Guest Post: Why Marlene Leaves – Some Thoughts on The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

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.”