Hit Me With Your Best Shot
Season 7 Episode 16
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant
Written and Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cinematography by Michael Ballhaus
When you watch a lot of movies you inadvertently end up drawing comparisons between films that you wouldn't have thought to put in conversation previously. It's as if you've accidentally become a guest programmer of a repertory theater or a local festival. Such was the case this week when I (not intentionally) watched Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) nearly back to back and shook my fists to the heavens and cursed the name of anyone who ever regurgitated the lie that you have to "open up" stage plays to make them work on screen.
Sometimes half the power of a text is in its site-specific constriction. So I went from George & Martha's messy drab campus housing with a bar (or at least its contents) in every room, to the stylish studio apartment of fashion designer Petra Von Kant which was paradoxically both over-decorated and minimalist, and both frozen in place and ever-shifting without explanation (Wasn't the bed over there in the last scene? Can these mannequins move around the room at will like the toys in Pixar movies?). I loved every second of both films and especially, perhaps paradoxically for someone who prefers short movies, the foreboding sense that there was no way to exit either film, ever, unless you accepted your fate and drowned in their contagious neuroses.
All it takes to make a play cinematic when it becomes a movie is great filmmakers. That's it. That's the whole formula...
Nothing else! Give the right auteur a camera, a fine script and a few gifted collaborators (I chose this movie partially to honor Michael Ballhaus, one of my favorite cinematographers - he also shot The Fabulous Baker Boys) and they can whip up a classic movie on a single set with just a few actors.
The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, by the genius Rainer Werner Fassbinder (thank god he was so prolific since he died at 37) takes place entirely in the flat of the titular woman played by Margit Carstensen (Best Actress winner in Germany for this role). Petra's a jaded successful fashion designer divorcée who prefers the company of women. (No men appear in the picture but for the nude ones in the Rubens mural on the wall and Fassbinder himself in a newspaper photo) She spends most of her time with an indifferent lover Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and her silent "servant" Marlene (Fassbinder regular Irm Hermann in the film's most opaque but entirely fascinating role). Other friends and relatives stop by for a drink and multiple servings of gossip. That's the entire film, Petra's volatile friendships, her love affairs, and her martyrdom (she's financing the lives of most of these women).
I'd have to spill a thousand words if I wanted to do justice to the film's extraordinary facility with its single set filled with mannequins and dolls and the way the women sometime stand so still that you can mistake them for either. And another thousand if I wanted to pay homage to Petra's costumes since she looks like a different woman in every scene as if she's no more permanent than a single runway look.
Everyone is replaceable. Everyone. That's something they have to learn.
In one of the film's most visually lush scenes, Petra invites Karin over and attempts to seduce her over a long evening of conversation. She plays one of her favorite songs (best shot above) and while talking about her first deceased husband she even tells Karin that "everyone is replaceable". In a pinch, the camera and set design suggest, even a mannequin will do. The thrill of suspecting that Karin would walk into this very frame, replacing our view of the mannequin, was half the sensation of this particular shot. And Karin complies.
But Petra's words are not always beliefs. She is already so smitten with Karin that it's clear this coldness, too, is performance and presentation, a lie she tells herself, so she can go on living and loving again.
OTHER CHOICES FROM THE 'BEST SHOT' CLUB
Click on the photos for the articles
The images never feel stylish for their own sake, but always serve as the visual expression of the psychological gamesmanship between the characters.
-Antagony & Ecstasy
Camera movement or shot duration can be as revealing as the composition of the frame, and despite evidence to the contrary, the internet can only contain so many gifs...
-Film Mix Tape
But I keep coming back to two things about Bitter Tears: Marlene and the mannequins.
-Dancin Dan on Film
This gin-soaked climax contains my pick for Best Shot, emphasizing Fassbinder's strong skill in staging characters within a frame...
There’s a story here that we’re not getting, and that makes this moment all the more fascinating.
Alfred Hitchcock's TO CATCH A THIEF with Cary Grant & Grace Kelly (streaming at Netflix)