Perhaps no canonical director rambunctiously, even violently, defies reputation and expectation like the young German enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Welles was the cocksure bon vivant who saw to it that Hollywood would crawl back to the primordial expressionism it stewed forth from. Tarkovsky was the impressionist shaman of grand cinematic spirituals. Dreyer the hallucinatory chronicler of personal spaces invaded and regained. Kubrick the possibly psychotic, probably anti-human mad scientist and arch-stylist. Kurosawa was a swaggering painter, Ozu gently serenaded the world into his dioramas of the soul, Mizoguchi bonded himself to ethereal, ghostly portals into the hazy nether realms of the human experience. Even Godard famously resorted to generalizations: There was theater (Griffith), poetry (Murnau), painting (Rossellini), dance (Eisenstein), music (Renoir). Henceforth there is cinema. And the cinema is Nicholas Ray”, a bold declaration and a line in the sand for the B-movie bravado of the French New Wave. And if you criticize him for his over-simplications, you can’t but tacitly endorse a couple of them.
Even Fassbinder’s co-German New Wave riders, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog, sculpted out their own architectural regions of the leviathan cavern tethered together under the denomination “film land”; Wenders was the angel with his gliding, rainbow-hued, diaphanous camera, and Herzog his Mr. Hyde, an alter-ego from Hell with the diabolical drive. But Fassbinder? All these years later, no one can make heads of his tales. Many of his most famous films were social fables strongly hewn to realism – his two most famous films, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun are shards of Italian neo-realism sutured into high melodramas. Yet in the same year as Maria Braun he released the underrated Despair, a lurid, live-wire descent into a swirling human toxicity that could be as far from realism or melodrama as any film. To cleanse his palate, he topped out a decade of improbable cinematic improvisation with the 15 hour Berlin Alexanderplatz, a work like nothing he had ever directed. And he did it like he was coming up for air, ready for another deep dive into his own inner demons, and the world’s.
Add in his highly experimental early works and you have a filmmaker that didn’t so much evolve as impulse buy, but this leather jacket and cocaine sniff with a genius inside gave new meaning to the word impulse. Fittingly his best film might also be his most impulsive: 1972’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, and if you weren’t already expecting it by now, it is a film unlike anything he ever directed. A garish post-melodrama with a literate sensationalism? A rabble-rousing social epic of modernity tinged with the blood of histories both lived and cinematic (are they so different, Fassbinder asks)? A low-and-slow camp festival carnival ride exercise in toxicology, and bartending the human soul while you’re at it?
Petra von Kant is all of these things, and yet – in its at once perfected and unsure stylistic perfection, its alternately exuberant and barren commitment to the fate of humanity, and in its politically savvy brand of showboating humanism – it is distinctly Fassbinder. And not simply because it reminds us how no director in the history of cinema better understood how to subdivide images and frame and block his characters such that the world seems to suffocate them, entomb them, cut them in pieces, free them, suture them up, and dare them to confront themselves in the mirror all at once. Yet the sharpest, most barbarous of edges can’t hide the feminism of the piece, a work that exhibits femininity in ambidextrous, prismatic forms, the female voice at its most wordlessly haunted and most outspokenly lacerating, as agent and victim, and as frail, gaunt human wire-work and radiant beauty of the classical era.
Contradictions aplenty, but right from the beginning, the film’s ultimate contradiction is dominance and submission. The dominance and submission of a human relationship surely, with fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) falling obsessively in love with (in ownership of?) her model Karin (Hanna Schygulla). But also the simultaneous dominance and submissiveness of their lesbian status to both accept the hegemony of the cis-gendered structures around them and to serve as the festering underbelly, the boogeyman, to those cis-gendered structures and thus exert a certain agency to mold those structures by virtue of their existence as “other”.
Or, if you prefer, the dominance of performance in life, and the submissiveness of performance to the whims of life. The dialectics of possession are structural questions in the film, with the two characters vacillating between submissive and dominant positions in the camera’s eye. Petra usually handles the master’s whip, but even she is framed in submission to the art she creates. Even as the two construct art, their bodies are tacitly molded to the art’s desires – decadent paintings and longitudinal mannequins leer over the characters, entrapping them in a prison of constructedness and forcing them to debate, or denounce, the construction of their own humanity.
