instructive here, and reminded this viewer of The Women (both the 1936 play and the 1939 film by George Cukor) which Fassbinder was very much aware of, as I hope to elucidate below.

Much of this could be laid at the door of high camp, as “bitchy” female interaction is often so cleverly satirised. One critic who spotted this syndrome very early was Al LaValley: “Often celebrating as it deconstructs, camp can allow outmoded emotions to flourish . . . In this respect, camp treasures an excessive theatricality and outrageousness as an avenue to heighten emotion.” (32) Another ingenious reading comes from Paula Graham, in “Girl’s Camp? The Politics of Parody”: “Gay men sadly seem to identify with the feminine excess and parody of authority embodied in the ad-bad-pervert-witch or repressed but sexually seething boss-woman. Lesbians, on the other hand, seem to prefer the cross-dressing Amazon or tart –even though she is heterosexualised and defeats a female order to restore a patriarchal one.” (33)

Once again, with the protean Fassbinder, both definitions and descriptions apply equally well. For Petra is both boss-woman and, at other times, cross-dressing Amazon. And half of the time she doesn’t seem to know or care which persona she makes use of. So, ontological uncertainty can be seen as both the emotional subtext and providing the self-searching thrust and structure of the film, a common enough quest for narcissists of all stripes.

Both the surface and underlying structure may mirror wider meanings, according to Timothy Corrigan in The New German Film: The Displaced Image, “Petra’s exploitation of her lovers parallels the exploitation of the spectator by the cinematic image, and [the] technical deconstruction in this film becomes a bi-level project in which the financial erotics of social life share a space with the desiring machine which is the film industry.” (34) Surely enough, the structure, theme, and emotional weather of the film change radically as Karin enters the picture, and Petra’s own dominance rapidly disintegrates. This change is accompanied, of course, by her constant toying with costumes and image –implying more than the surface analysis the film also offers which connects Petra’s costume obsession with her profession; or an exclusive linking to the Third Reich.

For the numerous personae and outfits she adopts are accompanied by her increasingly quizzical, even confused, looks as she struts around the apartment, in a kind of “is this right?” stance and facial expression, a sure sign of her own personal anxiety. This is hardly the basis for Petra as the perpetrator or emblem of any kind of scopic desire. Rather, and though one hates to harken back to standard auteur approaches, it seems more congruent with what we know of Fassbinder himself, both alternately and simultaneously a victimiser and victim.

The posing and costuming –now termed ‘vogueing’– is of course an offshoot of the male gay world. But Petra is a lesbian, and her love object Karin is a bisexual. Though it may have been an issue when it premiered, it’s now obvious that Petra’s lesbianism and her bitterness seem to have little to do with one another (and this was probably obvious at the time as well, if an unbiased viewing of the film had taken place). If anything, Petra seems merely self-indulgent, self-involved. She may be domineering at times, but she is ultimately gullible, even duped on occasion. Perhaps, even, by her own moral “awakening” at the film’s conclusion. If her arrogance contributes to her abandonment in the film –as she is left high and dry– ultimately she comes across as, at least, trying very hard. If anyone in the film is excoriated as morally inferior, it is Karin, and so following the earlier simplistic logic of the protesters, it should have been bisexuals boycotting the film.

In fact, there is no one lifestyle or gender choice that comes off very well in the movie. This includes the traditional marriage represented by Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey), Petra’s mother; the open marriage described by Petra; the victim-victimiser aspect of the love affair which is the core of the film; and not so parenthetically the bisexual nature of Karin which –in this film anyway– seems to stand for her opportunism. You could say, as many have said, that this is part of the director’s indictment of Western, patriarchal culture and its constructs. Or you could say that abandonment and “every man [one] for himself” characterise human relations no matter what structures have evolved.

Initially it seemed surprising that the psychoanalytic-semiotic school of feminist film criticism which held sway in academia in the 1970s and 1980s, with its anti-capitalistic underpinnings, did not analyse more of Fassbinder’s movies, often so critical of Western society. Mayne’s work on Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is one exception. But then as we see, Fassbinder is difficult to categorise. Sometimes his films can be too much fun (and perhaps therefore frivolous-seeming). Yet who can resist the delight that Petra takes in her bourgeois trappings, whether it is making first class airline reservations, playing with telephones and credit cards, or her perverse pleasure in complaining about the expenses of contributing to her mother’s support and her daughter’s pricey boarding school? Ultimately, of course, the tables do get turned on her as she complains that she’s been “taken” financially as well as emotionally, but for a while her success feels good to her, and to us.

