“The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder (RWF)

From the first glance Fassbinder’s film looks like a personal drama of amorous passions and torments. But Fassbinder is a very “tricky” director who has a penchant for misleading the viewers – direct them to wrong interpretative paths in order to problematize their understanding of what they see on the screen – right in front of their own minds: to demonstrate to them their intellectual prejudices and clichés. By doing so Fassbinder tries to help the viewers to become disappointed in their ideas (not without grumbling at the director, of course), and capable to look at reality in new, less narcissistic/more realistic ways.

As we see, Fassbinder’s “trickiness” is nothing like that of the directors and stars of commercial movies whose task is to tie the viewers to the movie by the ropes of easy pleasures and sweet dreams. Fassbinder is not interested in being liked by moviegoers (in order to finally be able to give birth to a billion from his growing belly of money) – he is hooked on meaning – on the chance to understand something about life what he hadn’t before starting to work on a new film, and on expressing what he understood in an elegant semantic and visual generalizations and configurations. Fassbinder is an intellectual romantic. He doesn’t make cocktails of truth and money (where money always dissolves truth to the degree of its unrecognizability). For him money is something that is always delivered from the back entrance. He feels that it is necessary to critically problematize the expectations of the viewers to save the meaningfulness of human life and the spiritually intellectual function of human existential mind.

An intense affair between a successful designer of women’s clothing Petra and Karin, a young woman with a modelling ambitions, is in no way a melodrama but a social and psychological encounter impregnated by rivalry, possessiveness and unconscious lust for domination and embellishing itself with sentimental, erotic and sexual vignettes. Petra/Karin relationship includes worship of personal emotions, the presence of manipulative and controlling intentions and satisfactions, and anarchically creative spontaneity which both women identify with love. According to Fassbinder’s Petra, it is exactly the inequality in relationship plus mutual manipulation as part of the fight for control over beloved – that feed the sexual passion and amorous jealousy. But our heroines believe that love as such is free and independent from its determinations and motivations and is an ultimate weapon in their fight for superior status inside their relationship: being loved more than the beloved. In other words, the heroines’ love is strong, smart, emotionally melodious, risky and beautiful, although too tough of an experience.

The director and the actors’ virtuoso depiction of the human love’s complexity and contradictions emphasizes not only admirable genuineness of Petra/Karin’s amorous emotions and sexual impulsivity but the fact that human love deserves to be the object of critical introspection and psychoanalytic probing. Fassbinder’s position towards his heroines is not only that of astonishment and admiration but enlightened (not dogmatic) criticism.

Fassbinder and his quartet of actresses intend to help the lovers everywhere in the world to try to make their amorous and sexual emotions more refined and sophisticated, less blind and more humane without losing its sparkly vitality. Viewers can psychologically grow through their admiration of the film’s heroines, not only through criticism of them. In order to overcome our dense narcissism (with its megalomaniacal and phobic layers) and our organic tendency to protect and advance our amorous status inside the very relationship between the beloveds it is necessary to comprehend the degree of our spiritually hurt and underdeveloped condition – our emotions are too inert and self-defensive and are ready to entrench into a deep sulk and biting aggressiveness when the shadow of our critical self (our awareness of our “imperfections” behind our love’s façade) comes closer to the mind. That’s why Fassbinder made his “Bitter Tears” – to psychotherapeutically address those rare souls in the audience who are able to learn how to look at themselves critically – from the side – through cinematic screen.

The acting of Margit Carstensen (Petra), Hanna Shygulla (Karin), Irm Herrmann (Marlene) and Eva Mattes (Gaby/Gabrielle von Kant) is an emotional symphony of psychological meaning. It is simultaneously anarchic and analytical, spontaneous and philosophical. Fassbinder demonstrates his exceptionally talented and psychologically refined actresses’ ability to concentrate on the mysteries of human psyche with its readiness to boil with apocalyptic intensity, and on the triumphant gift of human soul for grasping the meaning of human emotional struggles.

Fassbinder’s intellectualism never expresses itself without rich stylistic elaboration. The meanings are always metaphorically delivered. Sometimes camera is, as if, dancing together with actresses’ pantomimes.

Experiencing “Bitter Tears” is a unique, simultaneously shocking and uplifting ordeal which can be in our memory our whole life. In thirty and forty years after watching the film for the first time, it is still possible to remember our feelings and thoughts after the first encounter with the film and the circumstances of our acquaintance with this exceptional work of cinematic art. The film stimulates to revisit our thoughts and impressions we got when we saw the film before, and develop them farther.

Petra and Marlene’s everyday life of a master and servant is, obviously, approved by Dionysus

Petra is sharing with Sidonie her traumatizing marital experience when amorous emotional spontaneity is discouraged because it contradicts the stability of intra-family relationships relying on obedience to conventional rules

By listening to Petra’s sad story about her marriage Marlene as if relieving everything again like watching again the play she knows so well and identify with.

Karin – a possible newcomer into Petra’s life, tunes her strings.

Karin is dancing to a music Petra is listening to – to the music of Petra’s life, to the art of Petra’s feelings

The philistines of Petra’s life (tolerated and secretly detested by her) – her mother (Valerie von Kant, on the left), marked here negatively by Dionysus in the background, and baroness Sidonie von Grasenabb

Fassbinder's women-Aprl'15
Margit Carstensen (Petra, on the right), Irm Hermann (Marlene) and Hanna Shygulla (on the left) at the celebration of the existence of Fassbinder’s film in the spring of 2015

Irm Hermann, Margit Carstensen (in the center) and Hanna Shygulla

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (RWF), the screenwriter and director of “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant”

Posted on 8/20/2015 –   R. W. Fassbinder’s “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972) – The Art And Science Of Amorous Domination (Feminine Touch In A World Of Masculine Competition) by Acting-Out Politics

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