Woman As A Personification of A (Universal) Human Being – Fassbinder’s Philosophical Parody On Socio-morphism Of Woman’s Emancipation

…eroticism is a ghastly maze where the lost ones must tremble. This is the only way to come close to the truth of eroticism: to tremble.
Georges Bataille, “The Tears of Eros”, City Lights Bks., 1992, p. 69

MC: There are more and more women who refuse any longer to let men victimize them.
RWF: Women who let themselves be oppressed often are more beautiful than women who fight back.
MC: You think so? That’s right, because they are probably more gentle. Because when you have to fight back you get tense…
RWF: But that would be the greatest masochistic fulfillment , not being able to take care of oneself anymore… Most men simply cannot oppress women as perfectly as women would like them to.
MC: Oppression means that it happens to you involuntary, conformity means that you do it voluntary.
RWF: That’s even more terrible.
MC: One can base a life together on a certain degree of conformity… I am a person who has to live relatively alone.
RWF: Either to live and be lonely or to let yourself be oppressed and be happy, that the choice a woman has…
MC: Nonetheless it is possible today to live in a different way with a man.
RWF: For that to be true, men would have to be emancipated. Do you know any emancipated man?
From “R.W.Fassbinder is talking about oppression with Margit Carstensen.” In “West German Filmmakers on Film…”, p. 109 – 111.

… [Story of Adam and Eve] – that barbarous narrative of debt, torture and revenge of which culture is the blood-stained fruit.
Terry Eagleton, “The Idea of Culture”, Blackwell Pr., 2000, p. 108

Fassbinder (the second from the left) as an unidentified character in his own film, Hannah Schygulla – Karin (on the right) and Margit Carstensen – Petra (in the center)

Fassbinder (in the center) works (assisted by Harry Baer – on the right) with Margit Carstensen on the set of “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Nicolas Poussin’s Painting

Stylized exposition

Scene 1. Preamble/Warming up for daily battles
Scene 2. Corrupting seduction
Scene 3. Revenge/Getting even
Scene 4. Agony of deafening defeat
Scene 5. Transfiguration (Petra maneuvers into democraticity)
Scene 6. Resolution/Dissolution (an offer which cannot be met)

Poussin-Midas and Bacchus
Nicolas Poussin, “Midas and Bacchus/Dionysus”, 1630

Poussin’s painting has a fundamental semantic importance for “The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” – it is used by Fassbinder as historical-cultural rooting of his concept of Petra-Karin relationship as an archetype of Western civilization. The viewers are encouraged to locate Midas and Dionysus in the painting which Fassbinder has wall-sized in Petra’s stylized bedroom and by this makes it part of the semantic development of the film. By becoming a constituent part of the film’s plot and meaning through the director’s resourceful montage of its fragments with visual accents of the characters’ relations, the painting functions as analytical tool for RWF’s characterization of today’s behavioral proclivities. For example, Bush Jr. and his political cohort’s invasion of Iraq can be understood as acting-out by these people of their unconscious Midas-Dionysus’s complex. The film emphasizes the foundational role of the myth of Midas-Bacchus, which inspired Poussin’s painting, in forming the Western psyche.

Stylized exposition

We see two cats awakening for the day. One of them – on top of the stairs, is occupying much higher place in the social hierarchy of Petra’s household. The other, at the bottom, has a dream, and she is dedicated to its realization. What can a cat dream about in Fassbinder’s film? Ideologically speaking – about equality, but existentially speaking – about being accepted and loved by the cat above. Of course, cats are metaphorical and signify the two main characters – Petra von Kant and her assistant and maid Marlene (Irm Hermann)

Preamble/Warming up for erotic and social battles

For a person who, by Fassbinder’s directorial insistence, personifies King Midas from Nicolas Poussin‘s painting, to return to the world after a night of non-being is not an easy task. She has several missions to accomplish in the world and doesn’t like to be targeted by Apollo’s arrows. May be, she is a vampire of sorts?

