Rainer Werner Fassbinder adapted his own stage play for The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Germany, 1972), a modern twist on The Women, the great all-woman Hollywood classic of sex and social conventions in high society. Margit Carstensen is successful fashion designer Petra von Kant, who lives alone in her stark apartment with Marlene (Irm Hermann), her silent, obedient secretary / servant / girl Friday, whom she alternately abuses and ignores.
Once divorced—by her decision, as she proudly describes the experience to her friend the countess—and once widowed, leaving her a grown child (she at one point berates parents who don’t raise their children properly, then explains she hasn’t the time for her child but takes comfort in knowing she is at the best schools), she falls in lust with a callow, shallow, lazy young married woman, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) who left her husband in Australia to return to Germany. Petra treats the seemingly naïve blonde beauty as part protégé, part pet, but the calculating kitten takes Petra’s money and gifts and social introductions with a cold calculation.
It all plays out in Petra’s stark apartment—a bedroom/workroom with a bed on white shag and a work area below with naked dress dummies, an easel and a typewriter—and Michael Ballhaus’ prowling camera finds Marlene silently hovering on the borders of Petra’s dramas, looking on through doors and windows like an adoring lover from afar. Handsome with a touch of aloofness (the dress dummies sprawled through each scene add a note of alienation), it’s a quintessentially Fassbinder portrait of doomed love, jealousy, and social taboos, bouncing between catty melodrama and naked emotional need.
In German with English subtitles
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Also available on DVD and Blu-ray in a deluxe Criterion edition and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [Blu-ray]
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant [DVD]
Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus oversaw the digital restoration of the film for the Criterion Blu-ray and DVD release, mastered in 4K from the original camera negative and supervised by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. It’s a tremendous leap in quality from the previous DVD release a decade ago, with strong color (essential to appreciate the art direction and lighting) and a great level of detail and crispness. The Criterion debut of the film features a new video interviews with Ballhaus and the original featurette “Outsiders” featuring new interviews with actors Margit Carstensen, Eva Mattes, Katrin Schaake, and Hanna Schygulla, plus a new interview with film scholar Jane Shattuc about director Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the film, and the 1992 documentary Role Play: Women on Fassbinder, originally made for German TV and featuring interviews with Carstensen, Schygulla, and actors Irm Hermann and Rosel Zech. It includes a foldout insert in place of a booklet with an essay by critic Peter Matthews.