therewillbeblus wrote:While this is not at the top of my Fassbinder list, as I know it is for many others (perhaps not here, but it charts high on various ranked lists), it has one of his very best endings. Marlene's cheeky exit to The Platters following Petra's (desperately self-seeking) declaration of empathy is, in a sense, deeply ironic given that this marker of 'growth' for Petra eliminates her last remaining social resource. However, underneath the superficially absurdist joke, Fassbinder hits on a vulnerable truth about relationship dynamics that is completely sincere: That these kinetics, no matter how imbalanced or how painfully consequential they can be for one party vs other, are always serving both parties in some way.
Very interesting comments on the ending, and the dynamic between Petra and Marlene. I love this film, but it took me until those final moments to realise I loved it, I think because the ending reveals how cleverly the rest of the film has been playing with our sense of perspective. In this ‘case history’ of Petra von Kant, Marlene’s and Karin’s points of view are no less important than Petra’s, and we’re constantly challenged to consider how different this situation must appear to them.
Early on in the first act, there’s a moment where we see Marlene leaning against the frosted glass, fixed in a pose suggestive of operatic, yearning agony as she listens to Petra and Sidonie – and then we cut back to the bed as Petra orders Marlene to fetch some coffee, with Marlene now invisible, ‘behind the scenes’ but forever on call. In the second act, we begin by focusing on Marlene’s typing, ensuring that we are constantly aware of her labour (very audible but completely ignored) throughout the ensuing action, although we have no idea what she is typing. The camera then tracks across the room as she fulfils another of Petra’s orders, but we remain at this servile worm’s-eye level and only see the women’s legs as Marlene helps Petra put the finishing touches on her would-be seductive costume. Then the camera follows Marlene back to the typewriter. Later, we see Marlene out of focus in a mirror during Petra’s conversation with Karin, and then there’s a dramatic cut to an in-focus shot of Marlene standing in the doorway – and we’re back to her perspective, the camera repeating those earlier movements and reminding us of this other ‘layer’ that Marlene inhabits.
Similarly, with Karin, we come to feel that this claustrophobic space is really a number of very different spaces: the bed upon which she reads her magazine, the patch of floor where she dances (her body temporarily obscuring Marlene, still typing away in the background), the painting against which she stands (and the various body parts or animals that she’s framed alongside), the light filtered by the Venetian blinds, or even Petra herself in those moments when Karin is close to her – all of these spaces mean something different when Karin inhabits them. There are some really powerful shots of Karin’s face, especially during the climactic argument in Act 3, which make it impossible for us to see her as reductively as Petra does (either as an idealised innocent or a scheming manipulator) because Schygulla’s acting is so richly nuanced. If we’re thinking about perspective, it’s telling that when Petra first meets Karin, for a while she seems unable to look at her. Again and again, the film asks us to think about what we and the characters are seeing, choosing not to see, or seeing and not understanding.
This reminds me very strongly of Double Indemnity
and Sunset Boulevard
, both of which feature a central triangle in which all three perspectives are radically different but (I think) equally important and valid. When Norma drops her fascinator on the dancefloor, she doesn’t seem to think about who will pick it up; but we see Max’s perspective, eyes lowered towards the floor, bending to retrieve and then dust off the discarded object; and later we might come to realise that Norma wasn’t so oblivious to his presence and feelings after all. How would Max respond if Norma were to suddenly become more considerate towards him? And who really holds the power in this relationship? Marlene’s surprise reveal of the gun at the end of Petra
also reminded me of Phyllis Dietrichson posing briefly with her revolver before dropping it under the seat cushion (‘she had plans of her own’), and of the subsequent revelations about how she and Walter really feel about each other.
There’s an even more resonant parallel with The Reckless Moment
, in which Ophüls subtly uses camera movement and shot composition to make us aware of Sybil (the maid) and her growing awareness of her mistress’s predicament. It’s obviously a very different dynamic, but there is something Fassbinder-ish about the fact that only Sybil, the most subordinate and disempowered character in the film, can see how Lucia is oppressed by the bourgeois structures around her: the demanding family, the domestic chores, the finances over which she has no control; and the sudden intrusion of the criminal underworld that throws all this into relief.
In Beware of a Holy Whore
, there’s a movement from
seeing things from a diffuse, un-focused perspective, but with a sense of continuous and coherent action (and with Jeff, the director, noticeably absent)…to the final act where we see things only from Jeff’s point of view, and the film disintegrates into a series of narratively incoherent fragments. This final act represents how Jeff experiences life. He is making some sort of (presumably coherent) film with a keen awareness of ‘time’, but in the process he turns his own life into a sort of time-less mess. The film itself will be a masterpiece, and will connect with audiences, but to achieve this Jeff has to abuse and alienate everyone around him. The final epigraph from Thomas Mann underlines the (rather self-pitying) message that an artist has to renounce life in order to make great works of art about life.