Petra’s morning starts elegiacally – with innocent and modest self-image

After a long night Petra recovers the upright posture of Dionysus from Nicolas Poussin’s painting

The appearance of Baroness Sidonie von Grasenabb (Katrin Schaake) with a morning visit to Petra made Marlene feel abandoned, ignored and not needed

Baroness Sidonie was not alone – soon her protégé Karin arrived who “by chance” was looking for a fancy employment. Acquaintance of Petra and Karin starts with a little shaking up of early morning.

Petra is curious about Karin’s curiosity towards her

Petra describes to Sidonie the ordeal of her so promising but failed marriage which included intense and ambitious romance based on love inspiring the husband and wife to transcend the limits of perfection. Petra explains to Sidonie what amour, romance, marriage and divorce taught her about human life and mysteries of human togetherness.

Is Petra talking to Sidonie about heterosexual love and marriage like one mannequin to another (which we see in this shot, together with two miniature dolls of little girls in the upper part of the shot)? Do Petra and Sidonie’s ideas about love and marriage come from the dreams of the little girls they were once? We tend to be spontaneously calculative/manipulative in the very sincerity of our amorous feelings, calculative because of our emotional greed and manipulative because of chronic hunger for amorous mutuality. Petra’s mind reflects her ontological deprivation and her hysterical dream about emotional plenitude (rooted in symbiotic relations of mutual identification trying to create a primordial unity between two people).

One of the miracles of the film is how Petra from a woman after a night sleep gradually transforms in front of our eyes into an incredibly beautiful female specimen – the more her psycho-socio-cultural contemplations are found its verbalizations.

Seduction and counter-seduction

Petra is ready for a decisive – recruiting, encounter with Karin, and she activates Marlene to rush to answer the doorbell and open the way to the future

Karin is dressed as an Amazon-warrior, Petra – as armed not only with money but also with smashing glamor

Dionysus is pointing at Petra as his “representative” in the narrative world of the film

The most effective strategy of conquering is the one that doesn’t look like a “strategy” and is based on what looks like generosity, humanism, care, sharing resources for living, sharing life and love. It looks like love and it is love. It is not a matter of faking love – it is love as a part of the package of its realistic realization in the objective conditions of human life.

While Petra orders Marlene to bring out the Champagne Dionysus points at Petra and Karin’s future

Petra and Karin – spirit and nature – one body: two heads

Dionysus on the wall, as if, following the development of Petra-Karin mutuality and business negotiations (love happens not only between two hearts or two souls, but between two human beings in a real – socio-economic environment, outside of which love is just a fruitless and fatal idealism) – and again points at Petra, as if, marking her success with Karin, which paves the road for Karin’s success which will follow

Dionysus now points at Karin, for the first time, which is also Petra’s success.

Petra is sharing with Karin her philosophy of life, while desperate for job and success Karin is ready for everything even without Petra’s shining wisdoms.

According to the composition of this shot – a place for Karin in Petra’s life has opened (marked by the “naked” mannequin)

Revenge/getting even/getting equal

Through a calculated pantomime and staged effects Karin tries to recover her human dignity not without some vengeful intentions. But would it be just to blame her? Of course, Karin’s existential sensitivity is less and less relevant in today’s life where people go to their “pragmatic” goals like tanks. For the 21st century both heroines of Fassbinder’s film are too delicate and sensitive. May be, it’s good for us to learn from them?

Petra tries to reassure Karin in her love but a fissure of inequality in their togetherness makes it difficult. To seem subdued Petra as if eliminates herself that is emphasized by the composition of the shot.

Karin develops a narration (which covers up a real problem) – her “organic” heterosexuality. She cannot address the real reason of her sexual betrayal – it could be too humiliating and dangerous for her future career opportunities

This shot represents Karin as the apparition of a supernatural power of naturalness which can suddenly come not only to her face but to the surface of her very being – in her laughter, positive, wholehearted, ontologically overfilled, tranquil. This Karin’s somatic and effortless laughter makes Petra laugh in response – instinctively, spontaneously, forgetting everything.