The single-set design of the film is a gaping flesh wound, a modernist grenade of right-angled spaces and labyrinthine mirrors forming the girders of a home and an artist’s studio, but art history always grounds the progressivism of the set design, always weighs down on the advances in architecture like the centrally totemic not-quite-Rococo print (Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus) that frames the early sequences of the film. The production design – with the most conservative art forms propped up as supreme figureheads in the frame, diluting the impact of the more flamboyant and provocative art performed by the characters – mimics and informs the failed spaces of progressivism and social escape inherent to the central characters. The characters’ sexuality is itself a personal progression – an open admittance of their true selves – but only ever an admittance allowed by the dominance of historically heterosexual power roles. It’s not as simple as the masculine “butch” and the feminine counterpart duality of many lesbian relationships that reaffirm heterosexual roles in a homosexual package, but the traditionally cis-gendered power structures of domineering (masculine, agent) artist and acquiescent (feminine, victim) loom over the characters like an ascendant allure of the Renaissance.
Something as simple as the way the film distorts the molded human form into both the prowling, plastic store-window model, an emblem of modernity, and the marbled baroque fixture of classical painting reifies and complicates the film’s central power dynamics. Does the old, the classical, the stable, form the backbone of the progressive institution of art, or – in the way the dime store models peer at us from the background as if they were marble statues – does the historical form hold the art back from true advancement? The dynamics of modernism escaping classical conceptions of beauty whilst also allowing the persistence of those convictions mimics the duality of Petra’s character as both social other – a lesbian who transcends traditional conceptions of sex – and as privileged social agent – an assertive maelstrom of oppression who reifies may of the ways men have traditionally lacerated women.
The presence of art in the film is no mere tease; the extent to which Fassbinder and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ensnare Petra in a thick cake of hyperbolic white haze, no small amount of which is self-applied makeup, not only options for her to reveal her true self, but also critiques her performative agency by rendering her little more than a white-hot mannequin of her own. Just as men have warped the female body throughout history, so too does Petra warp Karin to her liking – Karin becomes not only her model but her art object. Fittingly, she asserts agency over the screen with her zealous, outsized outfits, but she also fades into the background, into the conglomerate of art she loosely scrapes into a home. She comes to exist as furniture, the camera creeping around her and exploring her form as one more plastic object or plaster cast among a sea of silver and gold ornamentation. It is she who pines for closeted masculinity, for unconditional dictatorial agency, for perfection of performance and artwork and control of the camera, and yet her demands drive her hazardously close, it seems, to encasing herself in her own art, to reminding us that she is, ultimately, the camera’s object, and the object of the masculine gaze even as she permeates that gaze into the air around her with her own brutish assertions of power and privilege. Her need to exert control renders her a victim, an object, of the masculine gaze she would elsewhere commandeer, as trapped by it as Karin and as unable to stretch beyond the single-set art history big-house she has concocted for herself.
Petra spends the duration of the film encasing herself in her own art, literally via the makeup and baroque, nearly Rococo costumes she dons throughout, and emotionally in how she defines her power through her artwork and explores ostensibly personal love through her artistic object, her model. Her art both expands her circle of expression and forecloses it, just as her burgeoning lesbianism both frees her of the vise grip of classical gender roles and reifies them through her acceptance and perpetration of classical gendered power dynamics. At one point, Petra barks “I have no use for devices, especially not female ones”. The sentence is, like almost every facet of the film, ambidextrous; the androgynous Petra who cakes herself in a thick hallucination of Joan Crawford-style seething melodrama might even wish to exhume femininity from her body, but she also defines herself – as most men do – via their exclusive use of female devices, in this case Karin.
Fassbinder’s vision of classical and modern don’t so neatly dichotomize themselves though; depending on the frame in question (and with Fassbinder, the sub-frame and the sub-sub-frame) Midas and Bacchus suddenly flirts with promiscuity and flaunts its debaucherous anti-social tastes, its heretical pre-Christian sexual norms, and its cheeky, cunning pan-sexuality. It is no longer a domineering expression of rigid classical institutions but a paean to rebellion against them. Or, if blocked by the right mirror or contrasted with the perfect mannequin, Carstensen’s ever-morphing features are no longer symbols of conservation within progressivism, privilege within the realm of the “other”, but daring descents into the transformation of the human body and a smack in the face to the traditional gender dichotomy. Her masculine features may not only re-uptake the gender hierarchy but pervert and challenge them. It is no question that Fassbinder’s impeccable framing and blocking yield contradictory results, but then it is a contradictory world and that which re-expresses the social hierarchy also contrasts it, that which liquefies it cannot but also preserve its qualities from evaporating into a gas.