With Petra von Kant, we have another kind of artist, and this time one who focuses specifically on surfaces, on outer adornments. On one wall of her bedroom, presumably at great expense, she has reproduced a painting of Midas pleading with Bacchus to take away his gift of the ‘golden touch’: Midas can turn anything he touches to gold, but by the same token he cannot have any kind of relationship with anything or anyone. Petra’s success as a fashion designer enables her to support her family, hire a live-in maid, and nurture a protégée/lover; but by the same token, she ends up regarding her family as parasites, her maid will only stay as long as Petra behaves like an abusive monster towards her, and the protégée’s love will only last until she achieves a certain level of success.
The film seems to picture this as a condition, not just of a wealthy person, but specifically of a successful artist. There is something about the nature of Petra’s art that dovetails with the particular kind of hell she finds herself in. Where Karin looks healthy, relaxed, and confident, Petra is gaunt, drowning in her over-elaborate costumes and wigs, appearing faint and light-headed and constantly on the verge of a nervous breakdown – never more so than when she puts on one of her chilling ventriloquist-dummy smiles and her eyes roll in her head as she utters some passive-aggressive comment through clenched teeth.
One of the most powerful shots in the film is when Karin asks Petra whether she wants to be lied to, and the close-up of Petra makes her look eerily like a mannequin. A single tear rolls down her waxen face as she says that yes, she does want Karin to lie to her. The moment encapsulates so much about Petra. She has become like one of the mannequins that populate her home – notice how she creepily rearranges them into suggestive postures during the act-breaks, as if they are imaginary friends, or imaginary versions of herself, Karin, and Marlene (two mannequins making love in bed with a third standing over them and watching) – and now asks Karin to be a kind of automaton, someone who will mindlessly present the loving façade that Petra wants to see, regardless of her inner feelings. Karin then lies, as requested, and Petra seems to believe it, smiling joyfully as she says ‘that isn’t true’ (wanting Karin to re-affirm the lie); but Karin then admits that of course it isn’t true, and Petra’s smile crumbles. Both characters are play-acting and both are earnestly expressing their feelings, in different ways and at different moments.
In the final scene, too, there is no simple (or single) answer to the question of why Petra plays ‘The Great Pretender’ while Marlene abandons her. The song is about Petra herself, but it is also about Marlene; it is each of them making a statement about herself, and each of them levelling an accusation at the other. To make things even more brain-meltingly complex, it is also a pointedly untrue song, because this is the moment when both women drop their pretences and show their true selves (which, after all, is what the speaker in the song is paradoxically doing: ‘I seem to be what I’m not, you see’).
Marlene isn’t cowering or hesitating or staring longingly at Petra anymore: she strides confidently in and out of frame, fetching her things from that marginal space she has occupied until now and placing them in the centrally-framed suitcase. She seems to take one of the vinyl records – isn’t that Petra’s? – and then she lovingly appropriates the doll Sidonie gave Petra for her birthday, and then she turns out to have a gun… Clearly there was a lot we didn’t know about Marlene. Her decision not to speak now seems less a marker of subordination than a way of controlling how others (including us) perceive her.
But the best thing about this final shot is Petra herself, leaning against the bed-frame and smiling. She seems increasingly delighted by the spectacle of Marlene’s departure, and we don’t know whether her smile is reverent and admiring (like Marlene’s smile when she looked at Petra in earlier scenes…which we may have misinterpreted), or triumphant because she’s vindicated her own interpretation of Marlene’s subservience, or relieved because she’s finally getting rid of this one remaining shackle in her life.
In any case, this smile seems (to me) different from the icy smiles we’ve seen on Petra’s face until now. There are lots of ways to read the ending, but personally – unlike twbb – I find it quite optimistic. We first saw Petra without a wig or make-up, painfully facing a new day of pretence and play-acting, then laboriously applying her disguise while talking to Sidonie. Now, after burning away all the symptoms of her fucked-up life, she emerges from this traumatic but cathartic process, calm and un-adorned, accepting and even welcoming this final personal loss, before crawling into bed and returning to the sleep from which she was rudely awakened at the start.
There’s no clear indication of what will happen to Petra after this, but like Midas (whom Bacchus allows to wash away his golden touch by bathing in a river) she does seem to have cleansed herself of something toxic. In that sense it’s not unlike the cautious optimism of Fear Eats the Soul
: self-awareness and mutual honesty may not actually solve any problems, but they do at least make the problems visible and enable you to begin coming to terms with them. Petra is undoubtedly better off alone than with the relationships she had.
By the way, one welcome side-effect of this discussion is that I now have ‘The Great Pretender’ playing relentlessly in my head all day long. It sounds like a live version, very unlike the two studio recordings I’m familiar with; does anyone know where it’s from?