Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Subversion of German Expressionism in ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

The 1971 masterpiece explores the complicated history of German cinema.

German Expressionism is famous for its cartoonish characters, exaggerated shadows, theatrical makeup, and fanciful sets with sharp geometric patterns. These elements were the result of filmmakers compensating for a lack of budget in post-World War I austerity. The conflict had changed the country’s sensibilities dramatically, and audiences were no longer excited by the prospect of action and romance films. Reflecting the insidious quality of the times, Germans instead wanted to see films that contained malice and treachery.

Released almost half a century after the movement waned, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant delivers those themes while also exploring the nuances of German Expressionism and the potential danger of its grandiosity. It follows revered, middle-aged fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), who falls madly in love with Karin (Hanna Schygulla), a naive, younger woman. Petra and Karin have a whirlwind romance before things turn sour when Karin deems Petra’s affection too oppressive. Then leaves her after admitting she never truly loved her in the first place. 

More than anything, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is a tango of intense, violent emotions. The characters unceasingly oscillate between loneliness, passion, jealousy, heartbreak, anger, and bitterness. The film essentially focuses on these emotions and these emotions alone, as it is all set in Petra’s small apartment. At first glance, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is unmistakably modern and departs dramatically from the Expressionist style, from its centering on a lesbian relationship to its use of color and its overall stillness. But at second glance, it relies heavily on Expressionist sentiment and imagery.

The film’s centerpiece is a towering rendition of Nicholas Poussin’s 17th-century painting Midas and Bacchus, which depicts Midas, King of Phrygia, asking for Bacchus to grant him the power to turn everything he touches to gold. Midas ends up regretting his request, as his magic touch renders all food inedible. This is a sound metaphor for Petra’s life. She is a beautiful force of destruction, just like infectious gold. She wreaks havoc on her lover, on her best friend, Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), her daughter, Gabi (Eva Mattes), and her mother, Valerie (Gisela Fackeldey).

But Poussin’s painting is not simply a depiction of a Greek myth. It is heavily hyperbolic in gesture; a woman lounges naked in a position of either extreme despair or extreme pleasure. Midas, too, is in a position of exaggerated subservience before Bacchus. Everything about the painting is exaggerated, just like the very dogma of German Expressionism.

As is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. For much of the film, characters are shrouded in dramatic lighting, which nods directly to the German Expressionism movement. When Petra wakes at the beginning of the film, her face is sheathed in vertical shadows from the blinds. Similarly, the characters are heavily made up to look like stage actors. They move almost comically slowly. Fassbinder choreographs them in such a way that no audience would mistake them for real people.

However, the dramatic, overplayed energy of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant emphasizes and complicates the emotions displayed in the film. For Petra, simplicity is never an option. The day after Karin catches her eye is the day she asks her to move in with her. Similarly, when they argue, Petra settles for nothing short of the most scathing insults. 

In early German Expressionist cinema, these exaggerated gestures were a good way to confront the pain and suffering of World War I. The near-comical grandiosity of Expressionism separates what we see on screen just enough from our own experiences that it makes it palatable, while still allowing us to contemplate important themes. 

Fassbinder belonged to the German New Cinema movement, which emerged in 1962 and lasted for two decades. It facilitated the rise of a number of other iconic German directors, such as Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, and Wim Wenders. German films made during this time had their eye on constructing a new kind of cinema altogether. The Oberhausen Manifesto, written by German filmmakers, famously stated in 1962 that “The old cinema is dead. We believe in the new cinema.” They were intent on divorcing themselves from the established standards of German cinema. In large part as a de-Nazification effort. This, of course, meant rejecting the institution of German Expressionism.

So why, then, does The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant rely so heavily on tropes of Expressionist cinema? This can perhaps best be understood from an analysis of the character of Petra herself. Petra’s modus operandi is to, wittingly or not, sabotage every positive element of her life. She does so with her relationships, with her maid, and even with her household objects and furniture. In the world of German Expressionism, subtlety is not an option. So either Petra would be a kind and caring person who oozes positivity into the world. Or a bitter, malicious person who does just the opposite.

As a New German Cinema director, Fassbinder’s employment of Expressionist style is perhaps a critique of old German Cinema. A cinema that the Oberhausen Manifesto declared “dead.” Expressionism arose, in part, as a way for audiences to process their intense feelings. But perhaps that was not as helpful as Expressionists had thought, as it forced things into the dangerous realm of absolutes. If Petra hadn’t been forced into this absolutism, it is likely she would have had a happier ending. 

By German societal standards, much of what happened between World War I and World War II facilitated the absolutism of Nazism. Fassbinder’s rejection of old German cinema, as well as his use of it in his depiction of Petra’s self-implosion, demonstrates this. By contemporary German standards, the Oberhausen Manifesto is right when it says old German cinema is dead. And employing the styles of old cinema in a contemporary film only emphasizes that fact.

Aurora Amidon: Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.