As the icing on the cake that is the Queer Film Blogathon, my best friend in the whole wide world, Lillian Behrendt, has contributed the following essay. She justifies her choice of subject thusly: “I kicked off the month of June with the American Cinematheque’s Fassbinder retrospective. I saw ten Fassbinder films in ten days, and still missed three of the screenings. My dreams were in German for a week, and I don’t even speak German. My best friend is hosting a queer blogathon. Not writing about Fassbinder just isn’t an option for me right now.” Thank you Lilsy!
In 1968, Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed his first original play. One year later, he had made his first feature film. In 1982 (thirty years ago this month) he died at the age of 37 — with about forty films under his belt. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), originally produced as a stage play, is the first of Fassbinder’s “woman’s pictures” and the only film he ever made with an all-female cast. It’s a movie about class, desire, oppression, longing, loneliness, performance and power.
Margit Carstensen stars as the eponymous Petra, a recently-divorced fashion designer who lives with her silent assistant/secretary/maid/submissive Marlene (Irm Hermann) in a sparsely-furnished apartment filled with bald, naked mannequins and porcelain dolls. Petra falls in love with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a young working-class woman who hopes to enter the world of modeling. Several months later, Karin returns to her husband, leaving Petra in pieces. After throwing a drunken birthday tantrum (giving new meaning to “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to”) and lashing out at everyone who cares about her, she apologizes to Marlene, the only person who remains. When Petra suggests that they leave the Mistress/slave dynamic behind and live as equals, Marlene packs her bag and leaves.
The whole unrequited-lesbian-love-ending-with-the-object-of-desire-reverting-to-heterosexuality thing is a pretty tired trope, and already was by 1972. Pulp novels and exploitation films (and Lillian Hellman plays) of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s usually pathologized lesbianism as a (titillating) tragic disorder rather than a (also titillating) delinquent behavior. (I would argue that Fassbinder was referencing some of this by subtitling the film “A Case Study.”) The progression of the relationships in Petra von Kant have several superficial similarities to those in Ann Bannon’s famous Beebo Brinker pulp novels (1957-1962): a (relatively) masculine main character involved with two femmes — one cruel and dominant, one kind and submissive. Main character prefers cruel, glamorous, dominant femme, is dumped for a man, and returns to the patiently-waiting submissive femme with the promise of “happily ever after.”
As revolutionary as it was in the early 1960s to allow a lesbian couple a happy ending, its assimilationist heteronormativity can be frustrating for a queer 21st century reader. In his excellent essay about Petra, Jonathan Rosenbaum explains that the original play ended with Marlene accepting Petra’s offer of an equal relationship and the two of them sitting down to talk. The dominant masculine figure (Petra) and the submissive feminine figure (Marlene) come together as false equals for a life of monogamous domestic harmony.
Reading the relationship(s) and power dynamics in Petra von Kant as a Beebo Brinker kind of “love triangle” is a mistake. Rosenbaum writes that the film’s new ending “suggests that at some point between the premiere of the play and the ten-day shoot of this film, half a year later, Fassbinder lost faith in his own capacity for change.” Although there is a kind of truth in Rosenbaum’s statement, I’m very wary of his implication that the play’s ending is “happy” and the film’s ending “sad.”
Throughout Petra, we are bombarded with imagery and conversations concerning artifice and performance. It is established very early on that Petra von Kant is a liar. Petra lies to everyone, herself above all, except Marlene. Only Marlene (in the beginning and very end of the film) and Petra’s mother (towards the end) see Petra out of wig and makeup. The sight of Margit Carstensen’s shiny, unpowdered face onscreen is more shocking than any nude scene could be. That is intimacy.
I’ve frequently read that Marlene leaves because Petra displays weakness, probably referring to a speech in the first half of the film in which Petra explains the failure of her marriage. Petra describes her husband hitting “a bad patch,” and how disgusted she became with him upon “seeing his ridiculous pride being hurt.” If looking pathetic was all it took to make Marlene leave Petra, there wouldn’t have been much of a movie. Marlene watches Petra fall head-over-heels for someone who couldn’t care less. She watches Petra lose it with jealousy and beg Karin to stay. She watches Petra flailing drunk on the floor, clutching the telephone in desperation and screaming at the people who love her.
So, if she is so devoted to and supportive of Petra, why does Marlene leave? When everyone else has left, Petra approaches her and apologizes for how she has acted. Genuinely moved, Marlene attempts to submissively kiss her hand, but Petra pulls away and scolds her. “Not like that!” Petra’s disgust is not with Marlene, but with what Rosenbaum refers to as the perversity of their relationship. Lesbian desire and the fact of lesbian relationships is almost completely taken for granted as normal in this film. Petra’s mother expresses surprise upon learning that her daughter is in love with another woman, but that’s about it.
What Rosenbaum and Petra find “perverse” here is the combination of Petra and Marlene’s sadomasochistic relationship with Petra and Karin’s sadomasochistic relationship. There is no struggle between Marlene and Karin over Petra. Yes, Marlene is in pain for most of the movie, but her pain is not that of a jilted lover, but rather that of someone forced to witness the pain of someone they love, powerless to fix it. The apartment is big enough for the three of them. The “love triangle” as plot device is dependent on the widely accepted belief that a three-person romantic relationship is unnatural, unhealthy and ultimately unsustainable. We feel the same way about Dominant/submissive relationships. A monogamous, “equal” relationship is the only kind we deem valid. Sure, Marlene thinks she’s happy serving Petra, who is in turn being cuckolded by Karin, but what she really wants is for her and Petra to be a nice, normal couple. For Rosenbaum, the only happy ending is a clear, kink-free, monogamous ending, in which Marlene abandons her sexual identity for something more palatable and socially acceptable.
These are issues Fassbinder himself struggled with. He came out in his teens and was widely recognized as a homosexual. He had two marriages to women, at least one of which was a sexual relationship. He lived communally with friends and lovers, most of whom either appeared in or worked on his films. Rosenbaum suggests that Fassbinder had a relationship similar to that of Petra and Marlene with his frequent collaborator and composer Peer Raben. He also had a string of “Karins” upon whom he lavished very expensive gifts, most notably Gunther Kaufman, who crashed four Lambourghinis in a single year. Fassbinder needed to have sex with both men and women, held multiple concurrent romantic relationships, was deeply concerned with the ways in which oppression affects sexuality and, like Petra von Kant, was both a sadist and a masochist (with a definite cuckolding fetish). He also had a cocaine habit that was rumored to be about an ounce per day. Irm Hermann was his secretary at one time, and then his lover. He was incredibly cruel and violent to her, and it doesn’t sound like it was always consensual. She remained devoted to him until 1977, when she left him for another man, refusing his offer of marriage.
Which brings us back to Marlene. Why does she leave? She’s offered a normal, healthy, ideal relationship with the woman she most loves and desires, and she rejects it. If it’s not disgust, is there something wrong with her? To prove that she’s serious about her offer of equality, Petra asks Marlene to tell her about herself. To not only speak, something we have not heard her do, but to speak about herself. Petra does this as she puts on an old record, and takes a seat on her bed to listen. This is exactly what she does to Karin before asking her to move in. Petra’s offer of equality is nothing of the kind, but rather an attempt to salvage her personal ideal as to what a liberated relationship should be. Whether she means to or not, Marlene makes a political statement by leaving. And that is revolutionary.
Lillian Behrendt is a fat femme who sells sex toys and draws comics in Los Angeles.