Was there just a bit too much feminism lite going on to initially attract some feminist film scholars to Petra? Intriguingly, Fassbinder is ahead of his time here as well. The accoutrements of upper middle class life for women are now goals to be striven for. Petra plays with all these: elegant clothing, making executive decisions and issuing orders from your bed/office, are all lifestyle goals for today’s young women. In New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order, social historian Rene Denfield decides, “There are in essence two different women’s movements alive today. . . the traditional political women’s movement, and the other expressed in the independent actions of thousands of feminist-thinking women who fight for equality.” (35) In this context, it is refreshing to take a look a clever revisionist review of a standard female text, Mildred Pierce, by an internet critic of another generation, Laura E. Austen: “Throughout the film we are offered many of the issues and theories that feminists have been discussing throughout time. This duality makes it, for me, both a feminists’ film and a woman’s film. The only part of the film that might not be considered a feminist film was the ridiculous cinematic ending of Mildred walking off into the new dawn with her husband, Bert. . . . Whilst I do not doubt that the film’s primary message to female audiences was that the `male world of business and work could no longer accommodate women’, I feel that there is a strong need to give credit to the little woman watching the big screen. To conclude, I feel that as academic feminists: women with the privilege to re-evaluate the culture in which we have been socialised and educated, we must not forget that the battle, for want of a better word, is between the sexes and not between ourselves. By giving more credit, respect and equality to the woman viewer, then these film issues as with other issues, will begin to make real progress.” (36)

Petra is prophetic too in its use of genre. For while the film has been thought of as a chamber piece, or stage drama, it also makes use of a television format. Perhaps because it is frequently referred to as a filmed play, critics seem to forget that Fassbinder was writing for television as well as for the stage when he wrote the play The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. According to Tony Rayns, Fassbinder himself said of the movie, “I don’t find it a particularly dramatic film.” (37) (Fassbinder must have deliberately forgotten the opening of the film, which rather self-consciously and artificially tracks up the stairs in a kind of establishing shot typical of film adaptations from the stage.)

In Speaking of Soap Operas, Robert C. Allen handily summarises Tania Modleksi’s position on soap opera, that it represents a narrative diametrically opposed to that of the ‘male’ film, and novel. “The latter favours action over dialogue and ruthlessly reduces indeterminacies in order to arrive at a single moment of closure, solution, and knowledge. The soap opera makes the consequences of actions more important than action itself, introduces complications at every opportunity, and denies the desire for ultimate control by assuming its own immortality. In the soap opera, dialogue increases indeterminacy and retards resolution. . . Talk bespeaks multitudinous motives, the unintended ramifications of every action, and concomitantly, the limits of self-awareness.” (38)

Petra herself most definitely does “go on” in the film’s open-ended, episodic structure. And it’s never clear what the next narrative movement might bring. Characters appear unannounced, and there are plot developments which can only be described as lurches. Suddenly Sidonie is at the door. Unexpectedly, Valerie, Petra’s mother is there. Petra’s daughter too turns up. Also a surprise, Karin calls to wish a happy birthday. The effect is very like a daytime soap, often written the week, day, or night before, with the viewer never knowing “what’s around the corner next.” All of this is a fitting paradigm for Petra’s continual personal changes, and finds a perfect home in the melodramatic soap opera format with its reversals of position, character, and even motivation. Here, though, it’s tragic-comic, for Petra –like her or not– is not a lightweight serial character, but a person in a good deal of pain.

