“When it came to Fassbinder, … one was made to feel that the real drama in film after film wasn’t so much in the makeshift characters or the fruit-salad images but in the offscreen intrigues of a baby Caligula manipulating his players and technicians”
– Jonathan Rosenbaum1
Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 12th feature film Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) premiered merely three years after his first and was the second made since its director’s storied first encounters with the Universal melodramas of Douglas Sirk and, soon after, with Sirk himself, whom he befriended.
Sirk’s films convinced Fassbinder of the merits of fusing his Brechtian approach to cinema with the pejorated but affective form of melodrama, the better to finesse and broadcast ironised commentary upon all that ailed the (West) German society of the time, across axes of class, gender, race and sexuality.
While the prolific Antiteater theatre group-cum-community that Fassbinder had plundered for cast and crew for his first ten features had dissolved, his films continued to call upon a stock troupe before and behind the camera, transposing the charismatic but domineering Fassbinder’s mercurial, bisexual and sadomasochistic relationships with these selfsame people into his films’ narratives.
Based upon his own play which had premiered the year prior, The Bitter Tears concerns a love triangle languorously played out by Fassbinder regulars. There’s successful fashion designer and manipulative narcissist Petra von Kant – think Joan Crawford with a Cheshire Cat-like death’s head grin (Margit Carstensen), in whose elegant boudoir the entire film is set; working-class ingénue Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla), whom Petra manoeuvres to seduce immediately upon introduction by her cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), promising her a glorious modelling career, and Marlene (Irm Hermann), who mutely attends to Petra’s every whim, watching her all awhile.
The Bitter Tears underlines its narrative’s basis in personal experience in its opening dedication to “the one who became Marlene here”, adding “with the special participation of Irm Hermann as Marlene”. This was as close to top billing in a Fassbinder film as the stalwart Hermann would ever get, although this dedication seems to have been to highlight just how in thrall to her director the actress was. Although besotted with him, Fassbinder was known to have treated her abhorrently.2
The Petra-Marlene master-slave dynamic has, however, also been thought inspired by Fassbinder’s relationship with Peer Raben, his Antiteater co-founder and celebrated regular composer – and with still others in his coterie besides. Petra’s affair with Karin, in which the former begins with the upper hand, only to cede all power to the latter, is more unambiguously held as a surrogate for Fassbinder’s self-destructive and expensive infatuation with the African-American Bavarian actor Günther Kaufmann – another regular in his movies.
The garish, unmistakably ’70s mise en scène volunteers droll commentary upon proceedings throughout. Light entering through Venetian blinds flags Karin’s entrance as that of a femme fatale, and mannequins are posed in Petra’s room to either echo proceedings or serve in ironic counterpoint to them, as when Karin has left Petra, and the bed that had been her boudoir’s centrepiece has been moved into the background, with two mannequins embracing coitally within it while a third watches on.
The Bitter Tears has a field day with make-up and costuming, pointedly making its yesteryear’s Hollywood glamour-echoing cast of six into dolls nearly as much as the lifeless mannequins. Petra constantly attends to her own image before a hand-held mirror, donning ever more layers of constructed femininity and impractical glamour – make-up, jewellery, outré clothing and wigs.
As dynamics and conversations shift between Petra and her guests, and stories of the dire influences of men in these women’s lives and relationships are related, a huge wall mural detailing Nicolas Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus” (1630) draws the eye, with the naked male figure of Bacchus front and centre. For no matter that Petra and Karin, notwithstanding a history of heterosexuality, are coupling up, and that no animate male cast members appear in the film:3 heteronormative patriarchy’s maleficence remains omnipresent!
Although the film was shot in only ten days, Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography is glorious. A mix of long takes and elegant tracking shots lap up the autumnal palette of Petra’s room’s décor, regularly framing the women within it to emphasise their changing statuses relative to one another, privileging every narcissist’s favourite compositional form, triangulation.
Music too speaks to the narrative, which is bookended by Petra spinning nostalgic songs by The Platters: “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and, scathingly self-critically on Fassbinder’s part, “The Great Pretender”.
Initial reception from some quarters was frosty. The nascent gay liberation movement was dismayed that The Bitter Tears portrayed lesbians as perverse and manipulative. Lesbian groups even picketed it at the 1972 New York Film Festival.
Nowadays The Bitter Tears sits amidst a cluster of celebrated films directed by men but archly foregrounding womano-a-womano conflicts. All About Eve (1950) – which likewise features one woman manipulatively and profitably riding the coattails of another’s success – is a key precursor paid homage when Petra has Marlene take dictation of a letter to Joseph Mankiewicz, its famed director. In the other direction, Peter Strickland’s sumptuous recent all-female S&M relationship fantasia The Duke of Burgundy (2014) draws clear inspiration from Fassbinder’s film.
The film of The Bitter Tears ends differently to the play, with a notable rare moment of charity from Fassbinder towards Irm Hermann who, so often given the role of harpy in his movies, ends Bitter Tears against type in a punchline granting Marlene triumph and agency. But then, for those who pursue sadomasochistic relationships – on-screen and/or off – is a cessation of hostilities any cause for celebration?
Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972 West Germany 124 mins)
Prod Co: Filmverlag der Autoren/Tango Film Prod: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Fengler Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Scr: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, based on his own play Phot: Michael Ballhaus Ed: Thea Eymèsz
Cast: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Irm Hermann, Katrin Schaake, Eva Mattes, Gisela Fackeldey
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Martha: Fassbinder’s Uneasy Testament”, from the booklet accompanying Madman Entertainment’s “Fassbinder on Melodrama” DVD boxset, released in 2008. ↩
- See, for example, this 1999 article from The Guardian. ↩
- There’s a cheeky, Hitchcock-in-Lifeboat-style cameo from Fassbinder, who appears alongside Petra and Karin in a newspaper photo. ↩