But Petra’s need to be reassured in Karin’s love becomes even stronger. Karin’s laughter of innocence transcends type of love based on individual amorous greed which transforms love into mother’s breast and kiss into appropriation

Mannequins in Petra’s exotic house, where her bedroom occupies a central place, are awaken to human suffering.

Petra, as if, being crucified on her bed – her love for Karin becomes one long and unending torture. Her bed with the three crowns signifying the two lovers and witness of their amorous joy – here Petra, Karin and Marlene, is transformed into the Cross of Crucifixion

After a sudden call from Karin’s husband, and her impulsive decision to meet him, Petra felt, as if, a heavy bar has fallen on her

Petra is humiliatingly begging Karin not to leave, but human unconscious is overfilled with instinctive strategies directed at finding ways to win by any price. Self-humiliation is one of the blind attempts to win in an impossible situations – to keep the object that slides way, inside the area of possession and passive control

The agony of a deafening defeat

The next phase of amorous battle where eroticism is mixed with passion to dominate, starts already not between Petra and Karin, but inside Petra’s own life. The amorous duel of two symbiotic objects continues inside each player.

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif
Petra’s response to Sidonie (who just explained to Petra’s mother that Petra is crazy about Karin): “I am not crazy about her, I love (Ich liebe) her, I love her as I’ve never loved anything before. Her little finger is worth more than all of you together”.

On her birthday Petra accepts presents from relatives and friends, but she is waiting just for one person to appear

Dionysus points at the “plebs” – the painting’s metaphor, according to Fassbinder’s interpretation, of Sidonie, Petra’s mother and all the conformists reduced to gossiping voyeurs instead of risking to have their own games

Sidonie’s present to Petra for her birthday is a doll with a striking resemblance to Karin

Petra is hurt but simultaneously excited by Sidonie’s attempt to mock her passion – love is always ambiguous, and hope is the other side of despair. Those who are struck down by love can resurrect with surprising ease

Dionysus points not at Petra but at her agony in front of her mother and daughter (Eva Mattes) whom we see in front of us, staring at Petra in disbelief

Mother’s fall can be her daughter’s awakening. But to make mother’s suffering a lesson for her child she has to forget about her respectful image

A child can even cling to a mother more if she feels that mother is not perfect, like the child herself. More, identification with a “sinful” mother can be the way for the child to develop an understanding of human life. And here, as an inspiration of empathy in Gabriele, Petra as a mother can succeed, in spite of all her “shortcomings”

As soon as being loved is perceived in Western culture as ontological victory over life, not being loved is considered as ultimate defeat. Petra as personification of king Midas is crushed under the feet of philistines

Transfiguration – Petra’s “mutation” into psychological democratism

Petra proposes to Marlene a “democratic” relationship based on equality and mutual respect. But what happened to Petra? Where is her royal shining? Where is her beauty, vitality, irresistibility? The ability to charm and fascinate? All of this seems irrelevant and superfluous in a new – decent human love. Petra’s transformation is, obviously, not in tune with modernity and post-modernity. Shining beauty is a weapon, and humankind cannot live without the power of Dionysian seductions and Apollonian arrows.

Marlene is also transformed – from the one who admires and worships to the one who serves as an alienated administrator and nurse. Pay attention to the flower in Petra’s right hand – all that is left from her “greatest love” for Karin

The offer which cannot be met

Marlene is leaving Petra. Without passionate fights of loving, without amorous dominating or being dominated, sadism and masochism of love she cannot continue

Marlene is taking with herself a gun and Petra’s doll – symbol of Karin, the object of worship and domination, love and being dominated. Petra is left to her solitude.