The improvisational quality of the film may, like television, invite some form of interplay from the viewer. Perhaps Vivian Sobchack’s argument in The Address of the Eye is applicable to Petra: Sobchack argues that cinema is a sensuous object, but in our presence it becomes also a sensing, sensual, sense-making subject, deciding that the cinematic experience depends on two viewers looking: the spectator and the film. Does Petra read us? What might make the film particularly susceptible to Sobchak’s analysis is its aesthetic. Horace Newcomb’s landmark TV: the Most Intimate Art has defined the aesthetic of television as intimacy, continuity and history. Certain characters appear with regularity in our homes, in a continuing format. We become familiar with them, for they become part of our most intimate moments. And then we get “hooked” on them, and the events of their lives. Sometimes a backstory or history becomes required reading for their fans: popular publications detailing the history of various characters, the shows’ plotlines, and so forth. Similarly, we do become intimately familiar with Petra’s past, her seemingly unending emotional saga.

Shattuc has detailed the influence of Fassbinder’s television direction on his other work; this is underscored by numerous contemporaneous interviews with Fassbinder, all describing the furious pace with which he was simultaneously working in movies, plays and television. And if television viewing is intimate, and one-on-one, it may also be said that it is a fitting form for that thing which women have always been so good at (and men so terrible at) –the emotional tête à tête. What makes it unique, and on view even as early as 1972, is that some of the confessional aspects of the film, even of the traditionally termed monologue, is that the heart-to-heart is with the camera as well. The camera, functioning as a viewer, is in this way taking advantage of point of view and intimacy in shaping a new aesthetic format.

The more I thought about some of the themes emerging from Petra, the more it seemed they encompassed the instability and anxiety of the film’s characters which takes the movie outside of the realm of scopophilia, exhibited the importance of melodrama and high emotion, applied the television format as contributing to its fluidity in form with a never-ending episodic structure, demonstrated a new appreciation for women’s ability to acquire and enjoy goods, and perhaps even developed a new cinematic technique for expressing emotions unique to women, and women’s issues.

Petra’s one-sided telephone conversations as well as her address to her assistant, her rambling explanations to her love-object, her rantings while alone, are formats which fit female concerns. It might be worthwhile here to reiterate some comments about the genre in which women seem to be comfortable speaking to one another; Linda Williams for instance in her well-known article “Something Else Besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama” describes “the ways in which women actually do speak to one another” (39) as being in a pre-Oedipal place where women can “express the contradictions they encounter in patriarchy. Melodrama is one such place.” (40) Marsha Kinder is discussing the films of Pedro Almodovar, and it’s an insight about content, not form, but the comment seems particularly appropriate to Petra as Kinder eulogises “women’s ability to talk about their emotional lives [which is] the core of maternal melodrama and, according to Almodovar, the root of all fiction and narrative.” (41)

An extension of some of these embryonic female forms can be seen in a number of recent films by and about women. (It would seem I am breaking my own rule about referring to directorial sexual exclusivity, but such observations are inevitable in a world of female reclamation.) One such device is particularly well-employed in the work of Patricia Rozema in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), and in Mansfield Park (1999). In the kind of “turning to” mode of “Reader, I married him,” the receptionist in Mermaids will suddenly confront the camera in a first person intimate address in order to explain her feelings about “The Director.” Fannie Price in Mansfield Park will be writing letters, that most personal of communication, and then address the camera in talking in that “spilling to a best friend” way. In Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992), her hero/heroine played by Tilda Swinton will unself-consciously and in an impromptu fashion start to talk to the camera –aka the viewer– face on. These revelations are very different from the standard soliloquy/aside, say of a Richard III who may ironically query the audience if ever a woman was in “this humor woo’d,” followed immediately by his over-all plan for taking over the kingdom.

And we are never startled by the sudden use of the new female soliloquy, though we may be unprepared for the thoughts of the women who use this technique, perhaps more properly called an impromptu address: highly personal and quite confessional about emotional matters. One is tempted to say that Petra’s confessional format of self-styled soliloquies helped pave the way for these films.

