The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

“I felt nothing for him anymore. Far from it, it got worse. When we ate together his chewing… it was like an explosion. When he swallowed my gorge rose. The way he cut meat, held his cigarette, his whiskey glass… it all seemed so absurd, so affected. I was ashamed for him because I imagined everyone must see him as I did. Of course, it was hysteria. Panic, Sidonie. There was nothing left to save. The end.”

‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1972, is a tightly wrought, confined movie. It narrates a series of encounters between women, at their centre is the title character: bored, alcoholic, passive and abusive. It’s a subversive melodrama in which the restrictive and incestuous relationships between the characters are matched by the setting, a single room that is decorated with eerie shop window dummies with a massive, inflated reproduction of ‘Midas and Bacchus’ behind them – the only male presence in the film. It’s a less sleazy and less comic film than ‘Satan’s Brew’ but partially shares the same themes of masochism, sadism and dominance. Where this film differs is with the stark layering of the character relationships, a kind of stratified sexual hierarchy that gradually erodes by the end so that the submissive character throughout the film, Marlene, is the only one taking action. For me, this character is the real centre of the film: she is always present either in the background staring at the events, or off-screen evidenced by the sounds of her activity. She is the observer whilst around her the other characters gradually decay. At one point their faces are shown to be pale and ghostlike, as if they are begin pressed back into the dominant painting behind them. It’s a rich movie, packed with subtexts and allusions, at times explicit, to sexuality and gender which mean it’s difficult to unpack in one sitting and in one short summary. What I can say is that it’s rescued Fassbinder for me and I feel ready to explore more…

Would I recommend it? Yes – in form and theme it reminded me of Bergman’s ‘Persona’, so I would suggest a cheery double-bill with that.


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