The Film (5/5)
The two facts that many tend to recall about the director Rainier Werner Fassbinder are simply that he died at the young age of 37, and for dying so young he created a great many films. Fassbinder, between his feature film debut Love is Colder than Death (distributed by Criterion in the Early Fassbinder Eclipse boxset), and his final film Querelle based on the work of Jean Genet directed 41 other films bringing the grand total up to 43. While not all of the films could be considered masterpieces of the form, many are, and offered many interesting and dramatic delights for the viewer such as his 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant which sees a Blu-ray release this month from the Criterion Collection.
Fassbinder like the earlier Ingmar Bergman was a director who worked very well within very drama, and both of their work could be viewed on the stage and the screen. Although, none of Bergman's stage work I believe ever made it into his film work; Fassbinder's Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is not only adapted from his stage play, but seemingly shot in a stylistically similar. Bitter Tears..., also feels like the beginnings of Fassbinder's obsession with Sirk-ian melodrama, a style he would perfect later into the 70's with films like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (itself a racially charged remake of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows). The film also referencing back to Bergman seems to channel Bergman’s series of chamber dramas from the early 60's such as The Silence of God Trilogy and the earlier Brink of Life.
The film stars Margit Carstensen as Petra von Kant, a successful fashion designer that lives and works with another more submissive designer who acts like her servant/maid Marlene (Irm Hermann). As the film begins a friend of Petra's brings over a model friend Karin Thimm(Hanna Schygulla). Petra begins to interrogate Karin, and takes to the way Karin answers her questions. She invites Karin back, and eventually ask Karin to move in with her. The two begin a relationship, and the dynamic between the typically dominate Petra begins to shift, and she begins to be manipulated by Karin who she is now obsessively in love with. This leads to Karin eventually confronting Petra and leaving her emotionally wrecked, and alone.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant takes place on one set (Petra’s apartment) for just about 2 hours with only a small cast. However, Fassbinder's blend of high camp, and powerful drama hits a striking balance early on in the film, and never relents through the films running time. Having seen Hanna Schygulla in a number of Fassbinder productions it never ceases to amaze me her ability to dwell inside a role, and make it her own, and that goes for the entire cast here, most notably Margit Carstensen who channels all the many facets of Petra's personality from the elegant and powerful to the lonely and broken Petra left at the films denouement. Fassbinder having a low budget took his one set, and made it completely memorable with interesting furnishings, color schemes, and a huge mosaic of Poussin's Midas and Bacchus alongside one wall. He also calls in frequent collaborator cinematographer Michael Ballhaus to take the film above it's budgetary and simple origins and give it a more Hollywood look.
Criterion presents the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in a 1:37:1 MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer that preserves the aspect ratio The transfer offers a well detailed, very natural looking experience that reproduces the tones and textures that Fassbinder/Ballhaus created for the film. The colors presented look quite gorgeous, fine detail is excellent, and there is a very natural grain field present during the film's duration.
As per Criterion's standard for the film's of this era Bitter Tears... is presented with a lovely LPCM 1.0 Mono track in the film's native German. Dialogue, score, music cues all sound quite excellent. I did not detect any issues such as pops cracks or hissing from the track.
Criterion have put together an excellent slate of extras for their release of the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. The disc kicks off with a documentary featuring interviews with all the leads from the film. We then get an excellent 8 minute interview with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, this is followed up by a visual essay by Jane Shattuc of Emerson College on the relationship by Fassbinder to his casts. We also get a 1992 TV program that discusses the role of women in the work of Fassbinder. The set is rounded off with a printed essay in the case on the film itself.
One of Fassbinder's greatest films, the Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant offers a mix of camp and very compelling drama. The Blu-ray from Criterion looks and sounds amazing, and the extras offer a really great look at Fassbinder's relationships with those he worked with. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.