If melodrama is a container for this confessional technique, Petra’s conversations have an UR component: one-sided telephone conversations which are essentially new-styled monologues, tete a tetes with her best friend/cousin, her mother, and her daughter. This is possibly one of the forms Laura Mulvey described in an early interview with Jacquelyn Suter and Sandy Flitterman: “[for] women under patriarchal culture had a suppressed history and culture. . . . It is here, for instance, that interest in letters, diaries, conversations and domestic creativity comes in –feminine subculture.” (42)

But what of Marlene, who refuses and is not unable (as we find out) to speak? Peter Brooks in his comments on melodrama has observed that the genre repeatedly uses physical conditions to represent extreme moral and emotional states: “As well as mutes, there are blind men, paralytics, invalids of various sorts. In the gallery of mutilations and deprivations, however, the mutes have a special place.” (43) Helene Cixous in “Castration or Elicitation” observed that muteness is the last stage of hysteria, in other words the most extreme emotional state. (44) One can also see not speaking as a kind of real or psychosomatic rebellion (Ada in Campion’s The Piano) in women pushed to the very extreme by their society, and by their “masters” –or, in the case of Marlene– their masterful mistresses. In “Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film,” Tania Modleski is instructive here: “If women are hysteric in patriarchal culture because, according to the feminist argument, their voice has been silenced or repressed, and if melodrama deals with the return of the repressed through a kind of conversion hysteria, perhaps women have been attached to the genre because it provides an outlet for the repressed feminine voice.” (45)

Pam Cook’s take on the form can be seen in her comments on Douglas Sirk: his 1950s melodramas exhibit “social issues of gender, sexuality and race through bittersweet romantic themes and extravagant use of mise-en-scene that produces a kind of critical commentary on American society. Sirk’s melodramas were themselves nostalgic, harking back to a pastoral idyll uncontaminated by consumer capitalism and social conflict, a myth at the heart of the American dream. . . the Sirk ‘look’ through set design, costume and cinematography, and meticulously reproduce[ing] the image of 1950s small-town America projected by these melodramas” (46) remembering that once the “woman’s picture [was] a sub-category of melodrama and one of the most despised and neglected genres”. (47)

(Sirk, whom Fassbinder visited in Switzerland, was not only an artistic influence, but became a kind of father figure. A full discussion of this relationship is available in Wallace Steadman’s study of Fassbinder.)

Too, according to Modleski, “Unlike most Hollywood narratives, which give the impression of a progressive movement toward an end that is significantly different from the beginning, much melodrama gives the impression of a ceaseless returning to a prior state. . . The hysteric, in Freud’s famous formulation, suffers from reminiscences. In melodrama, the important moments of the narrative are often felt as eruptions to the point where sometimes the only major events are repetitions of former ones.” (48) This is seconded by Timothy Corrigan in New German Film, observing that “longing and moments of nostalgia naturally manifest themselves as kinds of waking dreams in Petra von Kant, thus adding another layer to those central motifs of theatrics, nostalgia, and a film economics whose business is to manufacture dreams.” (49) Corrigan also points out that nostalgia repeatedly interrupts the narrative flow, adding to the confusion of the film’s temporal spheres.

From the very beginning of the movie, Petra is subject to a kind of ritual compulsion of memory, going over her past, starting by explaining away her failed marriage on the telephone (“It’s true, you know, in marriage the flawed sides of our character take over,” she declares), analyses her childhood and relationship with her mother, and tries to account for her present life situation. Like Grace in the television sit-com Will and Grace who always looks at home movies of her childhood when in difficulty in order to figure out what may be going wrong in the present (if she can pinpoint it, according to Will, current problems will be solved) it’s as if Petra must explain away her difficulties before moving forward. In this way, the film is employing a form of talk therapy. Petra is a kind of modern-day Ancient Mariner compulsively button-holing anyone who will listen to her. She can’t stop herself, even in the context of trying to get a new love affair going.

It seems to be catching. Even the non-introspective Karin ends up telling her story, the terrible tale of her poverty-stricken family and upbringing: drudgery and death. But for Petra, the “ceaseless returning to a prior state” has her finding herself again and again back to where she started, still confronting her mother, her childhood, and all points along the way. And these interjections of and from the past do suddenly appear, memory after memory, bursting through at various moments. So . . . back we go from the movie’s very beginning and the rationalising conversation/monologue where Petra is on the phone until she regresses to her id-like state where she is simply screaming and crying all alone in a room: one therapy method perhaps. In The Melodramatic Imagination, Brooks observed, “Pyschoanalysis is a version of melodrama first of all in its conception of the nature of conflict, which is stark and unremitting, possibly disabling, menacing to the ego, which must find ways to reduce or discharge it.” (50) The very true aphorism that nostalgia is just an extended form of grieving seems to apply equally to both the melodrama and to Petra.

