Something Here Inside
Lawrence Garcia on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

“They asked me how I knew my true love was true / I of course replied ‘something here inside cannot be denied’.” —The Platters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”

Like any other art form, cinema rests upon a certain communicability. That movies are viewed and discussed the world over is (or should be) a source of amazement, for it reveals the extent to which cinematic conventions can traverse both cultural climes and boundaries of experience—the extent to which, as many an amateur cinephile can attest, film form need not formally be taught. (This, in contrast to, say, the learning of a dead language.) In 1971, New German Cinema luminary Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote how the artist born Detlef Sierck, destined to “become a cultivated man in the great German tradition, humanistically educated… emigrated to America, became Douglas Sirk, and made films that people in Germany with his level of education would have smirked at.” Hollywood of course came with its own obligations. Of a demand that legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck gave Sirk, that “the film has to fly in Kansas City and in Singapore,” Fassbinder simply remarked, “That’s crazy isn’t it—America!”

From his encounters with American cinema as a whole, Fassbinder recognized the possibilities in, if not the necessity of appealing to popular forms, at least up to a point; the need to, as he himself put it in 1974, “meet their [Hollywood’s] entertainment factor halfway.” But in Sirk specifically, the tireless young director found “a man who loves human beings and doesn’t despise them as we do,” and whose films (“some of the most tender ones I know”) inaugurated for him a decisive creative efflorescence. This transformative artistic encounter is by now so well-known that it hardly bears mentioning—but taken alongside Werner Herzog’s assessment of the New German Cinema filmmakers as “a generation of orphans,” it also reads as a kind of fulfillment, the belated embrace of a father figure. Even a talent as vigorous as Fassbinder’s could not flower in a vacuum; those artists that distinguish themselves do so, after all, not by forsaking convention altogether, but by revealing the depth of its contingency. It is in this sense that one might begin placing the staggering achievement of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). An adaptation of Fassbinder’s own five-act play of the same name, it is, alongside Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), a rightly vaunted peak of the director’s early seventies period—both a claustrophobic chamber drama of coolly composed surfaces and roiling emotional violence; and an expansion of formal possibility so radical as to seem like a stylistic terminus.

It is also, as per its subtitle, A Case History. From a nondescript staircase shot of two house cats silently grooming themselves (or else licking their wounds), the camera glides into a carpeted room with a wallpaper reproduction of Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus, then across the cadaverous figure of Margit Carstensen’s Petra laid out on a gilt-framed bed. A shock of light from which she recoils, monster-like, soon confirms that she is not in fact dead, though as Petra goes about her daily routine, ordering her mute, under-the-boot assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), she does seem gripped by a kind of malady—perhaps a soul-sickness. Her lavishly furnished boudoir, where she receives a series of female guests, among them obscure object of desire Karin (Hanna Schygulla), becomes over the course of the film a de facto sickroom. But as in the case of Julianne Moore’s housewife in Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995), diagnosis is no simple matter.

Petra von Kant was the very first of Fassbinder’s films that I encountered, and when I initially saw it, the question of what precisely ails Karin seemed to me none too pressing—or anyway less significant than the director’s peripatetic, tour-de-force navigation of the film’s single-location set, which over the runtime becomes an arena of seduction, cruelty, humiliation, and which is at one point emptied of everything but its snowy shag carpet. Owing to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus’s restless, roving camera, it is impossible to take Petra von Kant as filmed theater—but surely its archly drawn sadomasochistic relationship was not meant as much more than bare psychological scaffolding. Petra’s dictated letter to one Joseph Mankiewicz establishes an affinity with All About Eve (1950) specifically, and the Hollywood “woman’s picture” more generally, but the film’s flagrant artificiality seems to make dramatic specifics rather beside the point.

So it seemed to me at first glance. Confronted with the unfamiliar, one has a tendency to fall back on prior knowledge, and understandably so, for what else do we have to go on? The danger, of course, is to stop there, to not ask how it is we know what we know—and hence value what we value—and thus examine the basis of our knowledge. It is often easier not to. For myself, Petra von Kant’s achievement lay precisely in how it broke from what had come before, its greatness in the way it established a world apart, sealed off from all else. It struck me as nothing less than a radical break from a larger tradition of German cinema—or anyway whatever hazy conceptions I had of it based on the films of Fritz Lang and G.W. Pabst. If the great dilemma of Fassbinder’s generation was how to connect to a cinematic tradition that had been, for a time, variously distorted and co-opted by National Socialism, Petra von Kant, with its connections to American Hollywood cinema, seemed to me like an auspicious reinvention, the full flowering of an alternate path of discovery. But it is one thing to observe that the film occupies a space of separateness and distance from its forebears—that it seems almost to create a kind of private language—and quite another to valorize those qualities in and of themselves, not realizing the full extent to which Fassbinder’s aesthetic departures, so dazzling to the untrained viewer, consciously harmonized with the tragedy of Petra’s retreat from the world.

Indeed, the film’s theatricality, its apparent repudiation of (German) tradition and reconfigurations of (Hollywood) convention, seemed to me at the time not just the height of sophistication and artful detachment, but also entirely distinct from Petra’s predicament. Needless to say, this view could not endure, for in seeking to ground my judgment of Petra von Kant (i.e. my knowledge of its value) mainly in Fassbinder’s departure from convention, while compartmentalizing the very substance of its drama, I had, in a sense, defeated my own position. What Petra von Kant now strikes me as articulating so fully is the extent to which convention in fact precedes judgment, how we cannot live and know apart from certain unconscious, internalized assumptions of cultural style and climates of opinion—which is not to say that we cannot find better footing for our positions. When in the film, Petra draws Marlene into a slow dance to that most moving of torch songs, The Platters’ rendition of Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (an anthem that both Edward Yang’s The Terrorizers [1986] and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times [2005] memorably take up), we are struck by the speaker’s conviction in the trueness of his love, and his fervent appeal to that something here inside. By the film’s end, we are reminded of the grounds for this belief.