Call it a perfect film that recognizes its imperfections, bending backwards and ouroborosing itself into oblivion with a style that could only be described as hot-house frigidity. Call it literate fiction of a distinctly classical mode, but you must concede that it fluidly calls on the modernist guiding lights of chic pop acts like Andy Warhol or old T. Rex in the process. Call it a return to the heavily-lined tragedy of Weimar German cinema, but you must admit it moonlights as an escapade to that cinema’s insight into fantastique and left-of-center innocence as well as conservative theater. Call it expressionistic, for it brashly siphons the chiseled, avant-garde world into Petra’s eyes and heart, depicting it how she wishes it world to be. But do not deny that its photographic deconstruction of that world into its waxlike raw materials, its brick and mortar, and its harsh assemblage of ragged geometric angles, is also impressionistic in the way it summons a realm that is not as Petra sees the world to be, but a world that molds itself to her inner, invisible self.
Call it maximal filmmaking, a torrid explosion of cinematic hedonism and madhouse production details, but feel your heart stabbed by a late film scene where Fassbinder conceptually skinny-dips, throwing away the onslaught of luster for a monochromatic exercise in tumbling minimalism. Call it a psychoanalytic think-piece but find yourself trampled underfoot by the bi-thermal Fassbinder’s immaculately physical framing choices and scintillatingly provocative camera movements that suggestively steer the eyes and the heart before they pass through the brain or acknowledge the nerves.
Or fail to call it anything. That’s the Fassbinder promise; a work that lives not in any particular cinematic world, but in the androgynous crevices between them. Fassbinder wielded more influences from more disparate eras and art forms than arguably any other film director, and luckily for him, he uncovered in Petra a protagonist that chiseled into his own soul: like Fassbinder, she’s a director of art that can be called neither classical nor contemporary, and a human being that is freed by and trapped within her own self. Both feel like outlaws in the world, and both arguably turned to sadism and hedonism to sever off their own personal spaces, and those who would trespass on them, from the rest of the world.
Both were recalcitrant to stillness, changing their outer shell (outfits and hairdos in Petra’s case and filmic styles in Fassbinder’s) without any due diligence, and yet both ultimately latched onto a fundamentally tragic, human core that glistened no matter the look. Both exercised an iron fist in exorcising their own demons, and fittingly both are marvels of careful judgment and calibration that commandeer their visual style to prevent themselves from slipping into the subtly expressed frail, diffident insecurity underneath (the perfection of Fassbinder’s camera belies its impulsiveness and desire to explore his world like an adolescent experimenting with new things regardless of their effect).
There is a scene in the film where Petra receives a baby doll, an object she wields with parental effervescence and passive-aggressive paternalism in equal measure – it’s a new object for her to exert herself onto. But its brittle skin and sculpted hair recall Petra to within an inch of her life, foreclosing her from meaningfully interacting with the other humans in the film. Her focus is trapped in the prism of the doll, an object of the self and a means for her to control herself – a literalization of everything she has been working toward through the entire film, just as the male oppressing the female is ultimately a means for the male to define itself against the feminine object.
The scene is a perfect metaphor for the film’s themes, and Fassbinder’s life: a person reshaping the human form (via mannequin/ model or camera/actor) to their liking and inadvertently rechristening themselves under the vise grip of their own obsession in the process. Both Petra and Fassbinder engaged in a dialectic of the self, a conversation with the self, at the expense of the self; if Petra wields the doll, or the filmmaker the film, or the male the female, said control precludes other realms of possibility. If both Petra and Fassbinder shared so much, the central kindred commonality remains unstated: their art, their means of escaping the Earth, redefining Earth, or controlling Earth so as to redefine themselves could only bring them that much closer down to Earth as it already existed.