THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1972

Time is a healer. Age and experience help one to become wiser and more mature. So the cliché’s go. Are these notions not the flagship for the hope of Reason itself? That is to say, do not the lessons learnt through trial and error heuristically enable one to reach greater heights of understanding?

The Apollonian notion of order dictates that one comes to judge soberly the relationships in one’s life. Or as Habermas might say, the “unforced force of the better argument” is impelled to hold sway, and that it is this communicative rationality which once again reinforces the foundations of Reason and raises it to a linear, progressive, normative standard.

But what happens when communication serves no progressive rationality? When supposed linearity dissolves into fragments? When customs and norms are transvaluated? When Dionysus kicks out at Apollo?

Possible answers to these questions lie within The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.

The film dissects the various relationships of a successful clothes designer, Petra Von Kant – with her former husbands, her ‘friend’ Sidonie, her daughter, and her mother – but with particularly chilling emphasis on her involvement with her live-in secretary/maid/slave Marlene, and a young girl named Karin with whom Petra falls in love.

In a Foucaldian sense, Fassbinder weaves these relationships into an exploration of how power is manipulated through a series of discursive filters: history, class, art, age, psychosis, and gender.

Just as potently, the film is also a vivid rumination on the nature of the Hegelian master-slave dialectic, and Nietzschean master-slave morality. This is brought to bear in the tension within the film between art and love on the one hand and servitude and labour on the other, and the paradoxes contained within each. The freedom of expression within the former is offset immanently by the amour fou which paralyses Petra and makes her a prisoner to her love. At the same time, the alienation and submission of the latter in the form of Marlene’s slavery to Petra is offset by the inherent freedom which marks out Marlene’s choice to leave Petra at the end of the film.

Time does not always heal like the cliché would have us believe. It sometimes pushes us further into desperation or moral degradation. The interdependence of Petra and Karin, and Petra and Marlene is the ostensible interdependence of the master and the slave. On the surface it may appear at the end of the film that Marlene finds a way out of her alienation; that she acts freely and recognizes that she has more authority than she may have dreamed. Similarly, it may appear at first glance that Petra also realizes that her success is built on the foundations of Marlene’s labour, and together this allows for a certain dialectical uplift in consciousness on the parts of both women, helping to outline the epiphanal aspects of the Absolute in Hegel’s thought. However, Marlene leaves with a gun in her suitcase, suggesting all the while that there may be trouble ahead, and once again undercutting the notion of any linear resolution of all present difficulties. Furthermore, this highlights that despite the fact that Petra makes peace with her master Karin, and with her slave Marlene, amour fou is always only just around the corner.

The paradox in Petra’s treatment of Karin and Marlene is the tension between Reason and its limits. Petra rails about how much Karin is hurting her, how she doesn’t understand why someone she loves so much would hurt her in such a fashion. Yet she does the same thing to Marlene on a regular basis, hurting someone who loves her, and doing so unapologetically. She misses the truth that is right in front of her.

Bash Khan


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