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'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant': Much More than a Lesbian Cinematic Masterpiece

Rhoyce Nova unravels the taut undertones of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's confined classic.


Margit Carstensen, left, stars as Petra von Kant, Karin Thimm, played by Hannah Schygulla  in Th eBitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Margit Carstensen, left, stars as Petra von Kant, Karin Thimm, played by Hannah Schygulla

Years ago, legendary Impressionist painter, Edgar Degas, proclaimed, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” Yet Degas did not discover the essence of art. He is merely echoing the sentiments of the granddaddy of art, Aristotle, who centuries earlier said, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” The view still holds sway over contemporary artists of impact. In his much-touted TedTalk, semi-anonymous French street artist, JR, said, “Art is not supposed to change the world, to change practical things but to change perceptions.” These quotes speak to the power of art to change our worldview, but exactly how does art achieve this? JR’s words provide a clue, he says, “Art can change the way we see the world. Art can create an analogy.”  


This is exactly what Rainer Werner Fassbinder does with his 1972 psychological romantic drama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. In this contained character study, the director deftly draws on analogy to provoke thought on a multitude of levels. The film is at once a deep analysis of the power dynamics between women, and lesbian age-gap relationships in particular; a political diatribe on the precarious place of women in a proto-feminist society; and a treatise on the human condition and the universal need for love and validation. By transcending the boundaries of genre and time, Fassbinder creates much more than a seventies-centric, lesbian-driven drama, he produces a picture that speaks to universal human truths, transforming The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant into a timeless cinematic masterpiece.


Masterful performances in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Masterful performances in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant tells the story of a narcissistic fashion designer, Petra, and her tumultuous relationship with a young and beautiful model named Karin. Based on Fassbinder’s earlier play of the same name, the confined melodrama features an insular, all-female, cast of six, with the titular character played to perfection by Fassbinder’s muse, Margit Carstensen. Set almost entirely within the four walls of her extravagant apartment, the film takes us on an intimate journey into the psyche of Petra, a successful, yet aging, fashion designer whose unbridled ego hides a host of insecurities and emotional issues. Clearly in love with her, her devoted assistant, Marlene, Irm Hermann, silently tends to her every whim and endures her emotional abuse with the compassion of an indulgent mother. Petra meets her match, however, when she falls for young model wannabe, Karin Thimm, played by Hanna Schygulla. Instantly taken with her, Petra offers to support her while she builds her career as a model, but Karin soon starts taking advantage of Petra’s power and money. As the narrative unfolds, Petra’s self-obsession morphs into a crazed fixation with the younger woman that not her assistant, her mother, Gisela Fackeldey, or even her daughter, Eva Mattes, can come between. By the end of the film, the power dynamic between the women shifts entirely, with the wealthy and influential Petra being revealed as a lonely, insecure woman, who is desperately clinging to love and lost youth.


Irm Hermann delivers a tour de force performance as Marlene in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Irm Hermann delivers a tour de force performance as Marlene in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Emerging from the German New Wave film movement of the 1960s, Fassbinder’s taut psychological character study quickly gained critical acclaim for its bold and unconventional narrative. From a queer perspective, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a telling examination of the power dynamics of same-sex age-gap relationships. Said to have been inspired by Fassbinder’s own obsession with a young male actor, the balance of power in the film skews solidly with the younger woman. Karin is in her first flush of youth and beauty with her whole life ahead of her. She carries her passport to the world on her face and her youthful physique, so often commented upon by Petra, and needs nothing more to open all doors. With her physical cachet on the wane, the older woman, in contrast, is constantly fretting about her funds and her influence, as if it is all she has to recommend her to the world, and her younger lover. The film’s stance on power relations in age-disparate unions is in stark contrast to popular parlance which would have the older, more economically stable of the two as holding the most dominance. Throughout the narrative, Petra panders to Karin, until she winds up a simpering shadow of her former self. As Petra’s delicate ego unravels, her insecurities are laid bare, and the audience is reminded not only of the dwindling desirability afforded older women in relationships but also of the diminished sexual and financial status of mature women in Western society as a whole.


