Feb 4, 2013

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Aside from the fantastic first four feature-length freak flicks directed by kraut mischling auteuress Ulrike Ottinger (A Ticket of No Return, Freak Orlando) and the subversive scatological cyber-dyke sci-fi films of sexually ambiguous Austrian auteur A. Hans Scheirl (Flaming Ears, Dandy Dust), I cannot think of many lesbian films I can tolerate, let alone praise, but a German gentleman by the name of Rainer Werner Fassbinder – the German New Cinema master of morose melodrama – did direct a Sapphic cinematic work of sorts about lily-licker love gone awry that I cannot deny my delight for. Indeed, regarded as one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements as both a filmmaker and as a playwright, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) aka Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, although a film about lurid love between two women (and a third lipstick lesbian in the mix that stands sycophantically on the side) and not featuring a single male character in the film, was actually based on the homosexual filmmaker’s failed romance with his black Bavarian boyfriend Günther Kaufmann; a married heterosexual man with two kids. As mentioned in the Fassbinder biography Love Is Colder Than Death (1987) written by Robert Katz (co-scriptwriter of Wolf Gremm's 1982 film Kamikaze 89 starring R.W. Fassbinder), “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, subtitled “Real Feeling,” is the story, transexualized into a lesbian love affair, of Rainer’s relationship with Günther...Rainer never challenged the view held by those closest to him that every word in the play was spoken either to or by him. But it goes much further than mere revelation or even soul-baring. A year later he would turn it into one of his most powerful films, both versions making a deep descent into the nature of love.“ Written by Fassbinder during a spontaneous 12-hour flight from Berlin to Los Angeles, California (that involved the filmmaker demanding that he and his Superstars skip the vacation trip and fly straight back to the Fatherland so as immediately get to work on his new script) and filmed in a mere ten days by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (whose house was utilized as the setting for the film), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant would prove to be one of the filmmaker’s most strangely personal, if not cryptically so, works, thus brazenly and bodaciously baring his whole positively pitiful soul and hopelessly humiliating failed romance for the entire whole world to see, albeit in a more aesthetically pleasing and delectably dainty form. Like the debauched yet decorated dyke anti-hero of the film, Fassbinder would literally try to buy the love of his reluctant black beau by showering him with expensive Lamborghinis – four of which the masculine mulatto Bavarian managed to total in a mere year – while his Superstars starved for money and attention, thus resulting in a mutiny or two against filmmaker Führer. Starring damaged diva Margit Carstensen (Satan’s Brew, Chinese Roulette) in her first major collaboration with Fassbinder (she previously appeared in minor roles in two of the filmmaker's two 1970 TV-movies; Das Kaffeehaus and The Niklashausen Journey) as an antagonistic, alcohol-addled aristocrat who loathes men almost as much she hates waking up before noon, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a decisively dispiriting and drastically dreary drama about a horrendously hateful and monstrously miserable woman of an unprepossessing personality named Petra von Kant who believes she has found true love in the form of a young beauteous lower-middleclass woman, but cannot deal with the fact that her gorgeous girlfriend still needs men to sexually service her as everyone know that women make for a poor and patently passive substitute for a job biologically fit for a man.

Petra von Kant – a famous yet fiendish fashion designer based in Bremen who, despite her wealth and prestige, is unable to pay the bills on time – is undoubtedly a miserable cunt whose only source of solace comes from fresh female genitalia in pretty proletarian form. A sedentary sadist who has her own virtual slave/assistant named Marlene (Irm Hermann) – a mostly mute masochist who gladly endures her wicked employer’s emotional abuse – Petra is a loser in every way, especially in regard to love, except when it comes to her work and propensity to plague other people with her penetrating pang and perturbing passion. When Petra’s cousin Sidonie von Grasenabb (Schaake) appears early on in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to discuss her happy marriage of humility and honesty, the fiercely foul fashion designer reveals her unwavering, seething hatred of men.  While Sidonie explains how her, "humility paid off" because her husband, "thinks he's the boss, but in the end," she gets her way, Petra firmly believes that, "marriage brings out the worst in people." Although a lecherous lesbian, Petra has been married twice; once to a ‘great love’ named Pierre – a handsome fellow of a fiery heart who thought he was immortal but died four months before their daughter was born via car crash, thus turning her into a young widow of a wench – and the second marriage started apparently quite lovingly but ended in utter disgust and divorce. Although a bona fide bitch with a complete and utter contempt for men, Petra displays a certain unusual fear and all-around rather odd relationship with her own mother, thus hinting at the deep-seated source of her own homosexuality and failures as a wife, mother, and female.  Petra also has a hidden hostility towards her mommy that is unwaveringly unleashed when she hits rock bottom, even going so far as calling the woman who gave birth to her a "miserable little whore," right to her face. The emotionally despondent mother of an adolescent girl named Gabriele (Eva Mattes), Petra does not have to worry about nurturing her daughter nor providing her with natural motherly love because she keeps her away at boarding school, but she does make a random appearance in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that will ultimately scar the already dyke-like girl for life, thus perpetuating the vicious familial circle of female discontent. When it comes down to it, the only thing Petra cares about is herself, so when she falls in dubious love with a married 23-year-old blonde beauty named Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulla) – who the infatuated fashion designer offers financial support to under the pretense that she becomes a model – things get a bit complicated over time, even if a briefly successful artistic and romantic relationship is sired, especially when the younger lady proves that she cannot be bought, nor personally possessed; a hard fact that the spoiled aristocrat who is used to getting everything she wants cannot accept. A heartless sadist who delights in dishing out heaps of hatred and relentless rejection, Petra von Kant finally learns what it is like to be on the receiving end of rejection and resentment, especially when she learns that a poor primitive Negro man of all people satisfied her femme in a manly manner that she never could.

