Cutting comments: a MIFF dialogue on Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

Dialogue following a screening of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) at the Melbourne International Film Festival (ACMI theatre / ‘Fashion X Cinema’ sidebar), 9th August 2018.

Neil Young:
This was your second view of the film. Was the first one in a cinema? If so, how did the communal viewing experience alter your perceptions?

Samuel Harris:
My first view was in the same cinema two years prior: I was lucky enough to catch it on 35mm as a part of Melbourne Cinematheque’s collaboration with the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. It followed Querelle—which in 2016, I called “the gayest film I have ever seen, and probably ever will see”—and the two films, despite both being by Fassbinder, were quite the contrast. Querelle is drenched in artifice and sweat and exuberance whereas The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is totally restrained, it’s all about the tension bubbling just below.

This time, within seconds of the film beginning, the man beside me hissed at the woman in front to turn off her phone to which she replied, “that’s what I’m doing!” Stuff like this always puts me off: tension in a cinema makes me wriggle in my seat. I wish everyone just got along. In a way it was kind of apt for the film, which is consumed by a type of interpersonal friction. Nobody gets along. It’s a room full of negative energy where one character can’t get too close to another without being pushed away by a kind of psychic force. It’s interesting to see where they land at the end of each act.

I think Fassbinder certainly would not be upset by a bit of negative energy in the room when his films are being shown, especially this one. Also, later on there were a couple of moments when mobiles actually—and audibly—went off! Usually this would be irksome, but since the film has several moments where the ringing of Petra’s telephone is a very big deal (its impact deliberately amped up by the sound design) this became part of the “fun.”

And I use that word advisedly: I’d never seen the film before so was expecting a gruelling ordeal of misery and exploitation. Maybe those watching the picture in isolation at home could receive it in that way. But the audience last night really picked up on how Fassbinder structures the film as a crescendo of very dark humour. And the final scene—in which the supposedly put-upon servant Marlene (Irm Hermann) packs her suitcase while Petra (Margit Carstensen) looks helplessly on, Marlene at one point casually dropping in a revolver—came across as unambiguously comedic.

Also, I know what you mean about “interpersonal friction” but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that “nobody gets along”: Petra gets along with nobody, and her amour fou with Karin (Hanna Schygulla) is of course a source of severe emotional chaos. But her friends and family are often brought together in their victimhood, particularly her daughter and her mother—not that Fassbinder is especially interested in them as characters per se. The film is all about Petra and Marlene, which of course is more than enough….

I was surprised to hear the several mentions of Australia in the dialogue (which of course got murmurs of amusement from the Melbourne crowd). What did you make of these references to Sydney, where Hanna S’s character just returned from after a stay of several years?

References to Australia in foreign films always generate amusement—a mention also popped up this year in Shoplifters too. We’re just happy to be recognised! Australia is probably used as a throwaway location, some faraway land (20-hour flight from Germany; ten hours from Japan) a long time ago in a galaxy not too far away where anything could happen. Just throw your characters here (or pretend to) and we’ll take good care of them.

Hanna Schygulla’s Karin takes even longer to get from Australia to Europe after the end of her five-year Australian sojourn; it’s mentioned that she took the boat from Sydney to Southampton, which must have been a cruise ship. Those trips take at least forty nights! And Fassbinder makes it clear that the grass isn’t any greener on the other side of the planet: “Things aren’t so rosy there either; you get nowhere without pushing,” Karin sighs. Adapted from the director’s own play (which continues to be performed) the film famously all takes place within a single flat—in effect, it’s one huge room subdivided into living-room, bed-room, kitchen, etc—and the isolation and claustrophobia (undercut by the visibility of trees through the small, high windows) is emphasised by these occasional references to the wider beyond. These are folk from the world of fashion, cosmopolitan and globe-trotting—amusing, then, that Petra’s residence should be in Bremen, a relatively remote and obscure (though quite large) provincial city then as now rather than in Berlin or even Munich, where one might expect a globally-renowned fashion-designer to be based.

Margit Carstensen is of course amazing as Petra, barely recognisable from scene to scene both visually and vocally. But… Irm Hermann as Marlene: greatest dialogue-free performance in cinema?

I can’t think of any other dialogue-free performances at all but Hermann has surely gathered them all up, bundled them into a bag and left them in an alley. If awards-bodies were as profligate with awards as they are now, she would have swept the circuit in 1973 (“Best Dialogue-Free Performance”/”Least Dialogue from an Actress in a Supporting Role—Comedy or Musical”). Mobilising some clichés: “less is more,” and, she “says so much by saying so little” … they’re true! She’s great for the deadpan stuff as well as being this blank slate onto which Petra projects so many of her own insecurities. She’s just another mannequin shifting around the room, except this mannequin is at Petra’s bidding and is nearly subsumed in her wrath. But, of course, she eventually has had enough—and her sly dropping of the revolver in her suitcase is the cherry on top.