In “The Bitter Tears…” Fassbinder represents to the audience the Western tradition of love in intimate relations as an expression of Western spirit of aggressive individualism and its dream of being dissolved in a borderless togetherness. To the analytical distance from the events of the plot and characters’ emotional psychodrama, dense visual symbolism and psychological intensity of representation (including comic stylization), Fassbinder adds a certain eidetic density, a kind of fixation on visual images as an absolute point of reference, a fixation that parodies materialistic/consumerist streak in Western sensibility.

The supreme importance of personal love in Western cultural tradition is emphasized the fact that all the events in the film take place in one room – the bedroom of the main character. Physical love is the ultimate locus where the theology of personal spiritual realization, philosophy of personal splendor, psychology of emotional settlement in the soul of the beloved (and of the emotional enveloping by the beloved of the erotically dominant lover), and sociology of individual irresistibility in front of the other can be realized. Possession of another person’s body and soul in intimacy is the ultimate proof of successful self-assertion of a Western individual. In “The Tears…” personal love (demythologized from “romantic” idealization) is one of the essential games of Western civilization, the very pearl of its shell, the very blood of its sweat, the very steeple of its dome. Because domination over others is in our species the most basic drive, the mutuality of intimate love is irradiated by the music of emotional battle.

In the focus of personal love’s exaltation of Hegel dialectics of master and slave, personal value of a concrete individual in his/her relation to the other comes into light. That’s why each step of Petra and Karin towards or away from each other is described by Fassbinder with such a scrupulous precision – he depicts them not only as persons in concrete circumstances, but as individuals in their absolute self-assertion and self-realization. Such relationship is a dangerous experience, with cosmic jealousy and feeling of metaphysical loss. Fassbinder unfolds in front of us all this meta-historical drama in which self-aggrandizement and fight for domination are intellectualized and psycho-dramatized.

In agreement with the Western cultural tradition, “masculine”, actively seducing role (which is personified by Petra), symbolizes the value of the spirit over the flesh, culture over nature, phallic might over the impotence of amorous receptivity, social status over its absence, financial prowess over being poor. If Petra is an aesthete, Karin symbolizes nature, flesh which is supposed to be conquered by the Spirit, femininity which is supposed to be filled up by the emanation of the master. Their affair is composed of so many determinants that it is itself a work of art which two persons involved create together. Fassbinder simultaneously admires and debunks “a dance-like ritual of seduction and melodramatic intimacy”, “Petra and Karin’s mutual seduction through sex, theatrics and economics” (T. Corrigan, “New German Film: The Displaced Image”, Univ. of Texas, 1983, p. 50) – the beautiful amorous pantomime of Western courteous love in which Spirit mystically falls into the flesh. He is enjoying its sublime dedication and very critical of its hypocritical cowardice. Petra is as beautiful as aesthetics, as irresistible as spirit, as intelligent as a philosophy, as admirable as a White Knight, as adorable as a courageous woman trying to overcome the historical limitations of womanhood. And Karin is as natural as femininity itself, and as attractive as a young woman in need for help and protection without sacrificing her dignity.

Fassbinder’s classification of concrete love relations which we observe in the film, consists, it seems, of three kinds of love, two are widespread, and the third kind can only come to reality in future, if at all. The first type of love is the one which Petra and Marlene have. It’s psychologically a sado-masochistic relationship when one person is naturally dominating and ontologically is the shining center of adoration and admiration, while the other is accepting this domination as a precious gift and quite happy to be the object of a patronizing generosity – to serve and worship (like people in front of a monarch, like soldiers in front of a four star general, like the public in front of movie and/or pop-music stars, or many American poor in front of millionaires and adolescents in front of NFL players). The second type of love depicted in the film is the one Petra and Karin have. It is a relationship of inequality (in social, financial and professional power) when the weaker side disagrees to be dominated and manipulated and fights for autonomy (sometimes using revenge and counter-manipulation). The third type of love is sketched as a hypothetical one which could be realized, for example, if Marlene was not afraid of entering a mutually responsible relations which Petra offers her at the end of the film. The fact that Marlene is running away is telling us, that, according to Fassbinder, many women want to play men’s role in social and personal relations and that’ how they understand cultural development inside democracies – in a regressive, not progressive way.

