The Bitter Tears of(The Criterion Collection, 1.13.2015)
Petra von Kant (Blu-ray)
The exceedingly idiosyncratic work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder is not for everyone, but for those who respond to his intricate aesthetics and complex re-wirings of the Hollywood melodrama, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is an overwhelming cinematic experience. Set almost entirely in a single room, the film makes no effort to hide its roots in theatre, but Fassbinder and his collaborators discover thrilling cinematic ideas at every turn. Even more impressively, he constructs an intricate web of characters and relationships that constantly builds in complexity, resisting simple conclusions. The troubled romance between Petra (Margit Carstensen) and Karin (Hanna Schygulla) produces the film’s most emotional moments, but the character that really transcends the limitations of melodrama is Marlene (Irm Hermann), a constant presence on the periphery of Petra’s highs and lows, typing and sketching in the background without uttering a word. As a dramatic variable, she proves to be a wildly unsettling presence, an ignored solution to the protagonist’s troubles, and a stark counterpoint to Petra’s forceful (and ultimately tragic) pursuit of desire.
In addition to an essay by critic Peter Matthews and one of the most striking transfers in recent memory, this disc includes four substantial extras. Outsiders is a 31-minute documentary featuring new interviews with four of the film’s actresses: Carstensen, Schygulla, Eva Mattes, and Katrin Schaake. Rather than romanticize Fassbinder, they reflect on the challenges of the collaboration. They also explore the film’s roots in the director’s own personal life, a topic that is covered in more detail -- by several of the same actresses -- in an hour-long documentary entitled Role Play: Women on Fassbinder.
In a 7-minute interview, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus elaborates on Fassbinder’s combative mindset, and the process by which they achieved the film’s striking visual style. Now better known for his many collaborations with Martin Scorsese (including Goodfellas and Gangs of New York), Ballhaus established his reputation working with Fassbinder. He explains that their relationship was occasionally stormy, but their understanding of one another’s ideas made it possible to shoot the film in a mere ten days.
The last extra on this disc is also the most enlightening. Emerson College professor and author of Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture, Jane Shattuc breaks down the film -- and Fassbinder’s overall approach -- in relation to the ideas of Bertolt Brecht and Douglas Sirk. While Brecht advocated a distancing effect with no emotional identification, Fassbinder preferred to bring aspects of Sirkian melodrama into the mix. Those who have seen Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy may notice a superficial resemblance to The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but he seems to be embracing the Brechtian influence without any of the Sirk. The result is an intriguing aesthetic exercise that unintentionally highlights the power of Fassbinder’s inspired hybrid. -- Jonathan Doyle