Queers on Film: Fassbinder’s Power Struggle in 'The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant'

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Rainer Warner Fassbinder is a name highly associated with ‘70s art house cinema, stained by post-Nazi Germany and an incestuous art community who built themselves like cult followers around a cocaine-fueled workaholic filmmaker. The output this openly bisexual visionaire managed to produce within a culture affected by the Nazi regime and in an age of pure nihilism was massive. Though not without its philosophical depth, deviation and damage were the essence of his work and, on a personal level, infiltrated all of Fassbinder’s inseparable creative and romantic connections. Even within the vitriol and tragedy of Fassbinder’s films, they were so magically and beautifully shot that one single still could influence an onlooker to seek out the full experience. There are no happy endings, but sometimes a shred of truth will pull a character out of denial to face it all in the end, an air of understanding.

Around 1972, Fassbinder entered a new era with the intimate embarkment of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Fueled by dreams, estranged by delusions, fashion designer Petra is a bourgeois narcissist whose interactions with the women around her alters dramatically after falling in obsession with aspiring younger model Karin. Petra’s physical appearance shifts with her declining emotional stability over the course of the film in detailed artistic symbolism, place holding acts in a play (as Petra was originally penned to be) in a film that is emotionally tumultuous and overblown intentionally. 


“I don’t find melodrama ‘unrealistic’; everyone has the desire to dramatise the things that go on around him. Everyone has a mass of small anxieties that he tries to get around in order to avoid questioning himself; melodrama comes hard up against them.” 

-Fassbinder, Sight & Sound


Petra is one of the few films that Fassbinder designed himself, typically working with on-and-off lover and actor Kurt Raab for 31 of his films. Petra is more creamy than the signature Fassbinder/Raab neon-lit aura influenced by director Douglas Sirk, who affected not only aesthetics but the tone and movement of Fassbinder’s more developed work. This conversation of influence has been ongoing over the decades, imprinting other directors as reflected by Guy Maddin and Todd Haynes (below). 


“They were films about every possible minority:  people of color, gay people, anarchists in the 3rd generation. All of the subjects of Fassbinder films are as much the victims and perpetrators of the power dynamic; that is his real critique in these films,” Haynes says. “He’s very interested in the ways in which victims in fact participate in power dynamics that are ultimately the products of societies. It’s a very different kind of approach.” The double standard of the characters in Fassbinder’s films, suffering and simmering with hopes to receive some kind of resource from one another, and how the audience member can recognize this in their own interactions and change it, is a poignant observation from Haynes. 

During a time where accountability was not as discussed or practiced, Fassbinder was presenting decorated psychosis in order for the audience to see the err of raw realities and their communications and treatments. The constant stream of wealth versus poverty, promises of fame or protection, the emotional tenderness that becomes cross-wired with agenda and intent, is the basis for every single one of his films, yet reaches into a deeper framework of cycles that haunt the human condition no matter the era or the country, the identity or the disposition. 

Instead of the thematic struggle of racial, homophobic and sexist entities, Petra’s setting is seemingly full of upper class pleasantries:  a white all-female cast with a hint of lesbian romance. Of course lesbian groups protested the film, missing the point completely. It’s not to say that Fassbinder was never a misogynist, but bringing expectations to this particular director about how he must portray any character was barking up the worst of wrong trees. Fassbinder’s needed examples of bad behavior in order to reflect the struggle and suffering of power dynamics that most art at the time tended to eschew as too political or too aggressive. 

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Ironically, the relationship between Petra and Karin was deeply personal to Fassbinder, as it was inspired by his own gay relationship with a younger actor. Within Petra, Fassbinder found a way to make a film about microaggressions inside the bubble, seething with intensity, stirring a tale of possession, fear of abandonment and ego death at the forefront. Felt deeply by audiences, most of Fassbinder’s films were mirrors of his own experiences. Because of the generational gap of Petra and Karin, and their sadistic and masochistic energies, the unhealthy codependency of Petra reveals a stinging truth in love gone wrong. 

Fassbinder was not about healthy depictions. He was about grim realism, wrapped in a gauzy glamourization and yet so many of his female characters were brazen and bold molds, less sad eyed than Godard’s muses and less gaudy than Fellini’s follies. Fassbinder elevated his own trope of undocumented woman. Woman as the kamikaze, fallen drug addict, met with empathy, the audience nail-biting to see her somehow escape. The BRD Trilogy encapsulated such passionate belief in the narratives, it’s possible that Fassbinder found pieces of himself within all of the main characters. 

But like many creative children who came from a lineage ravaged in dictatorship, Fassbinder’s touch of unnerving violence is very raw for some preferences in art. Querelle was the last film Fassbinder ever made, released in 1982, the same year he overdosed from cocaine and barbiturates. Between 1969 to his untimely death at the age of 37, Fassbinder directed over 40 films and various shorts, televisions series, plays and beyond. In a cliche, Fassbinder was a tortured soul who grappled with wanting to be loved but abusing himself and those around him, standing in his own way. 


Queers on Film presented by Wussy Mag and Out on Film will screen Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant on October 7th at Plaza Theatre. You can purchase tickets by clicking here.


Sunni Johnson is the Arts Editor of WUSSY and a writer, zinester, and musician based in Atlanta, GA.