Essentially comprised of five positively potent and penetrating acts with long over-extended scenes, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is an exceedingly elegant and expressively stylized theatre piece of neo-baroque beauty adapted for the silverscreen that, not unlike Rope (1948) directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Fassbinder even makes a ‘Hitchcockian’ cameo of sorts), is set in one room featuring a gigantic reproduction of Nicolas Poussin's 1629 classical baroque painting "Midas and Bacchus"; a work that is more reflective of the film’s male homosexual cryptic origins than any content featured in the film itself. With the character of Marlene – Petra’s masochistic assistant who stands to the side silently throughout the film and endures her master’s narcissistic brutality – the viewer has an 'outsider' character to identify with, who although actually appearing in the scenes with the other characters, has no more of an influence on her malevolent master's romantic relationship than the filmgoer. Without Marlene as her meek servant and secret quasi-voyeur, Petra no longer has a constant source of energy for her sadism, hence why when the silent slave leaves without saying a word, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant concludes.  At one point in the film, Karin makes a derogatory remark about Marlene and her relationship to her master, which Petra replies, "she's not screwy...she loves me!," in confidence that her groveling peon will always be there to lick her puss and paint her portrait, thus the sadistic she-devil's total abandonment by the sensitive Sappho serf comes as the ultimate surprise and lesson in modesty. Like Marlene, the viewer watches the emotional rise and fall of Petra von Kant; a woman that believes she and her girlfriend, “shall conquer the world together,” yet when Karin displays will power and personal integrity that is greater than any sum of money or luxury her lezzy lover can provide, the aberrant aristocrat reaches a point of personal crisis that is so overwhelming that it is like no other pain she has endured before, not even the death of her beloved husband over a decade before. When it comes down to it, Petra von Kant – a superlatively spoiled blueblood ice queen who is used to getting whatever she wants, whenever she wants, due to hear wealth and prestige – cannot deal with the fact that she does not have the godlike power to personally possess who ever she wants, hence the double-meaning of her naive remark of, “I’ve paid for enough,” when addressing a personal threat from her cousin Sidonie. It is only when Petra accepts the fact that not all people can be bought and sold and that love is not about possessing the lover that she can begin to emerge from her personal crisis, and that her personal assistant Marlene is finally set free, thus dissolving the bitter tears of a tyrannical noblewoman of a less than noble persuasion who for the first time in her life understands the meaning and importance of humility. 

 A claustrophobic and sadomasochistic celluloid psychodrama of a consciously theatrical design, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is easily one of the deepest and most daunting melodramas I have ever seen, not to mention one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most personal and powerful achievements as a cinematic artist who was just as great of a playwright as he was a filmmaker. Expressing himself vicariously through the fictional female character of Petra von Kant, Fassbinder revealed himself to be a man so megalomaniacal that he would denigrate someone in a dastardly manner by calling them a “rotten little rat,” while in the same conversation pleading to that same person how much he loves them and how they had “stabbed” him “in the heart.” Of course, as Petra’s mother Valerie von Kant (Gisela Fackeldey) explains to her daughter while still disapproving of her Sapphic proclivities, love only can prevail when one is able to, “learn to love without demanding.” Whether or not Fassbinder was eventually able to love without demanding remains to be seen, but we do know that two of his subsequent ‘great loves’ committed suicide after his foredoomed romantic relationship with heterosexual flame Günther Kaufmann fizzled out, thus making The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and especially In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) aka In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden – a work made in tribute to his ill-fated third love Armin Meier, who committed self-slaughter shortly after the two broke up – as well as countless other films directed by the filmmaker to be the only notable and positive byproducts of his calamitous intimate affairs, which is more than most people can say about the results of severed relationships with ex-sweethearts. Eva Mattes (Eight Hours are Not a Day, Effi Briest), who played Petra von Kant's daughter, certainly did not think Fassbinder had the most fabulously fateful love life as she portrayed the star-crossed superstar auteur in full drag-king apparel for the utterly unconventional biopic A Man Like Eva (1984) aka Ein Mann wie EVA; a sensitively assembled yet shaming cinematic depiction of the film director's self-destructive tendencies, especially in the relentless realm of romance. Apparently, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant did not sit well with a number of real-life lesbians as an angry abberosexual army of muff-divers from various Sapphic special interest groups picketed the film when it played at the New York Film Festival in 1972, but as Petra von Kant learned herself, the truth hurts, especially when told from the perspective of a man-loving man that has never venerated the vag.

-Ty E


Anonymous said...

Ty, have you ever considered publishing some of your pieces on film, especially those on Fassbinder?

Soiled Sinema said...

Scott: I have had some of my work published in print magazines in the past, but when I did this, I learned rather quickly that publishers always want you to make compromises (i.e. chop up essays, tone down "aggressive" language, "write more on this and less on that," etc), hence why I like having my own website.

Of course, I will continue to submit articles to magazines from time to time, I just have never made it a huge priority.

Anonymous said...

Toning down "aggressive language" -- that's exactly the kind of thing I anticipate as I prepare to submit a few things to film sites. Easily digested puff pieces are often the order of the day when it comes to what's left of mainstream film criticism.

I can't help but give it a shot, though.