In “Women’s Time” Julia Kristeva connects a “recurring” quality of melodrama to “the anterior temporal modalities” which parallel “cycles, gestation, the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm which conforms to that of nature,” implying nonlinearity. (51) In the film under discussion, it is more likely exhibited in Petra’s simultaneity of references and “acting out” without regard for temporality. As Babuscio puts it in “Camp and the Gay Sensibility,” [mixing] “the comic pop/classical music references –the incongruous juxtaposition of Verdi, the Platters, and the Walker Brothers; the stylised performances and ritualised division of the film into five acts, each heralded by the heroine’s change of dress and wig; the expressive lighting effects that emphasise a world of masters and servants, predators and victims; and generally, the formalised editing style which makes the most of the film’s single set –a studio apartment that is dominated by a huge brass bed, a wall-sized mural-with-male-nude that bears ironic witness to the action below, and a scattered group of bald-pated mannequins whose poses are continuously rearranged as commentary on their human counterparts.” (52)

He is speaking of artificiality as a camp, and incongruous, aspect, but here too is another intersection of the female and a gay sensibility: whether one calls it simultaneous, artificial, or non-temporal. (It is also of course postmodern in its unfettered mix of unrelated elements, though you would never call the Platters “detritus.”)

One of the film’s accomplishments is a picture of some rather low-level “women’s work,” a sight not much seen on film, though we have viewed Mildred Pierce sticking some chicken wings in flour, Louise straightening up after a hard day’s work as a waitress in Thelma and Louise (1991). There is too the slightly ditzy receptionist in I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing; also Maggie Gyllenhaal’s recent portrayal of a slightly masochistic secretary in the eponymously titled film. (When I interviewed her mother Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal about Maggie’s work in the film, she said she had to “go around to her feminist friends from the nineteen-sixties” and make an apologia for her daughter’s role choice which might not square with their definition of progressive.) (53)

In The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant we do see Marlene typing, setting up serving trays, working on mannequins’ hems with pins in her mouth. She works like a dog throughout the film, a fact which Petra defends by saying Marlene enjoys it. Yet though Marlene is often seen crying while at work, a class analysis is not necessarily the one of choice. Marlene may respond when called, and in an appropriately subservient way, but her degradation seems mainly connected to her psycho-sexual nature. And Fassbinder himself said it is not realistic to think someone who has been told what to do for thirty years would suddenly change.

Both Elsaesser and Corrigan favour nihilistic interpretations of the film’s conclusion (indeed it is hard to conjure another) though Richard Dyer in “Reading Fassbinder’s Sexual Politics” cites “the ambiguity of the films at the level of dialogue and narrative. It would be very hard to determine what sense one is supposed to make of many of the films’ endings for instance. Why does Marlene leave Petra? Petra apologises to her for her habitual treatment of her; Marlene kisses Petra’s hand, and the latter snaps, ‘Not like that!’, and it is at this point that Marlene starts to pack her bag. Petra’s response to Marlene’s gesture is the kind of opaque moment that sends literary-critical minded viewers into enthusiastic character speculation, but it is really anyone’s guess as to what we are to make of it.” (54)

My reading of the film’s conclusion is that when Marlene rejects Petra’s overtures for an equal relationship, she gives her a look which implies her disdain for Petra’s being so stupid as to think people can change and “for the better.” One way of seeing this is that Marlene is not able to accept her new (albeit Petra-ordained) role as an individual, yet in fact if she were truly subservient she would go along with Petra’s wishes, whatever they might be. Marlene does not. Rather, in the way Marlene packs up her belongings, picks up the discarded doll, and prepares to leave, she makes it clear that she does not accept her new role, her new definition. Simply put, masochism, or being a slave, is her choice, and her attitude more than implies that she does not believe in the possibility for Petra’s change.

