DVD Review: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

PetraDVDSTUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Rainer Werner Fassbinder | CAST: Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla, Katrin Schaake, Eva Mattes, Irm Hermann
RELEASE DATE: 1/13/15 | PRICE: DVD $29.95, Blu-ray $39.95
BONUSES: new interviews with the film’s stars, 1992 documentary “Role Play: Women on Fassbinder,” interview with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, interview with scholar Jane Shattuc
SPECS: NR | 125 min. | Foreign language drama | 1:37:1 widescreen | mono | German with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video | Overall

 

It’s very hard for a Rainer Werner Fassbinder fan to pick his or her favorite movie by the miraculously prolific cornerstone of the “New German Cinema.” Whatever titles they may choose for the first few slots, there’s no question that The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is somewhere in the top rank.

A visual marvel thanks to the gorgeous camerawork of Michael Ballhaus, the 1972 film is one of the only theatrical features that RWF fashioned from one of his stage plays (other plays were turned into tele-films, and he “opened up” his earlier play Katzelmacher). It revolves around the doomed love that a temperamental fashion designer (Margit Carstensen) has for a beautiful social climber (Hanna Schygulla, Love Is Colder Than Death).

Petra is a splendid blend of two of Fassbinder’s biggest influences, Bertolt Brecht and Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows). The viewer is thus made to sympathize with Petra and her relatives at different parts, and then is drawn “back” to view the situation. The set design finds the cast acting beneath a giant wall painting and adjacent to mannequins that that are clever “comments” on the proceedings.

Bitter Tears of Petra von KantOne of Fassbinder’s central themes — that oppressed groups are capable of great cruelty and oppression to their own members — is beautifully conveyed in Petra and was further developed in his brilliant gay drama Fox and His Friends (1975). This theme and many other aspects of the film are discussed at length in the supplements, all of which are exclusive to this Criterion restoration of the picture. One wonders if Criterion will include the extras from the previous 2002 Wellspring release of the film, which included Fassbinder’s first two shorts and a lengthy on-camera interview called “Fassbinder 1977,” in another release.

Author Jane Shattuc (who had done an audio commentary for the Wellspring release of the film) analyzes here the sexual politics of Petra, making arguments for and against its place as a “feminist” or “lesbian” film. She also reflects on the fact that biographical information on Fassbinder indicates that Petra was a fictional alter-ego based on his tortured dealings with his real-life lovers.

Fassbinder’s temperament comes up again in the supplements, as does his sumptuous visual style. In an interview, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus maintains that he and the filmmaker didn’t get along during their first few collaborations. He says that only when he walked off the set of Petra did Fassbinder began to respect him enough for the pair to work together comfortably.

The 1992 German TV documentary “Role Play: Women on Fassbinder” presents an eye-opening view of the way Fassbinder was loved and loathed by his lead actresses. In the docu, four of Fassbinder’s stars (three of whom starred in Petra) indulge in a psychological analysis of the filmmaker, praise him to the heavens, and wind up trashing him (as a friend, and in at least one case, as an ex-lover).

Fassbinder’s most famous protégé, Hanna Schygulla, says that she tired of the “puppet existence” that she had acting for RWF. Irm Hermann, who appeared in many of his seminal films, refers to the “pain” she felt in working for him as time moved on. A few minutes later, though, both Schygulla and Hermann discuss how magical it was to collaborate with him. The most interesting statements concern the actresses’ view of Fassbinder as a person, analyzing how his unstable childhood made him mistreat people and demand control over every aspect of his work.

Both Hermann and Carstensen maintain that they didn’t “understand” Fassbinder’s homosexuality (“there was nothing gay about him,” proclaims Carstensen). Perhaps Carstensen gets closest to explaining why his actors and crew put up with his severe mood swings when she notes that she became “addicted” to working with the charismatic filmmaker.

The two-disc package also includes new interviews with the performers. This featurette makes a fascinating contrast with the 1992 docu, as the actresses have become mellower in their thoughts about RWF. Katrin Schaake (who wasn’t in the earlier docu) is quite candid, however, about wanting to stay away from the games (including “the truth game”) that Fassbinder played with his actors.

Although Schygulla goes on at length about the themes in the film, the most interesting info she supplies concerning the way that Fassbinder shot the film with no rehearsals and very few retakes (only Carstensen knew the text well, as she played “Petra” onstage). She also imparts the best behind-the-scenes info: that Petra was Fassbinder’s meditation on his own passion for the German-American actor Gunther Kaufmann, who costarred in many of RWF’s films and died in 2012.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”