The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), one of Fassbinder's masterpieces, explores the tortured connections between desire and power. Not only is the DVD of exceptional quality, it includes both of Fassbinder's fascinating short films ("The City Tramp" and "The Little Chaos") plus a revealing documentary.
Although Bitter Tears remains one of Fassbinder's most controversial films - in part for its severely limited depiction of women's lives - it is also one of his most powerful. Fortunately, the range of lesbian-themed films in the past thirty years has presented women's experiences in considerably more diversity and fullness, so perhaps now we can better evaluate the film's considerable merits.
Fassbinder's casts are always uniformly strong, but this one is extraordinary, especially Margit Carstensen in the title role (she won several awards), Hanna Schygulla (with whom Fassbinder made 20 pictures) as her new lover Karin Thimm, and Irm Herrman as Petra's mysterious assistant Marlene who, without uttering one word, at times dominates with her sheer presence.
The film is astonishing for its interweaving of raw emotion with stunning and meticulous design. Fassbinder and director of photography Michael Ballhaus (who shot about half of the director's films, and now does all of Scorsese's pictures) wrest every bit of visual interest from the single claustrophobic set (we never leave this one apartment). The endlessly inventive deep focus compositions provide a series of emotionally penetrating, and technically virtuosic, comments on the action - ironic, allusive, symbolic, and visually gorgeous. The only picture which approaches this level of achievement - in making limited physical space utterly compelling as cinema - is Cocteau's Les Parents Terribles (1948), but he had all of two sets!
Fassbinder also makes acerbic use of every carefully placed object in the lavish apartment. Most notable is a gigantic blowup of Poussin's painting "Midas and Bacchus," which reminds us that Petra - like Midas, whose life was blasted by the "golden touch" - should be careful what she wishes for. The nude Bacchus stands in the center of the mural - and not infrequently Fassbinder's compositions - with the body of, well, a Greek god, a larger-than-life male in a film peopled entirely with women. Some critics argue that this overbearing backdrop represents the patriarchal system which underlies, and perhaps even dooms, the relationship of Petra and Karin. Fassbinder includes many other witty, even playful, elements throughout the film, both to give it greater resonance, and to keep it from descending into bathos. For instance, dramatic form has rarely been so drolly encapsulated as when Petra changes into a new wig - "symbolically" indicating her emotional state - in each of the film's five scenes (each unfolds in continuous time).
Although it would be unfair to reveal the ending, a tentatively optimistic reading may be possible: For one character it revolves around a newfound self-respect, for another because she has, for the first time, genuinely reached out to someone else. The film is so rich, on so many levels, that you may find yourself seeing it differently on each viewing. Few works so creatively, and powerfully, manage to subvert our desire for cathartic drama while simultaneously fulfilling it.
FASSBINDER'S SHORT FILMS ARE ALSO INCLUDED on this DVD. Both were made in 1966, when he was 19. "The City Tramp," about a homeless man who finds a gun, is a work of extraordinary, stark visual design and intriguing commentative sound (street noise juxtaposed with classical music juxtaposed with silence). It boasts excellent performances, with Fassbinder raising it far above the level of a "vanity piece" for financial backer cum star Christoph Roser. It also introduces several of the filmmaker's recurring themes, including alienation, the role of the outsider, exploitation, and violence, while its sporadic playfulness highlights another vital, and fun, aspect of his work. "The Little Chaos" is about three friends who use their knowledge of American crime movies (and Godard's 1964 film Band of Outsiders) to rob a woman. Although not as visually striking or emotionally rich as "City Tramp," it features first-rate performances and has a refreshing exuberance. The DVD also includes "Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1977," an engrossing half-hour documentary.