Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

A couple nights ago, my dear roommate showed me Bend It Like Beckham for the first time, and we cackled together at the lesbian-but-not-quite movie tropes so characteristic of early 2000s queer movies and also teared up as we recognized younger selves that desired the same things Jess desired but didn't know what that meant.

This experience made me want to revisit the queer movies of my early teen self-exploratory years, those movies that made me think this is okay—I am okay—or even something just as simple as this exists.

It is a mystery even to me, but one of the first movies that jumped to mind was Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Maybe not the most wholesome queer film in terms of representation and politics, but important nonetheless in the tale of my sexual exploration via film. So, I decided to revisit this film and give a little more thought into its treatment of identity and desire.

In Kaja Silverman’s “Fassbinder and Lacan: A Reconsideration of Gaze, Look, and Image,” she writes: “What happens within Fassbinder’s cinema is that both the gaze and the images that promote identity remain irreducibly exterior, stubbornly removed from the subject who depends upon them for its experience of ‘self’” (274).

This concept was very relevant in my viewing and subsequent analysis of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Petra’s existence—which is made up of her emotions, her thoughts, and her desires—is constituted by external expression and is valid only for being expressed outwardly and thereby perceived by others. Petra’s identity rests upon her skin in the form of makeup and costume, something that is true also of Karin and Marlene, though to a lesser degree: “subjectivity is consequently shown to depend on a visual agency that remains insistently outside” (274-75).

Even at the beginning of the film, when Petra is in bed and at her most bare, she constructs a perceivable shell of identity with her constant stream of lies that come together to form some “image” of Petra for others to perceive. Once she puts on her wig and her gaudy robe and does her makeup, she has room to once again be truthful, because her identity has a foothold in physical appearance.

In the waning of her relationship with Karin, Petra transforms herself into a pseudo-Marlene, donning a red wig and pale makeup to prepare her to take orders from Karin. Silverman writes: “mimicry signifies not assimilation to space, or the loss of individuation, but rather a visual articulation” (290). When Petra imitates Marlene both in dress and temperament, she becomes a visual articulation of desire.

Until the end of the film, for Petra and Marlene, to love is to serve, to obey. Marlene loves Petra and desires her affection, which she expresses with her servitude to Petra; Petra physically appropriates this articulation of love and desire with Karin, transforming herself into imitation-Marlene. “[Mimicry] hinges less upon parody or deformation than upon the passive duplication of a preexisting image” (291). Using Silverman’s framework here, Petra expresses her desire by becoming the duplication of Marlene’s preexisting image, which for Petra represents desire.

In this way, Petra, Marlene, and Karin (and pretty much anyone who enters Petra’s apartment) seem to act out previously determined roles—be they determined by the characters themselves or society at large—in order to lend validity to their experiences, their emotions. This externality of emotional expression necessitated in order to validate identity is reinforced by the images and representations of the human body that surround the characters at all times in Petra’s apartment.

Many times throughout the film, the cast of characters mimics the positions of the figures depicted in Poussin’s “Midas and Bacchus," the painting on Petra's wall that backgrounds many scenes. Just as Petra imitates Marlene to articulate her desire for Karin, the characters all imitate the figures in the classicist painting that background them as a way to illustrate the shifting power dynamics between them.

This has a doubling effect: On one hand, this lends legitimacy and timelessness to the interpersonal struggles Petra, Karin, and Marlene are experiencing; on the other, Petra, Karin, and Marlene are made flat and lifeless in their likeness to the flat and lifeless figures in the painting that they echo.

This same effect is achieved by the mannequins and dolls that seem to live a simultaneously independent and parallel life alongside the cast of characters in Petra's apartment.

Silverman writes: “it is not so much the body itself as the representation of the body that constitutes erotic spectacle” (283). With this in mind, the mannequins that surround the women in the film embody the same, if not a greater, human quality than the women in the film, for their “identity” is constructed in the same way: wholly externally, playing preconceived parts.

Once Karin leaves Petra, her bed has been removed from the room and now belongs to two mannequins, who embrace intimately while a third mannequin looks on from the side of the bed. When Karin and Petra are together, the most intimate moment they have is a kiss; though these mannequins represent these two women, their position is more intimate than their source material. This has another doubling effect: The mannequins take on an extrahuman quality, and Petra and Karin lose some of their humanness, becoming more like dolls to be dressed up and positioned, becoming representations themselves.

have something to say? say it!

© 2020 by Abigail Swoboda.