Traditional Eros, with its possessive and dominating passions is engraved in the very spiritual archetypes of Western culture. Petra seduces as a Spirit, she shines and blinds as a Spirit, and her jealousy is so ultimate and so grandiose that it is the Spirit itself in her that is jealous and indignant about Karin’s “evil resistance”. And Petra’s suffering is so cosmic that it is the Soul’s monumental grief about the innate deceitfulness of evil nature. “What is spirit? – Fire, flame, burning, conflagration… Spirit is what inflames itself, setting itself on fire… Spirit catches fire and gives fire… Spirit gives soul” (Jacques Derrida, “Of Spirit [Heidegger and the Question]”, Un. of Chicago, 1989, p. 83 – 84) In this description of Spirit and Soul we immediately recognize Petra’s style of amorous self-inflammation and seducing frenzy of beauty and sophistication. Her spirit is forcing her soul to fall for Karin. “…the soul is on the way towards the earth… the soul seeks the earth… The soul is strange because it does not yet inhabit the earth.” (Jacques Derrida, Ibid, p. 88) Spiritual movement towards earth is also a fall. But a democratic recovery of Petra’s soul is possible at the end of the film.

Margit Carstensen’s incredible intonational versatility (in pronouncing Marlene’s name when she is calling her) – the intonational richness connected with giving the servant endless commands, orders and instructions refers to the multiplicity of Master’s needs to be satisfied. In Petra’s voice calling out for Marlene’s helping presence we hear all the tradition of slavery and perceive the masculine Eros ready to cool itself in the feminine receptivity’s masochistic generosity. But what about Petra’s arsenal of seductiveness? How, indeed, is she expecting to conquer Karin besides being financially generous (not too much) and promising her career and fame? The first scene of the film where Petra is awaken by Marlene and starts to beautify/canonize herself is a representation of the very beauty of the Spirit that mobilizes itself for strengthening of its seductive power. Petra’s artificial but so natural beauty shines, to borrow the phrase from Akira Kurosawa’s “Sanjuro”, as a drawn sword. “In the question of style there is always the weight or examen of some pointed object. At times this object may be only a quill or a stylus. But it could just as easily be a stiletto, or even a rapier. Such objects might be used in a vicious attack against what philosophy appeals to in the name of matter or matrix , an attack whose thrust could not but leave its mark, could not but inscribe there some imprint or form. But they might also be used as protection against the threat of such an attack, in order to keep it at a distance, to repel it… to meet the sea’s attack and cleave its hostile surface… the style might be compared to that rocky point, also called an eperon, on which the waves break at the harbor’s entrance… the style uses its spur (eperon) as a means of protection against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat… style protects the presence, the content, the thing itself, meaning, truth [from becoming] deflowered in the unveiling of the difference.” (Jacques Derrida, “Spurs”, The Univ. of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 37 – 39.) Petra’s stylized beauty is this protective weapon against a potential or actual resistance on part of nature/Karin, expression of Petra’s desire to disarm Karin’s exercises in autonomy by making her blinded by her amorous admiration/adoration of Petra. This strategy is already not completely masculine, and Petra is already not only Apollo, but exactly Dionysus (as Fassbinder makes it by using Poussin’s painting) who “…is mainly a god of women… Dionysus is man and woman in one person.” (James Hillman, “The Myth of Analysis [Three Essays in Archetypal Psychology]”, Harper, 1972, p. 258) Petra carries the archetype of a productive mother; she is an artist-creator of beauty of soul and the very soul of beauty.

