740 The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

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therewillbeblus
Joined: Tue Dec 22, 2015 3:40 pm

Re: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

#51 Post by therewillbeblus » Fri Sep 24, 2021 3:36 pm

Excellent post, Sloper! I didn't recall Petra's smile at the end, so I need to revisit the film before declaring exactly how optimistic I find it, though I did not intend to indicate I viewed the ending as cynical. I meant "bitter end" as one that provocatively challenges Petra's, and our, fixed notions of what "should" happen based on our behaviors, which are deep-rooted and incredibly uncomfortable to break away from. However, even without remembering Petra's smile, I always smiled myself at the ending knowing that Petra's rigid and fearfully-tight hold onto external constructs has been smashed, and she's liberated from them. Perhaps forcibly, and if she's experiencing serenity it surely won't last in some static state, but it's still the start of a new chapter, meaning there is at least an opportunity for things to get better rather than worse, now that the cycle has been broken.

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senseabove
Joined: Wed Dec 02, 2015 3:07 am

Re: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

#52 Post by senseabove » Fri Sep 24, 2021 4:13 pm

Excellent write-up, Sloper. I rewatched this the other night, but have struggled to put much into words about it. It's one of the Fassbinders I've waffled on over the years, between extremes of admiration for its unwavering commitment to archness and distrust of its seemingly flippant cruelty. This time I came out on the more positive end, and I think you summarize quite well why: mainly, that it's such a hall of mirrors that any particularized reading of any individual character's cruelty or enlightenment feels, necessarily, at least somewhat reductive of the others. (Secretary this ain't.) It was fascinating this time because it felt more apparent to me that, though Petra is obviously the foremost contender, all three leads could each take a rightful place as the queen monster, depending on how you slice it, and the others' monstrosity appears somehow diminutive in comparison as we develop some strange sympathetic feeling for their plight. They're all three the great 'pretender' to that throne, depending on whose side you're temporarily standing on. Makes me want to do a double-feature of this and 3 Women, another movie where it's impossible to settle exactly whose reality is a fantasy and whose fantasy is the reality, all overlapping and eating each other, metaphysically there, morally here.

One way of reading the ending that bubbled up for me this viewing is that Marlene leaves because Petra's initial peace proposal and immediate stipulation of "no, not like that" crushes the hope she'd clung to when serving as her outright servant, that one day Petra would see her as an equal in determining the terms of their relationship. Marlene glimpses the possibility in Petra's proposal, but when she goes to kiss her hand and Petra withdraws, Marlene realizes that, even after her ice queen's heart has melted, there's still no room for her desires to be expressed her way in their relationship. She'd still be a slave, but now with both the slave's dream of freedom and the sub's dream of willing subjugation thoroughly punctured. They're both monstrous in that end, then: Petra's dazed smile is a deepening delusion, seeing Marlene's departure as "freeing" her while blind to what Marlene actually wanted, and Marlene is as or even more sub-tyrannical than Petra. (What that means for the film's dedication... woof.)

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Sloper
Joined: Tue May 29, 2007 10:06 pm

Re: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

#53 Post by Sloper » Sat Oct 02, 2021 10:21 am

therewillbeblus wrote:I meant "bitter end" as one that provocatively challenges Petra's, and our, fixed notions of what "should" happen based on our behaviors, which are deep-rooted and incredibly uncomfortable to break away from.
senseabove wrote:One way of reading the ending that bubbled up for me this viewing is that Marlene leaves because Petra's initial peace proposal and immediate stipulation of "no, not like that" crushes the hope she'd clung to when serving as her outright servant, that one day Petra would see her as an equal in determining the terms of their relationship. Marlene glimpses the possibility in Petra's proposal, but when she goes to kiss her hand and Petra withdraws, Marlene realizes that, even after her ice queen's heart has melted, there's still no room for her desires to be expressed her way in their relationship. She'd still be a slave, but now with both the slave's dream of freedom and the sub's dream of willing subjugation thoroughly punctured.
That’s such an interesting moment, isn’t it? I’ve noticed (while doing my homework for the current list project) that hand-kissing is a significant motif in Veronika Voss and Lola, and I wonder if it’s a common Fassbinder trope…

I think twbb is right that, for most of the film, Petra seems frustrated at her inability to exert control over her life, or over people, and that she is in some way liberated from this at the end. She gives up on trying to ‘possess’ Karin and, in their final phone conversation, seems to accept Karin’s unresponsiveness as something that hurts her, but that she has to respect and come to terms with. Likewise, her smile in the final scene marks her acceptance of this surprising behaviour from the subservient and adoring Marlene.

With Marlene, the whole relationship is built on the principle that Petra is in control. Even when Marlene acts independently, she does so in a way that underlines her subordination to Petra’s career (as when she alters the design of the sleeves) or Petra’s emotions (as when she stares sympathetically from afar). This may explain why she likes the idea of being treated as an equal, but an equal ‘partner’ rather than an independent being – and why she recoils from Petra’s request, ‘tell me about your life’. As senseabove says, we realise now that the slave/sub identity was one that Marlene occupied voluntarily, and that Petra has (paradoxically) given her exactly what she didn’t want.

