Rainer Werner Fassbinder

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Penelope Gilliatt

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["The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant"] is a lucid, beautiful work of innovation which hides its fondness for its characters under a cloak of august formalism. One remembers at the end that the dedication reads, "A case history of one who here became Marlene." Marlene is an apparently minor character who never speaks—of the six women in the film, she is the mute—but the story, in recall, is about the effect of its events on her sensibility. It is typical of the ricochet movement of Fassbinder's films that at the time we should regard her only as a witness. (p. 264)

There are fibre-glass figures and costume drawings everywhere in the working part of the room. We are watching a woman who is almost suffocated by stylishness, surrounded by copies of herself. Everything is ersatz. (p. 265)

Yet, all the time, this creation of perfect bones and mascara, seeking to control everything around her, has very little mastery, which is one of the abiding and passionate themes of Fassbinder's apparently unemotional works. The same idea runs through "Fox and His Friends."… In all the sumptuous sophistication of both Petra's and Fox's experiences, there is much pain, much innocence. Just as Fox is robbed of his fortune by tutelage in good living, so Petra is tormented in her fortunate world of a room, furnished with a copy of a great painting and bald-headed, long-necked mannequins. (p. 266)

Fassbinder's films ache, in spite of their apparent formalism. On the face of it, "Petra" is a theatrical film. Six women, no men; five acts, separated by change of dress; no change of scenery, much change of mood. The set moves from bed to corridor to carpet. In one of the final episodes, when Petra is sprawled on the floor with the telephone, the pile carpet becomes a field of razed earth.

Fassbinder shoots in very long takes. The camera seldom moves. We become obsessed with the contradiction of composed and worldly faces uttering primitive anguish…. Everything is terse and minimal. Noun and verb. Fassbinder is concerned here with the sort of love that rests in contest. So his real heroine is not Petra, the victimizer turned victim, but her silent assistant, who has been tortured by the sight of sadistic love's punishments.

This is a political film, as Fassbinder's always are, as well as a sage film about love. Petra believes that what she has earned she can break. In her agony of longing for Karin, the lower-class model who has made a reputation out of working for her and then found it easy to leave her, she stamps on a tray laid with an expensive tea set. All fragments. But she is only breaking a talisman of her elegant ambitions: it is no triumph, because she is not destroying her passion for Karin. The passion is born of capitalism, Fassbinder implies, for Petra still truly believes that she paid for Karin by giving her the benefit of her greater talent and income, constituting a superiority of class in the tournament. The changeover of power is shown by Fassbinder with a curtness veiling sympathy. The dialogue is sharp in a stylized set of scenes. It is often the case that extreme stylization covers extreme pity. This is so of "The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant." (pp. 267-68)

Penelope Gilliatt, "Exile" (originally published as "Fassbinder," in The New Yorker, Vol. LII, No. 17, June 14, 1976), in her Three-Quarter Face: Reports & Reflections (reprinted by permission of Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.; copyright © 1980 by Penelope Gilliatt), Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1980, pp. 235-82.∗

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