Fashion designer, Petra von Kant, is "verliebt" with Karin Thimm, a hardened 23-year old college drop-out. The German word "verliebt" means "to fall in love," but it also carries overtones of disaster, infatuation, and delirium. Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 melodrama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant delivers both the yearning and calamity of helpless infatuation with astonishing and brutal authority. There's nothing to the movie; it eschews the profound and remains resolutely superficial, a two-hour operatic tantrum in which the sound and fury really means nothing -- it's just an empty spectacle, but what a spectacle! Fassbinder confines the action of the film to Petra von Kant's bedroom -- indeed, most of the picture takes place in her bed or within a half-dozen feet of it. The set is a fabulous labyrinth of densely textured and garish fabrics, mirrors, and an enormous mural of a painting by Poussin, a wall of naked men and women, against which the actresses strike Baroque poses. Eight or nine pale larva-colored mannequins, nude and cowering, lurk around the corners of the set and form a sort of mute chorus accompanying Petra von Kant's tirades. An imperious dominatrix, von Kant even has a slave, a silent woman named Marlene whom she alternately shrieks at and teases, a sado-masochistic relationship that stands in contrast to the heroine's helpless infatuation with the heartless Karin. The film's plot can be summarized in a few words: Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), an indolent and cruel fashion designer, grooms Karin to model her garments, falls desperately in love with her model, and, then, suffers extravagantly when Karin betrays her both sexually and emotionally, Drinking heavily, Petra pitches a howling fit on her birthday, insulting both her mother and her schoolgirl daughter while triumphantly trampling crockery dropped in her deep-ply white shag carpet. Petra's rage burns itself out and when her former lover, Karin, calls her, she declines to see the woman. Seemingly chastened, Petra tells her slave, Marlene, that she will treat her more kindly in the future and, indeed, even wants to know something about her life and her past. Marlene's response is to pack her suitcase to the tune of "The Great Pretender" and hit the road. (The movie is punctuated by musical interludes: Verdi, the Platters, and the Walker Brothers.) The film ends as it began with Petra lying alone in her bed. This summary, of course, doesn't convey the peculiar and extraordinary effect of the film. Fassbinder's all-female cast deliver their lines either in a somnolent drone or with an insolent, taunting savagery -- the dialogue is completely flat and, on paper, probably would look banal, but the director's sets and costumes impart a brutal glamor to the proceedings. Michael Ballhaus' camera prowls the garish bedroom and the clothing worn by the characters has to be seen to be believed -- Hanna Schygulla, playing Karin, is dressed like Bruennhilde, her plump, somewhat squat figure armored behind a gold pointed bra; Petra looks like Salome is a slinky top that seems made of a velvet rope that has been covered with glue and dipped in cheap costume jewelry; her feet are bound by a dress that seems to be strapped around her calves so that she must walk with tiny, mincing steps. Eva Mattes who plays Gaby, Petra's unfortunate daughter, is clad in a yellow schoolgirl uniform that is intentionally hideous and Marlene (Irm Hermann) wears funereal black. The movie is embodied hysteria and, perhaps, best seen with an intermission of a few hours or, even, days between halves (it was originally a stage-play and divided into what seems life five acts) -- in one dose, it's just too much to be tolerated. Everyone swills gin and, at times, the film is like being trapped in a closet with a raging drunk -- you can't get away from it and Fassbinder stages everything for maximum cruelty. The characters wallow in self-pity: Karin's mother was beaten to death by her father who, then, hanged himself; the love of Petra's life, Pierre, was killed in a car wreck; and so on. After an hour, the viewer understands the monstrous self-absorption of the characters and, indeed, sympathizes with them -- who wouldn't be miserable trapped in this mise-en-scene under Fassbinder's tyrannical direction.
This film has personal significance to me because it was the first movie in the German New Wave of the late sixties that I attended and I hated it. The film was screened at the University Film Society by Al Milgrom probably in 1974. I recall being completely baffled by the film and thought it was both interminable and shockingly dull. This reaction is valid -- in some ways, the movie is self-indulgent to the point of verging on the unwatchable. The characters in the film are young people: Hanna Schygulla was, probably, younger than 23, the age of her character and the great actress, who performs the part of Petra, claims that she is 35 -- I would guess she is lying and, probably, a couple years older. (At one point, someone looks at a newspaper photograph and, in the picture, we see Fassbinder young, even trim, and, perhaps, handsome in an idiosyncratic sort of way -- it's a homage to Hitchcock's Lifeboat, I think, in which the director has to make his trademark cameo in the form of a photograph someone shows. There's something tragic about seeing Fassbinder so young and slender, his whole life, it seems, ahead of him.) I thought the movie was pointless because it dramatized feelings of rage and yearning and rejection that I felt personally, emotions that were integral to my emotional existence when I was 20, and, therefore, banal to me, unimportant -- after all, if I had those emotions and felt them with some of the helpless intensity of the characters in the film, why did I have to go to a movie to have these feelings shoved in my face? In those days, I fancied myself rational, governed by reason, and I was ashamed of my irrational passions and embarrassed to see such things dramatized. I went to movies for an escape, to see the extraordinary and the astonishing, and Fassbinder's film, mired in a kind of operatic but very ordinary unhappiness, depressed and bored me. My eye is better today and I can appreciate Fassbinder's extraordinary talent and the remarkable performances by his actresses in his long theatrical takes. But I continue to question whether this sort of film isn't a kind of cul-de-sac, a dead end that can lead nowhere.