This seems to square with some of Fassbinder’s own worldview. Consider what he has said to Christian Braad Thomsen: “It’s very complicated because I mean that only those individuals who can accept their own masochism are on the way to being healthy. It’s when people suppress their problems that they’re really sick. They ought to live their lives outwardly. When you live with problems rather than hiding them, then you can analyse them and overcome them. And in that way masochism can lead to something positive. Self-knowledge is essential.” (55)

At the film’s conclusion Fassbinder appears to agree with Marlene’s view of Petra as foolish and naïve. Another way to get at Fassbinder’s intent, if such a thing is possible (though he did clearly say once that he deliberately made his television productions more optimistic, his films more pessimistic), is to actually look at the text of his play. This is how Fassbinder’s play ends:


I need to atone, Marlene. For all I’ve done to you. In the days to come we’ll work together –really together –and you can enjoy yourself, just as you deserve.

Marlene gets up, crosses to Petra, goes down on her knees and attempts to kiss her hand.

PETRA (cont’d)

No, not like that. Let’s sit down together. (They sit) Tell me about your life.

END (56)

In the film, they do not sit together, though Petra does try to keep her from kissing her (Petra’s) hand. What Fassbinder chose in the film is to have Marlene reject her new role, by her physical movements and facial expression. And he ignores his own stage direction for Petra and Marlene to sit together, which would have signified equality.

There are any number of obvious ways to interpret the film’s darker ending. Just two are that Marlene is a bit more cynical and does not believe in Petra’s conversion, and even seems to think she is a fool for thinking she, of all people, could transform herself to that extent, for “the good.” The other is that Marlene, despite her tears in the movie, has rather enjoyed her servant role after all, and that once the victim-victimiser relationship has been established, it is impossible to alter it. Whatever interpretation one chooses, something ominous is suggested about the writer-director’s downward spiral, view of people, and of life. The movie’s conclusion is simply much darker than that of the play.

Petra seems to sense her own unraveling, even (especially?) at the hands of her own sex. She says to Sidonie: “You have me beat in each and every category my dear good friend: looks, youth, all of them.” And the discussion of how far one should compromise in marriage that is undertaken by the two “friends” (and cousins) is eerily reminiscent of The Women, particularly the bit where Mary/Mrs. Stephen Haines decides, “Pride, that’s something a woman in love can’t afford.” In discussing their respective approaches to marriage, Sidonie advises, “Well, you have to be shrewd, you know, understanding and brimming with humility. A woman’s wiles exercised in the correct manner.” Yet Petra rejects this approach, replying, “I don’t want to exercise any wiles, Sidonie, and definitely not the sort designed ‘for women only.’ I wanted to forgo any conjuring tricks.” (In this, Petra is representative of her generation’s –let’s call it a sixties– attitude toward idealised freedom in marriage, just as the Clare Luce play is typical of the 1930s and its more socially acceptable “hypocrisy,” embodied throughout especially in the competitive interchanges typical of “false friendship” between Sidonie and Petra.)

Few Fassbinder critics have commented on some echoes of the play (and film) The Women in Fassbinder’s other work. Yet the fact is that after leaving Theater am Turn where he was artistic director, Fassbinder directed one more play: Luce’s The Women, in Hamburg in 1976. (Though of course this is subsequent to the play and film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant). Too, there is a film version of The Women that Fassbinder called Frauen in New York (1977), starring Margit Carstensen. According to Tony Rayns, it is a screened version “of a play Fassbinder directed in Hamburg of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women. It gave Fassbinder an opportunity to indulge his passion for working with women –there are forty women in the play and no men.” (57)

Like The Women, the brittleness of much of the play’s dialogue –indicating a Restoration-like nasty view of humanity –carried over to the film, albeit in the framework of the genre of melodrama. When Sidonie quite cruelly gives Petra a doll that is a miniature version of Karin for Petra’s birthday, it is no great surprise. What is a surprise is that Petra accepts the gift with equanimity. Of course it is at the end of the film, when her reclamation takes place. She wishes to be a better person, the light increases (suggestive of melodramas of the 1940s), and she even manages to graciously accept Karin’s birthday wishes over the telephone. Soon thereafter “The Great Pretender” plays in the background: yet another ironic comment on Petra’s “conversion.” In this, there is another clear statement from the director. As I have tried to demonstrate, the play is much more open-ended.

