Friday, October 22, 2010

Film History: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

     I mentioned earlier that I recently saw one of the first works of the New German Cinema, Young Torless, from director Volker Schlondorff. From what I can tell, New German Cinema seems to mean any good German movie from the mid 60s (but more importantly the 70s) to somewhere in the 80s. For some strange reason, things seem to have gone downhill for the German cinema after Fritz Lang's last movies in Germany. There's an odd lack of good films from 1933 to 1945, unless you really like Leni Riefenstahl. Things didn't seem to pick up when the Italians and the French were doing their thing in the 50s and 60s either. Hence the need for a change; in 1962 a bunch of young filmakers put out the Oberhausen Manifesto which stated, "The old cinema is dead. We beleive in the new cinema." What came after were the works of Werner Herzog, Schlondorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and some other guys who I won't pretend to know anything about.
     I don't really think anything from the New German cinema is historically significant in the sense of having an effect on the course of cinema; Neorealism and the French and Hollywood New Waves had all ready shaken things up decades earlier. And there's no way to really draw a cunifying theme from the works of the German Directors. What the movement brought us instead, however, are masterpieces: the works of Herzog (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek, Kaspar Hauser) and Wenders (Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas) are some of my all-time favorites.
     Unfortunately, there was one filmaker who, until yesterday, had escaped me completely. I speak of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who stands as something of a mythic figure in German cinema or cinema in general. Well, I don't think he really stands as a mythic figure to anyone but myself, but anyone who reads his filmography will surely be amazed. He directed 40 full length films in 13 years, acted in nearly as many, and directed numerous stage plays, all before his death from an overdose at the age of 37 in 1982. Take that Kubrick. A look at his biography makes him seem even more insane; not one, but two of his male lovers commited suicide (one after stabbing three people). The women that he married (he was described as a homosexual that also needed women) were't much better off. According to Wikipedia, "Irm Hermann [his first wife] idolized him, but Fassbinder tormented and tortured her for over a decade. This included domestic violence..." Fassbinder must have had some money as well; in 1970 another boyfriend, Gunther Kaufmann, destroyed four Lamborghinis that Fassbinder tried to buy his love with. There are many, many other stories out there that show that Fassbinder could be a pretty terrible human being.
     So is any of this relevant for watching Fassbinder's films, and more particularly, Petra Von Kant (1972)? Well for one, that wife that he supposedly tormented plays a big part in the movie ( it seems Fassbinder was sleeping with all his cast and crew and casting all of his lovers). She plays Marlena, a maid who idolizes Petra, a sucessful fashion designer (Margite Carstensen). Petra torments her, often mocking her in front of her friends, and generally treats her as something useless. Petra is in turn tormented by the young and beautiful Katrin (Hanna Schygulla) who responds with indifference to Petra's affection and money.
     Fassbinder seems to be keenly attuned to the power struggles and pain in relationships. He also manages to create sympathy by showing how brutal desire can be. Petra von Kant is a pretty despicable human being, but we understand her loneliness and depression. And while much of the interaction here is cruel in a way only Germanic directors seem to be able to pull off (I'm counting Haneke and Von Trier) there's also an (often failed) attempt at honesty on the part of the characters that reminded me of Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly. Particularly interesting is a scene in which Petra is trying to get Katrin to open up to her and takes delight in learning about her troubled past. Later, Petra asks that Katrin go back on her promise to always tell the truth; the pain of the truth is so unbearable that she'd rather be lied to.
     Fassbinder adapted Petra von Kant from one of his plays, and his stage background (unique among the New Cinema's directors) is very much present here. The story is told through 5 or 6 scenes over the course of a few months (I think) and everything takes place in Petra von Kant's house. The smooth camerawork is excellent and Margite Carstensen is explosive as Petra. I do realize, however, that I'm only beginning to understand Fassbinder. Hopefully I can catch In A Year with 13 Moons on Monday, although it will probably be a while before I see his 15 hour masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz.


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