The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder / West Germany, 1972):
(Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant)

The satirical thrust is The Blue Angel, also perhaps Nabokov’s "Ode to a Model," whipped up by Rainer Werner Fassbinder into something like the greatest women-in-prison movie. Cats on a darkened staircase comprise the opening tableau, the camera pulls back to contemplate the studio-boudoir-dungeon where Petra (the phenomenal Margit Carstensen) is roused from slumber like a vampiress. A high-fashion doyenne, she presides imperiously from her bed, dictates a letter to a certain "Herr Mankiewicz" ("There are circumstances between heaven and earth..."), and grabs her silent servant (Irm Herrmann) for a terse pas de deux scored to The Platters, neither one looking at the other. "Easy to pity, hard to understand," she says, the motto of a tough woman ruthlessly controlling hard-won space. (A naked Bacchus dominates the billboard-sized Poussin mural in the background, the phallocracy of the outside world petrified but always looming.) Yet Petra’s hauteur is little more than the sum of her wigs and façades, all it takes is rejection from her plebeian Galatea (Hanna Schygulla) for it to unravel. An audience of limbless, staring mannequins savors the spectacle: "That’s how oppression comes, quite automatically." Relationships to Fassbinder are waltzes of power shifts and eclipses, life’s "codes of behavior" are laid bare as the frozen, flattened poses of melodrama. His characters spear each other with words only to beg for forgiveness, weep through blank visages, laugh raucously without the slightest hint of mirth. Throughout, Michael Ballhaus’ camera languidly circles and zooms, pinning actors to cluttered décor in one hyper-concentrated composition after another. Sprawled on the wasteland of a terrycloth rug, clutching a doll and a bottle of gin, Petra is Medusa brought to her knees, spitting fire at friends and family. "My daughter loves a girl," mutters her dazed mother. "How peculiar." A frigid hothouse in four acts and one epilogue, the equal of the best of Losey or Duras. The crushed tea set of the bourgeoisie yields to a throb of Verdi, "The Great Pretender" trumpets a working-class insurrection, then lights out. With Katrin Schaade, Eva Mattes, and Gisela Fackeldey.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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