There is throughout Petra von Kant a sense of life as perpetual rehearsal, but as Petra’s earlier rude awakening illustrates, we cannot always decide when the curtain will rise, and we may one day wake up to find that it had risen long ago. Still, we inhabit our roles as best we can. Early on, we see Petra putting on her face as her high-society friend Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) carries on about the world beyond, providing a measure against which Petra’s life can be judged. Amid the persistent chatter, this morning ritual takes on a sense of absolute necessity—for if we must present ourselves on stage, is not the least we can do choose how we are to be presented? Later, for the sake of Karin’s attention, Petra puts on her finest costume—though when she looks through her bedroom’s curtains to the darkness beyond (as if towards an invisible theater audience), perhaps she thinks it’s a shame that no one else can see her like this. When she subsequently puts on the Walker Brothers’ “In My Room,” however, there is no question that she understands the cost of shutting out the world, of attempting to dictate the grounds, the stage upon which she is to be received. “People are terrible, Karin,” she says. “They can bear anything.” By the end of this passage, as the camera glides towards Marlene in the corner of the room to an incessant clacking (machine gun or typewriter?), we also get a sense of what violence Petra has done to bear that cost.

If Fassbinder’s film speaks to the universalizing tendencies that some would seek from cinema (or art in general), it is in the way it confronts our underlying assumptions in their most immediate, acute form. In Petra, we see someone who has effectively foregone society and divested herself of human responsibility, leaving Marlene to bear the weight of a silenced world. Spurred by former disappointments, Petra abandons her claim to community, but in doing so, she merely trades the contingency of convention for the arbitrariness of willfully blind faith. When her mother Valerie speaks of needing the courage to believe, and being alone without God, Petra scoffs in response: “That’s no solace, mother. We’ve got to learn to love without demanding.” Knowingly, Valerie responds, “It’s the same thing, believe me.” And for Petra, tragically, bitterly, it is. Unconditional love—as to a god—is what she expects from Marlene and offers to Karin, and impossible as it is to live up to, it dooms her relations to each. She relegates both women to the realm of the unknowable (as to the mannequins that populate the margins of the film, or even the house cats that we see at the beginning), denying the realities of human convention, and hence the possibility of human relationships, human activity. In her solipsism and theatricality, she denies the very possibility of knowing anything beyond herself. “Lie to me,” Petra pleads to Karin, echoing a line from Johnny Guitar (1954), as if it were possible that either of them would not know exactly what was meant. As if all that we had to go on was faith. As if all we were capable of was pretending.

In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes that “the human body is the best picture of the human soul.” Without implying explicit (or even conscious) avowal on Fassbinder’s part, this conviction—that the spirit of the body is the body—is one that seems to me everywhere present in the German director’s extensive corpus, a body of work that is, foremost, a work of the body. In Petra von Kant especially, there’s a clarity about what it means to inhabit one’s limited vantage, the burden of entering into relations with others, and the beauty that comes when such relations are fulfilled. Fassbinder’s myriad reconfigurations of screen space serve a variety of functions throughout the film, but on the most basic level, they constitute a concerted attempt to make us see anew, to present things to our attention and consequently, as André Bazin once wrote, to our love.

Fassbinder does not deny that there are limits to empathy, but he rejects the notion that these should dictate what we accept as knowable. For his workhorse prolificity and steady diet of alcohol and drugs, there is a tendency to speak of his career in terms of tumult and confusion and disarray—but if anything, the material conditions of his relentless artistic advance necessitated an uncommonly clear-sighted method, one rooted in his ability to place himself (and his characters) in the world and live its details; to close the gap between intention and action, between action and consequence. This is what allows Fassbinder’s criticisms of human failure to be moral without being moralistic, and to avoid the traps of hypocrisy and self-defeat. “People always say ‘but,’ and nothing ever changes,” remarks Brigitte Mira’s widow Emmi in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. If Fassbinder’s work continues to endure, then, it is not because such conditional refusals were incomprehensible to him, but because he had weighed their cost and chosen otherwise.

The final shot of Petra von Kant is a frontal composition of the film’s now-familiar bedroom space, across which Marlene stalks to and fro, packing a suitcase as The Platters’ “The Great Pretender” echoes throughout. It is undeniably the end of something—but even amid the devastation of this denouement, there is the devastatingly funny moment when Marlene pauses briefly before her bag, pistol in hand, before dropping it and carrying on, leaving Petra to eventually crawl back into her sickbed under the cover of darkness. (Beckett: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”) Earlier in the film, Petra had remarked that in her previous marriage, “beautiful meant always knowing what was going on,” a statement that for her carried a sense of absoluteness, of possession. In the final measure, it is difficult to imagine for her the possibility of renewal, but for the viewer at least, perhaps beauty would mean always knowing what it is that we don’t, and refusing to merely fall back on what we do. It would mean the persistent exercise of one’s taste and artistic conscience. It would mean that in life, as in cinema, we could do more than just pretend.