I took it that the presence of the revolver—plus the fact that she so confidently just ups and leaves—is meant to indicate that Marlene had the “upper hand” all along, that the whole Petra-Marlene relationship was a classic S&M situation in which the downtrodden person was actually complicit in (and in control of) her supposed abasement throughout. In terms of some other great dialogue-free performances: it’s tricky—there are sign-language turns like Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water, in which she actually has a lot of dialogue, it’s just that none of it is spoken. Warren Oates’ protagonist in Cockfighter has taken a vow of silence after the defeat of his prize cock (or something) but we hear him loud and clear in voice-over. Buster Keaton in Samuel Beckett’s FILM—but that one is virtually a silent film anyway.

Ray Milland in The Thief? Jacques Tati in various iterations of Monsieur Hulot? Jae Hee in Kim Ki-duk’s 3-Iron? If there is a rival to Hermann (and that’s a big if!) then it might be Takeshi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels, whose character is mute. Mutes in cinema fascinate me. I have in my entire life (47 years) never met a single mute. But if you go to a film-festival, you will encounter at least one or two—generally elective—on the big screen. Something to talk about.

Did you spot Fassbinder in the film? Does his appearance necessarily mean we have to take into account the biographical approaches which many critics have delved into when talking about the picture?

I didn’t! The MIFF site flags the film as “all-female,” so my eyes weren’t wandering around for a stocky German bloke. He doesn’t paint himself into Petra’s mural of Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus, does he? (à la Midge in Vertigo). I’m assuming he appears in photographic form? I think the critics are right—from my (limited) knowledge of Fassbinder, the autobiographical nature of his films seems to be the most prominent critical through-line. His output is so prolific that I don’t know where else, if not inspired by his own experiences, all this stuff would be coming from—unless he’s tapped into some artistic spring hidden deep in Germany.

Well, those probably did and still do exist…. Indeed, Fassbinder is (I believe) the portly chap in the check shirt, visible in the background of the black-and-white photo of Karin which Petra spots in the Bremen newspaper. An ingenious way to give himself a Hitchcockian cameo, despite the picture being all-woman. I hesitate to say “all-female” because there those two cats who appear in the very first shot, as the opening titles play—but who are (if I remember correctly) conspicuous by their absence (neither seen nor heard) from the following two hours. Maybe one of those is a he-cat. Or maybe Fassbinder took a leaf from George Cukor’s The Women (1939), also showing in MIFF’s fashion sidebar this year, in which all of the performers—human and animal—are distaff.

Speaking of critters… Did I hallucinate the occasional very very quiet sound of cock-crowing and children playing coming from the street/forest beyond?

If you were hallucinating, then so was I! I’d expect external sounds to seep in at the Comedy Theatre, (a less-attractive MIFF venue) but ACMI’s setup is usually airtight. It wasn’t someone’s ringtone, was it? These occasional subliminal sounds drew my mind to the film’s setting: Petra lives in isolation… where? I can’t picture a bustling playground sitting outside her apartment, and so to me the images don’t match up. They work to almost ground the film in reality, not in some emotional hothouse lifted above the clouds. The way these sounds bleed in dig another level of depth to an already bottomless story – is Petra (and/or her apartment) haunted by these cries?

So I wasn’t hallucinating—that’s a relief. It could be that the subliminal cock-crowing and children noises were entirely accidental, and that Fassbinder didn’t even hear them himself. The fella was obviously some kind of genius, but that doesn’t mean he was necessarily omniscient or in total control of his material. If the sounds were intentional, then the children-noise fits in with an unsubtle cliché of cinema whereby childless characters—especially those whose kids have died—are often placed in environments where bairns are visible/audible. Petra does have a child, of course, Gaby—whom she has packed off to boarding school, and with whom she barely has any kind of relationship: during the big crisis scene, she scolds her as a “little horror”—and the sounds are so low in the audio-mix as to be virtually inaudible. Mysteries of cinema!

At one point we see a long tear down Petra von Kant‘s cheek. It’s obviously glycerin. Is this Fassbinder tipping us the wink that we shouldn’t take the film too seriously?

This is a great observation! I wouldn’t be surprised if the director gave us a few winks here and there, and I think it also draws attention to the film’s artifice. As you’ve mentioned, it’s based on Fassbinder’s own play and the theatricality of it all is plainly in sight, totally wrung dry for maximum melodrama. Internally, Petra may be an emotional disaster, but she struggles to externalize this—even her tears are fake! An extension of her “Bad & Boujee,” superficial-but-aspiring-to-be-genuine lifestyle. Fassbinder’s love for these borderline-contrived tableaux (and obvious riffs on Persona) borders on self-seriousness but, again, as you’ve mentioned, the winks are there… The film is definitely something I plan to revisit again and again—I absorbed a lot more this time around, the waxing lyrical about love, lust, loss and other Ls. As a university student I adore the company of my room about as much she Petra does but it’ll be interesting to see how I feel about this in a few years when I’ve (hopefully) matured.

Samuel Harris / Neil Young
August 2018