It would also seem that in the end not every character in Petra has had her anxiety purged. Curiously, the most revealing quote of the entire film comes from Valerie, Petra’s cinematic mother. “The panic, when it comes, always makes us vulnerable,” she observes to Petra, an understanding of Petra’s nature that speaks to her own as well. In thus speaking of her own anxiety, perhaps even her own bipolarity, Valerie lets us in on the open secret that all of Petra’s ups and downs, her instability, as well as her creativity, is probably an inherited gene. (This has been traced with acute interest, especially in the Romantic poets, by Kay Jamison in her book Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.) (58)

That this piercing comment comes from the most conventional, bourgeois-looking and acting of all the women makes the point even more strongly. Who but the manic-depressive Fassbinder could have written and placed that line so well, and with such a surprising placement? For his own vulnerabilities, like those of Virginia Woolf, made his own feelings of abandonment, or even not really existing or “ebbing away” as Woolf’s The Waves delineates, grew extreme. Fassbinder’s life and art inevitably gave way to that particular panic, despair, and anxiety. “Not you too, Valerie?” one wishes to say to Petra’s mother. “I would never have guessed it from the look of you, but my sympathies, indeed.”


  1. Fassbinder interviewed by Christian Braad Thomsen, “Five Interviews with Fassbinder,’ Fassbinder, (Ed.) Tony Rayns (London: British Film Institute, 1979), p. 94
  2. Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Holllywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 222.
  3. In this widely referred to article, Cixous says, “Silence is the mark of hysteria. The great hysterics have lost speech, they are aphonic, and at times they have lost more than speech. They are pushed to the point of choking, nothing gets through.” “Castration or Elicitation?” trans. Annette Kuhn, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981): 49.
  4. Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976), pp. 56-57.
  5. Jane Shattuc, “R.W. Fassbinder’s Confessional Melodrama: Towards Historicizing Melodrama within the Art Cinema,” Wide Angle 12.1 (January 1990), p. 45.
  6. Pam Cook, Screening the Past: Memory and Nostalgia in Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 2005), pp. 113-14.
  7. Leo Handel, Hollywood Looks at its Audience (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1950). Handel observes for instance that many people in the film industry were under the erroneous impression that audiences were mainly composed of women, and “some motion picture companies catered to the tastes of female patrons both in their productions and in their promotional campaigns,” p. 99.
  8. Nina Baym, “The Agony of Feminism: Why Feminist Theory is Necessary After All” in The Emperor ReDressed: Critiquing Critical Theory (Ed.) Dwight Eddins. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995), p. 101.
  9. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge,Mass: Harvard University Press), p. 250.
  10. B. Ruby Rich, “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism” in Issues in Feminist Film Criticism (Ed.) Patricia Erens (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), p. 277. Originally published in Jump Cut (1978): 27-47.
  11. Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, The Film Experience: an Introduction, (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s Press), p. 462.
  12. Richard Dyer, “Judy Garland and Gay Men,” Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 103-94, especially 141-164. Also contributing to this line of thought is Dyer’s book Stars, London: British Film Institute, 1979, 1998.
  13. Kaja Silverman, “Fassbinder and Lacan: a Reconsideration of Gaze, Look and Image,” Camera Obscura 19, (January 1989), p. 62.
  14. Silverman, p. 57.
  15. Thomas Elsaesser, “Murder, Merger, Suicide: The Politics of Despair,” in Fassbinder (Ed) Rayns, pp. 38-39.
  16. Brooks, p. 201.
  17. Cook, p. 78.
  18. Jack Babuscio, “Camp and the Gay Sensibility.” p. 48. For this much anthologized piece I used the version in Gays and Film. (Ed.) Richard Dyer. (London: British Film Institute, 1977). pp. 48-57.
  19. Joe McElhaney, “Gay Spectatorship and Judy Garland,” Unpublished seminar paper, New York University, Fall 1984. For this reference I am indebted to Janet Staiger’s notes to Chapter Eight in Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 245-46.