The intensity of Petra’s suffering because of Karin’s alleged “unfaithfulness” is a symptom of her spiritual androgynous-ness (metaphorically personifying democracy in comparison with hyper-masculinity of Western tradition) that finds expression in her lesbian desire. “Hysterical symptom is expression of both a masculine and a feminine unconscious sexual phantasy.” (James Hillman, Ibid, p. 261) But Petra‘s alcoholically induced paroxysm of suffering (in the fourth scene) plus her destructive behavior are not just “disease and insanity… it is the madness of ritualistic enthusiasm… We cannot subdue hysteria… unless we first recognize the God in the syndrome and see hysteria as a manifestation of His imagination.” (James Hillman, Ibid, p. 273) Petra’s “excessive” reaction on Karin leaving her is a work of art, as her love for Karin is. For this reason this reaction is able to give birth – to Petra’s psychological, moral and spiritual transformation. “For artistic creation has, in the course of its development, changed from a means of a furtherance of the culture of a community into a means for construction of personality.” (Otto Rank, “Art and Artist”, Agathon Press, 1975, p. 425) Petra’s art as a designer of women’s apparel even before her encounter with Karin played a central part of her personal life. Now she started to perceive it as “unsatisfactory substitute for real life”. (Otto Rank, Ibid, p. 428)

At the end of the film Petra has outgrown her profession as a tool to stimulate her personal life (and her personal life as a tool to inspire her professional creativity). Now she can love without her profession, and for this reason she can achieve a much higher level spiritually and professionally. Petra is ready for love without ontological rivalry, without conquering/dominating. That means that she is stepping away from the Western spiritual tradition. She becomes congruent with democracy. In the 21st century she as a film presence and personification of a human being becomes barely compatible with Western life.

The triangle of Petra-Karin-Marlene defines the traditional love as always being a matter of three ingredients – two lovers and a witness: the viewer, the audience, the referent group, the judging and gossiping community, the gaze, Argus. It is in front of the audience the ontological clash between the beloveds unfolds. Traditional (sado-masochistic in its symbiotic de-individualization) love is socio-morphic. It is essentially, by its social nature, conformist. It is always a performance, even when and especially when it is completely sincere and spontaneous.

“The Bitter Tears…” is Fassbinder’s “Last Year In Marienbad” transferred from rich (in symbolic connotations) locations to no less symbolically constructed modern interior divided into four areas – the functional: the place for professional activity, intimate (the bed for making love), cultural perspective – settling in traditions and wisdom (the giant picture reproducing Nicolas Poussin’s painting “Midas and Bacchus” – 1628 – 1629), and subsidiary (the maid and worker Marlene’s kingdom).

We see Petra in her psychological glory and her humiliation (when her bed embellished with three metal crowns) was removed and Petra lives on the carpet (looking like clouds to ironically emphasize the greatness of her torments), and at the very end of the film, in her humility and humanity. Petra, like Hermann in (Fassbinder’s) “Despair” and like Querelle (in his “Querelle”), is able to outlive the glories and horrors of traditional life and narcissistic ways of feeling about the world (a fundamental, according to Fassbinder, human sin-and-vice).

In the very beginning of the film Fassbinder makes an analogy between Petra and Marlene on the one hand and the two cats living in Petra’s house, on the other. Later he makes an analogy between Petra and Karin – and the two perfect uncovered female mannequins in different (in various moments of the film) poses including that of making love. The problem, registered by this symbolism is that between cat-ness (animal vitality) and mannequin-ness (being just a material support for artificiality – civilization) – in historical life there is not enough cultural space for a human psychological and spiritual development. In the factual world of Petra von Kant, Karin Timm and Marlene this development can only start on the basis of narcissistic frustration and mourning as a result of disappointment in cat-ness, mannequin-ness and incessant competition and rivalry. Petra was able to survive her narcissistic blow – her shattered aggrandized self-image, and is ready to start to live in a new way – beyond amorous symbiosis and its another side – fight for domination, in real relationships based on equality.

Posted on 10/9/2015 –   “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (RWF) by Acting-Out Politics

posted on March/1/2009 –   Film Review of “Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Acting-Out Politics