Or perhaps packing the suitcase and leaving is her way of answering this question, and Petra’s choice of record shows that she understands the gesture: Marlene is saying that she occupies roles and then vacates them, revealing old baggage as she leaves (the gun) and appropriating new baggage for the next role (the record, the doll). Her ‘life’ is defined by the act of constantly withholding her true self, perhaps because this gives her the sense of control and agency that all three central characters are seeking.

This makes me think of Karin’s remark about her parents neglecting her, and how she welcomed this neglect because it meant they didn’t intrude upon her actions or her thoughts: since childhood she has learnt to maintain the boundaries of her secret inner life, so it makes sense that she resists Petra’s attempts to make her express her feelings, and evades Petra by retreating into a private act (reading a magazine).

Karin may, as Petra suspects, be a deceptive manipulator scheming to get what she wants; or she may, as Karin herself claims, ‘love’ Petra in her own way but not be comfortable expressing this feeling. She apparently finds it easier to tell her husband, over the phone, that she loves him, but we don’t learn anything substantial about that relationship; perhaps it works (and works despite geographical separation) because Freddy doesn’t require intimacy or expressions of intense feeling.

It’s interesting reading the original play-script for Petra von Kant. There are hardly any stage directions or descriptions of the set, just wall-to-wall dialogue, and on the page the whole thing doesn’t amount to very much. Petra seems to ramble on incoherently about nothing, Karin comes across as ditzy and casually exploitative, and due to the dearth of stage directions you would hardly guess that Marlene is a significant character.

I haven’t read any other Fassbinder plays yet, but it’s very striking that he left so much space for the production (whether his own or someone else’s) to interpret this skeleton-text and bring out its meaning and emotional resonance. When I first watched the film, for a few minutes I was drowning in the dialogue and struggling to latch onto the story or the characters – but then I picked up that the images, camera movements, body language, and soundtrack were telling the story, and that the dialogue itself was only a small component in the overall scheme. Reading the play made me appreciate how much work all those cinematic nuances are doing.

One thing I noticed is that the music cues are quite different in the play. Petra puts on ‘In My Room’ at the same point in Act 2, but then Karin puts it on again at the end of Act 3, just before she leaves, and Petra listens to the whole thing before sobbing ‘I’m so stupid, so stupid’ as the song ends. Immediately after this, at the beginning of Act 4, Petra plays (and dances and sings to) ‘The Great Pretender’ before beginning her telephone-watching monologue.

The conclusion of Act 5 is even more drastically different: after her mother leaves, Petra puts on an un-specified record, listens to the whole thing while standing up, and then makes her apologetic speech to Marlene. Having rejected the hand-kissing gesture, Petra asks Marlene to sit down with her, and Marlene does, further emphasising that it is the inequality in their relationship that Petra is rejecting, not the romantic gesture as such. Her question, ‘Tell me about your life’, triggers the final blackout, with no dialogue or stage direction to tell us how Marlene reacts.

The implication, to judge from the script, is that Marlene will now at last say something, but that she can only begin to speak when the play has ended. Perhaps this goes back to the Thomas Mann quote at the end of Beware of a Holy Whore, suggesting that the theatrical space can provide a commentary on life, but is shut out from life itself. Petra’s world up until now has all been artifice and play-acting, and her escape from that world into a space where she can truly connect with someone is also the moment when the players and the audience can escape from the artificial construct in which they’ve been trapped. I’d love to know how and why they decided to have Marlene pack up and walk out at the end of the film, because it’s a brilliant subversion of what Fassbinder originally wrote.

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senseabove
Joined: Wed Dec 02, 2015 3:07 am

Re: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972)

#54 Post by senseabove » Sat Oct 02, 2021 3:33 pm

Speaking of comparing the play and the movie, Christian Thomsen's take on Petra the film is puzzling, as it feels entirely wrong to me, presenting Petra's arc as a successful, if painful self-realization that Fassbinder gently undercuts with dramatic irony in the final scene because he's jUsT sO cRaZy like that. It feels like Thomsen is reading the play and viewing the new ending as a tacked on retcon, but based on how he and you, Sloper, both describe the differences, it feels to me like Fassbinder is fundamentally reworking how the play functions, using all the tricks he learned from Sirk, in order to make the film's conclusion an elusive lack of one, amplifying its complexity rather than simply undercutting or inverting it. I digress here, but it reminded me of the discussion I had with some friends after watching Nashville the other night, whose climax I see as absolutely essential, a senseless, random lightning strike galvanizing the invisible alignments of all these charged particles we've been free-floating with for two and a half hours, which my friends felt was unnecessary, overbearing, forcing an interpretation, whereas I think its beauty is that the apparent randomness of that lightning strike is not lessened by its particularity—it's still just as senseless, revealing without explaining. Petra's ending feels like an inversion of that, through similar means, a shatteringly understandable act that happens for what seem like all the wrong reasons, destabilizing the overbearing linearity of the film and all the specificity we've assumed about these characters over two hours. Rather than a revelation, it's as if everything we've witnessed is suddenly, possibly meaningless.

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