  20. Babuscio, p.49.
  21. Thomas Elsaesser, “Primary Identification and the Historical Subject: Fassbinder and Germany,” in Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology (Ed.) Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 540.
  22. Elsaesser, “A Cinema of Vicious Circles,” in Fassbinder (Ed) Rayns, p. 25.
  23. Judith Mayne, “Fassbinder and Specatorship,” New German Critique 12 (1997), p. 65.
  24. Jane Shattuc, Television, Tabloids, and Tears (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 145-46.
  25. Jane Shattue, “R. W. Fassbinder’s Confessional Melodrama: Toward Historicizing Melodrama within the Art Cinema.” Wide Angle 12. 1 (January 1990), p. 50.
  26. Lynne Kirby, “Fassbinder’s Debt to Poussin” Camera Obscura 13-14 (Spring-Summer 1985) p. 14.
  27. Elsaesser, “A Cinema of Vicious Circles,” p. 25.
  28. Elizabeth Wilson, “How Much is it Really Worth?” Red Rag no. 10, p. 54. Fassbinder clipping file at the Billy Rose Theatre Collection of the New York Public Library.
  29. Molly Haskell, “Sisterhoodwinked: Panting for Power” Village Voice, 25 October, 1973, p. 92.
  30. Wallace Steadman Watson, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Public and Private Art. (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1996), p. 5.
  31. Susan Shapiro Barash explains this phenomenon in Tripping the Prom Queen (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006). To take this concept into the realm of current parlance, “frenemy” seems to be a construct used mainly by and about women.
  32. Al LaValley, “The Great Escape,” American Film, April 1985, p. 31.
  33. Paula Graham, “Girl’s Camp? The Politics of Parody” in Immortal, Invisible Lesbians and the Moving Image (Ed.) Tamsin Wilton (London and New York: Routledge, 1995). p. 177.
  34. Timothy Corrigan, The New German Film: The Displaced Image (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983). p. 63.
  35. Rene Denfield. New Victorians: A Young Woman’s Challenge to the Old Feminist Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 335.
  36. Laura E. Austen, “Mildred Pierce: A Women’s Film or a Feminist Film?” paragraph seven. <http://www.mith2umd.edu/WomensStudies/FilmReviews/m/mildred-pierce>. Web. Accessed 21 April, 2006.
  37. Tony Rayns, “Documentation,” Fassbinder, p. 108.
  38. Robert C. Allen, Speaking of Soap Operas (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1995), p. 92.
  39. Linda Williams, “Something Else Besides a Mother: Stella Dallas and the Maternal Melodrama,” Cinema Journal 24. 1 (1984) p. 7.
  40. Williams, p. 21.
  41. Marsha Kinder, “Reinventing the Motherland: Almodovar’s Brain-Dead Trilogy,” Film Quarterly 58. 2 (Winter 2004-5), p. 20.
  42. Jacquelyn Suter and Sandy Flitterman, “Textual Riddles: Woman as Enigma or Site of Social Meanings? Interview with Laura Mulvey,” Discourse 1 (Fall, 1979), p. 90.
  43. Brooks, p. 56-57.
  44. Cixous, p. 49.
  45. Tania Modleski, “Time and Desire in the Woman’s Film,” Cinema Journal 23. 3 (1984) p. 21.
  46. Cook, p. 7.
  47. Cook, p. 73.
  48. Modleski, p. 23.
  49. Corrigan, New German Film, p. 53.
  50. Brooks, 201.
  51. Julia Kristeva. “Women’s Time,” trans. Alice Jardine and Harry Blake. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7. 1 (1988): p. 17.
  52. Babuscio, p. 49.
  53. Marsha McCreadie, Women Screenwriters Today: Their Lives and Words (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006), pp. 24-27. Section on Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal; her unpublished comment was given as background.
  54. Dyer, “Reading Fassbinder’s Sexual Politics,” Fassbinder (Ed.) Rayns, p. 55.
  55. Thomsen interview with Fassbinder, in Fassbinder (Ed.) Rayns, ” p. 94.
  56. Text referred to throughout is Plays by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Ed.,translated, by Denis Calandra. (New York: PAJ Publications), 1991
  57. Rayns, “Documentation,” in Fassbinder, p. 115.
  58. Kay Jamison, Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).

About The Author

Marsha McCreadie teaches documentary film at Fordham University at Lincoln Center. Her book publications include Women on Film: the Critical Eye (Praeger, 1980), The Women Who Write the Movies (Birch Lane Press, 1995), Women Screenwriters Today: Their Lives and Words (Praeger, 2006), and most recently, Documentary Superstars: How they Are Inventing the Form (Allworth Press, 2009).

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