The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 lesbian film comes to DVD/Blu-ray

By David-Elijah Nahmod - Feb. 26, 2015

Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, based on the director's own play, was originally filmed in 1972 – hardly a pivotal year for LGBT cinema.

The envelope-pushing storyline now comes to DVD/Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Fully remastered, this film features sharp images, vibrant colors and crystal clear sound.

Margit Cartensen stars as Petra Von Kant, a twice-widowed fashion designer who mistreats her obedient assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann). Marlene quietly does as she is told, and never speaks during the film, though her facial expressions indicate that there might be resentment starting to boil beneath the surface of her silence.

Hanna Schygulla plays Karin, a 23-year-old beauty from the wrong side of the tracks. Petra, a successful fashion designer (even though Marlene does all the work) mentors Karin, who becomes equally famous as a supermodel. The two women live together for a while as Petra falls deeply and obsessively in love with her new "friend."

Karin, however, got what she was wanted and returns to her husband. Petra cannot live without Karin. Her almost sociopathic love for Karin drives her to become increasingly self-destructive. Is Petra going insane?

The world was very different in 1972: Coming out was rarely an option and many LGBT people were relegated to the shadows. And Petra's decent into obsessive madness, brilliantly portrayed by Cartensen, is a portrait of how so many LGBT people were forced to live in that post-Stonewall, pre-Harvey Milk world.

The entire film is set in Petra's house – Fassbinder's camera rarely strays from her bedroom. By shooting long scenes with a fluidly moving camera, he prevents the film from becoming static. Though the scenes are long and talky, the film moves along at a comfortable pace. Strong writing and acting make Petra's sad, bitter tale a powerful one.

Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is very different from what audiences are offered today. It's a hypnotic look back at one of cinema's most interesting movements and one of that movement's finest directors.

The film is in German with English subtitles. Criterion Collection's two-disc special edition features recent interviews with the cast.

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