Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

More homework! Yay! The title character in Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is a fashion designer living in an apartment with her assistant, Marlene. The entire film is set solely in this apartment. A quick plot outline for those who wish: (minor spoilers ahead) Petra has just divorced her husband, but soon finds a woman, Karin, with whom she becomes involved. However, after living with Petra for awhile, Karin leaves to visit her husband, never to return. Petra is left emotionally distraught.

You will find my essay below. You might not want to read it if you haven't seen the film.
One of the most noticeable elements of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is the fact that no male characters are present in the film. Just because there are no men seen on screen does not mean that men do not influence the lives of the female characters. This film is about the effect that men have on women’s relationships. Petra von Kant’s (Margit Carstensen) stagnant relationship with her ex-husband, Frank, has influenced how she sees her later relationships with Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and Marlene (Irm Hermann). Instead of choosing stable options, Petra gravitates toward more dynamic relationships. Karin is unpredictable and unreliable, and eventually Petra tries to adjust her relationship with Marlene to avoid such stasis in that relationship as well. Even Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) has recognized a change by saying, “The whole thing has hardened you. It’s a pity.” Instead of offering a verbal response, Petra replies by putting on makeup—both a literal and a metaphorical mask. She has been hardened and she wants to protect herself from being “stuck in the mire” in her future relationships. She finds stagnant relationships, such as the one with her ex-husband, to be the most oppressive. Ironically, Petra is the dominant party in an extremely oppressive relationship with Marlene. Marlene, who does not speak for the entirety of the film, acts as Petra’s servant. At the end of the film, however, Petra offers her freedom in an attempt to break the cycle of domination that she experiences in relationships.

The fact that the women in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant are oppressed and so heavily influenced by their relationships is reflected by Fassbinder’s masterful posing of characters in the film’s mise-en-scène. On the wall of Petra’s home is a large mural of a party or feast. At the focal point of the piece is a large nude man, towering over the rest of the subjects, visually oppressing them. Not only does he overshadow the individuals in the painting, but he is often found dominating the film’s characters. In the film, it is very common for his penis to be the focal point of the scene even when the main characters are conversing in the frame. This is Fassbinder’s visual representation of the oppression that women receive from men even when they are not present.

Often, the way that characters are posed mimics the figures in the painting. In her first scene, Karin kneels on the bed while Petra reclines. Karin is posed next to the man in the painting and looms over Petra who is in the same position as a woman in the painting. This shot is key in the demonstration of Petra’s seemingly worshipful attitude toward Karin. Even though she is older and wiser than Karin, Petra seems to be more submissive. Petra stares intensely and in awe at Karin and seems visibly dejected as Karin discusses her husband. This denotes one of the recurring themes in Fassbinder’s films: relationships are never equally reciprocal. One partner always loves the other more, causing an emotional imbalance. In the film, Fassbinder renders this disparity physically with the composition of the characters in the frame. For example, in the first scene with Karin, her and Petra sit on the bed facing in the same direction. Marlene, who is in the background, is facing opposite them. This shows the (currently) mutual relationship between Petra and Karin and how Marlene is excluded from it.

As their conversation progresses, Karin moves to sit on the bed in the same visual level as Petra. In doing this, Karin is visually implying that she has feelings similar to Petra’s. However, the omnipresent nude man in the painting is literally between the two female characters demonstrating how the men in both of their lives are inhibiting their relationship with each other. Even though no male characters appear onscreen, Fassbinder does not let the audience forget that they still influence and hold power over the women. Karin is still married to her husband and Petra’s past relationship with Frank has changed her emotionally.

The characters’ poses are not the only visual cue Fassbinder uses to demonstrate the convoluted relationships in the film. The dynamic and complicated relationships are often represented by mannequins. In the first scene with Karin, three mannequins are standing together and because of the way they are posed, it seems as if two of the dolls are excluding the other one. Presumably, the two mannequins represent Petra and Karin, who act friendly and amicable toward each other, and the other represents Marlene, who is only allowed to watch from the outside.

The next scene, however, has the mannequins placed far away from each other, representing the emotional disconnect that Petra and Karin are experiencing. Karin has slept with another man and for a moment seems to enjoy Petra’s pain. However, it seems that Karin soon realizes that she still needs Petra to advance in the fashion world and attempts to make amends. Later, they find out that Karin has had her photograph published in the newspaper and immediately afterward she leaves to visit her husband. In the background, Marlene is dressing one of the mannequins in an extravagant outfit while the other two are either naked or wearing solid colors. The well dressed mannequin is mirroring Karin’s character. Just as Karin is advancing in the world of fashion this mannequin is advancing in style in relation to the others. Using this visual cue, Fassbinder calls attention to what is happening in the relationship between Petra and Karin: Petra has become boring to Karin. Due to this boredom, Karin leaves Petra for her husband; Petra has been considered second-rate compared to a man. This is another way in which Petra’s life has been affected by men. Even through her attempts to seclude herself, Petra has felt the effects of men within her relationships. Though he never shows it directly, Fassbinder never lets the viewer forget the omnipresence of the dominant male.

Grade: A-


Blair said...

So I totally just watched this. It was so painful to watch at times and I loved it. Thank you for helping me find a way to avoid doing any real work.

Mitch said...

Haha anytime, Blair! I have mixed feelings about the film as well. It took me awhile to decide if I wanted to watch it again or not. I think I fell in love with it a little bit more after a second viewing.