The following article was published in N-SPHERE May 2012 issue.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant plays like a fashion-world version of the maggot in the apple. The title obviously points towards a state of longing, the heroine’s name inspires a kind of elegance and beauty and yet, in the same time there is that coldness/harshness reminding of tragic heroines. Overall, before even seeing the film, one may form a rather strong image about it.

Fashion posters do that as well and we are sometimes inclined to believe that the person behind that poster has actually a common ground (at least) with the image he/she promotes. But in many cases we are deceived.

And so we are in this film. The Bitter tears of Petra von Kant contains many wounding moments and it is not – by any means – a hypocritical work, but a film revolving around a hypocritical character. Because Petra is not a tragic heroine, nor is her sadness anything else but a strategy to fool others and fool herself and we see this from the film’s opening sequence (the makeup scene, choreography and all).

For those at least slightly familiar with Fassbinder’s work this should not come as a surprise since the German director is known for creating rather unpleasant characters and he is not the only one. However, what I found to be particularly interesting is that Fassbinder doesn’t make his characters aggressive. Even when they seem to be – like in this film – it is just a façade. They are just presented, they present themselves, but there is no parade made around them, there is no moral angle, no direct attempt to be sympathetic about them. An example in this sense is the »Sister Gundrun scene« from In a year of 13 Moons in which we are offered a glimpse of the protagonist’s early life. The material itself is powerful, but it is also presented by Sister Gundrun in a very clinical manner.

What made The bitter tears of Petra von Kant rather interesting for me is that, unlike other Fassbinder films, this one does not revolve around outcasts. Petra is not an outcast, which may not be much of an argument in making the film interesting, however Petra sees herself as an outcast. She is weak because she wants to be weak and in the film’s opening moments we can see that from the clothing she chooses and the way she is filmed and from her overall physical aspect: all of them suggest weakness, more exactly all of them suggest »induced weakness«.

It is something – maybe induced – in some people’s mind telling them that weak people can show a fairly high degree of honesty, that they are authentic just because they seem or decide to be vulnerable. And then the title mutates: bitter tears can be an indicative of a quiet resignation, of letting – go – with a smile on your face – of something you don’t feel ready to let go. But »bitter« can also be an indicative of one being delusional. Petra creates a frail world where she is both queen and victim, but it is a world only she can see, not anybody else. From the outside she is clumsily portrayed as a queen and nearly nonexistent as victim.

What was said before can be also be seen in the dialogue, in Petra’s dialogue with her »love interests«. She either wants to make strong statements which are convincing halfway through after which they fall apart:

»It’s easy to pity, Sidonie, but so much harder to understand. If you understand someone, don’t pity them, change them. Only pity what you cant understand.«

The above quote is an example. Starts with a truthful statement, because indeed it is easy to pity and in so many cases it is also useless and sometimes even insulting, but the rest is just teenage nonsense born out of the desire of saying something that in the end would either be disarming, provoking, or would project some deep yet fictional wound. However, it ends being none of the above.

Other pieces of dialogue pretty much dance on the same tune or if not they are even far less.

There is also a very amusing contrast: the film is beautifully and elegantly shot, the interior is nicely decorated, the same can be said about the costume, coloring and all, however at its core it is a bleak and somehow repulsive film. Not because its heroine is too »deformed«, nor because she made decisions that transformed her in an outcast (13 Moons or Fox and his friends even), but because there is nothing about her that is authentic or at least intriguing. Not because she tries to manipulate, but because she wants to do it, or she thinks she wants to do it, she gives it a shot and fails. One may never be certain if she even tried hard enough.

This is why I said that this film deceives. However, I think Fassbinder was well aware of that as I am well aware that this was one of his intentions if not his main intention. If we strip the film of its narrative layer(s), we can see it as a cheerful attack against the bourgeoisie, the hypocritical social/pseudo-philosophical conveniences masqueraded as »good manners« or values. Again, this is not exactly news, actually you can say this about most of his movies, but I think here he has done it in a deliciously subversive manner.

This having been said, The bitter tears... was a movie I »enjoyed« (not sure if it is the right word) and I am looking forward to see more of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films (except In a year of 13 Moons, Fox and his Friends, The Marriage of Maria Braun which I have seen). From what I have seen, his films often tackle difficult/scandalous and sensible subjects of matter, they are bitter, straightforward and insightful (especially when it comes to »outcasts«)  and yet quiet and »unsensational«. And for me at least, this is the reason they worked. So if you are fed-up if films parading  »freaks« either for entertainment, either because the director wanted to fool the audience they are witnessing an important and challenging motion picture this may be your call.

by Shade

photo | Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1972. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Movie Still

Full article here.