The bitter tears of the working class

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The title card of The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Public domain, but from a Flickr user, Susanlenox.

Have you ever sat down to read a John Updike novel or a John Cheever story and asked yourself, “I’m not an upper-class WASP. Nobody in my family talks like that. My parents never had an affair. And if they did, they didn’t talk about it. What’s the point of that? Italo-Slavic-American of non-elitist stock that I am, I went there. We shouted a lot, hugged and threatened each other. I ate buttery Eggo waffles and drank Pepsi for breakfast for the better part of a decade. Our dog ate Italian ice cream and bit me regularly. I spent the weekends with my grandmother, who cleaned the houses, and wouldn’t let me go without enough food to gouge your belly (or put hair on your chest, as she liked to say). In all these years, no one has ever made a wry comment or raised a questioning eyebrow. I guess we just weren’t that funny.

At the same time, I’ve always had a weakness for one-room movie claustrophobia. I grew up on Seen (2004), first nurtured a love of stylish horror with Wait until nightfall (1967), and became (with the help of my mother and his mother, of breathtaking fame) an obsessed Hitchcock, devoted to Rope (1948), Dial M for murder (1954), and rear window (1954). But these films rely heavily on external tensions and pressures (murders, above all) to fuel their unease. These are not parlor pieces; they don’t just trap you between four walls with a few annoying bourgeois and stop there.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972) is an oddity: a movie about rich people mourning their problems that is actually about class. It squares the circle, opens (if you will) the chamber melodrama to the American hyphen. The film centers on the titular Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), a twice-divorced fashion designer, who falls in love with a young working-class girl (turned model), Karin (Hannah Schygulla). Always seen but never heard of is Marlene (Irm Hermann), Petra’s servant, who seems to do absolutely everything for her, from cleaning the door to designing clothes. We never leave her positive 70s baroque bedroom, adorned with Michelangelo-style murals, exposed beams and shag – tons and tons of shag. Throughout the film, Petra also changes her outfit and wig, using her clothes to reflect her mood. [and at one point putting on what must have been the inspiration for Princess Leia’s armor bikini in Return of the Jedi (1983)].

The first hour is delightfully boring. Well, that’s an exaggeration. It’s a slow reveal of Petra’s personality through several emotionally charged conversations with her friends and family. She seems important, mean and disrespectful – in a word, conceited. At this point the film is flowing like honey, laborious and sickening after too long. Fassbinder, however, is faking it. It gives us a typical chamber melodrama, drawing us in. Halfway, Karin introduces herself. Petra promises her the world, wanting to keep her to herself, deliciously steeping herself in the stories of her abusive and impoverished family (“I can fix her,” you can almost hear our protagonist say). We sense allusions to Svengali here – and why not, since Petra seems so indifferent to other people and their needs. Karin has a husband abroad, but she can’t let this matter pass. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

When they start living together, the tables turn; we see Petra tormented by a successful Karin, who openly flaunts her infidelities with men. In the last act, Fassbinder shows us a defeated Petra, nervously sitting on the ground next to a telephone. We guess Karin left her and is now a bit more famous than she is. Worst of all (and oh so typically melodramatic) is Petra’s birthday. Her mother, her friend (from the first act) and her daughter all come to see her and, of course, find her a mess. If this were a typical film, it might end here – Petra, hoisted by her own firecracker, the seduced seductress, the abused aggressor. Delicious and perhaps satisfying, yes, but in an unconsciously bourgeois way.

Have you forgotten Marlene? The final scene sees her pacing past a crestfallen Petra, tossing her belongings into a suitcase and preparing to leave forever. Throughout the film, Fassbinder holds the camera on Marlene, or zooms in on her at the end of a scene, or walks away from the action towards her, working quietly while her boss moans and cries. She is never at the center of the film, and yet Fassbinder always centers her. In other words, he constantly cuts ironically at the very basis of his own film – the pressing emotional issues of the rich and successful. Despite all of Petra’s tears, she remains wealthy. She is never in danger. Her issues involve emotions, a traitorous lover, and the pitfalls of emotional addiction. She only has time for such tragedies because Marlene does all her work for her. Petra’s tears can flow all day because Marlene’s hands are scrubbing the floors and painting on the easel. The real problem is the kept servant, the woman who has no voice (a line in the whole film!), the hardworking backbone of the very society that we take the trouble to talk about with so much melodrama – the worker, the good worker, the grunt.

Over the years, my grandmother loved to share stories of what she had seen and heard, what she was considered invisible enough to witness and locked away. When I saw Marlene, I saw my grandmother. Fassbinder has the depth of wit to make her the focus, to risk bearing witness to the truth in a genre so often obsessed with shadows. He tells us from the opening slide (presumably referring to such a person he knew) – “Dedicated to the one who became Marlene here.”

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