Fassbinder explores the power dynamic between women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
Fassbinder explores the power dynamic between women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

By using the portrayal of a lesbian relationship with an inequitable power balance as an allegory for the position of women in society, Fassbinder identifies himself as an artist with a keen understanding of Aristotle’s adage regarding the importance of relaying the inner significance of a narrative. As a film is a story told in pictures, making the internal, external, is always the key challenge for any filmmaker, particularly in terms of character-driven dramas. Writer-director, Fassbinder, deploys a vast array of visual tropes to construct the allegory that relays the inner journey of his characters. His use of metaphor is so deft and multilayered that it forms a virtual masterclass on the subject. Exploring themes of power, obsession, and emotional co-dependency, Fassbinder uses the very makeup of the mind to demonstrate the unravelling of Petra’s psyche. Each of the characters is positioned so as to represent an element of the psyche, according to Freudian psychoanalysis, thereby embedding the theme into the structure of the screenplay. Marlene, Petra’s patient and all-knowing assistant, is the superego, that part of the psyche that oversees our moral and ethical behaviour and keeps our life in order, while Karin is pure id, the instinctive and primitive unconscious run amok. The self-obsessed character of Petra can be viewed as all ego, bouncing between the impetuous urges of the id and the ever-watchful demands of the superego.

 

Throughout the film, Petra uses mind-play manipulations, such as denial, projection, and regression, to negotiate her relationship with Karin, whilst the ever-watchful Marlene tidies and types in the background. Young Karin, however, continues to do whatever her urges dictate, from demanding drinks to sleeping with men. In response, Petra, the ego, is at times acting in a state of pure id-like regression and impulse, swilling gin, and behaving petulantly, and in the next moment, she swings to projection, gently chastising Karin for that same behaviour. The rest of the time she lives in a near-constant state of denial about her fading youth and her dwindling bank account. Her behaviour shows a contrast of character that reveals her emotional imprisonment and reliance on others.


Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a deeply moving character study
Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a deeply moving character study

Petra’s confined bedroom serves as a metaphor for her own mind, while the physical back and forth of bodies on set serves as a depiction of the erratic jostling for space of the id, the ego, and the superego inside her. The set, with its iconic florid wallpaper and centre-stage wrought-iron bed, becomes an impassioned character in and of itself, and Fassbinder’s blocking, the way he manoeuvres his actors around the set, is poetry in motion. The fact that Fassbinder can keep audiences riveted to what is essentially three women interacting in one small box is a testament to his theatrical prowess. Throughout the piece, he amps up the emotional pressure and the dramatic pace with ever-intensifying monologues and nuanced performances. As Petra’s mind unravels, and her alter-egos battle for dominance, Petra’s wigs, and dress morph with her mannerisms. To further demonstrate the lead’s inner turmoil, the director masterfully deploys mirrors and mannequins to symbolically represent her narcissism, and baby dolls to depict her wounded inner child. As such, the narrative becomes much more than a potent reminder about how human behaviour is so often influenced by unconscious drives. By placing the machinations of emotional manipulation under the microscope, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant not only unveils the inner conflict extant in all of us but unearths the power-play at work in all human relations.


Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a masterpiece of allegory and symbolism
Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a masterpiece of allegory and symbolism

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant goes far beyond an exploration of the complexities of the power dynamics within an age-differential lesbian relationship. Through masterful direction and meticulous attention to detail, viewers are transported into the world of Petra von Kant, a realm filled with loss, longing, and a deep sense of melancholy. By virtue, the audience is granted an access-all-areas, backstage pass to the unravelling of her fragile mind. In excavating themes of obsession, manipulation, and vulnerability, the film paints a poignant portrait of the human condition, rewarding the viewer with a thought-provoking narrative that challenges societal norms and reveals universal truths, rendering it a timeless cinematic gem. In its telling, Fassbinder’s classic reminds us how much we as humans learn from the art of story. To quote another great artist, Pablo Picasso, “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.”

 

 

 

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