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January 22, 2006

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant

petra.jpg

Die Bitteren Trnen der Petra von Kant
Rainer Werner Fassbinder - 1972
Wellspring Region 1 DVD

This past month, the Miami Beach Cinematheque has been featuring a retrospective of some of the latter films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In conjunction with the films, has been the presentation of a stage version of Petra Von Kant by The White Orchard Theater. Seeing the two versions points out the extreme differences between stage and film, in terms of where the viewers direct their gaze, the use of space, and placement of characters.

Reviewing the play is problematic for several reasons. Petra Von Kant was originally written as a play. The theater company chose to make several changes, using the film's ending with Marlene leaving after Petra attempts to make their relationship for equitable, but not using the prop of a doll made to look like Petra's lover Karin. Different music was used, with disco replacing The Platters and The Walker Brothers. What makes this seemingly minor point important is that it throws the time period out of kilter. The music is to function both as a comment on the action and as a reference to Petra's past. The music in the film is appropriate for a character in her mid-thirties in a play or film taking place in the early Seventies. If disco music is used because the character is updated, than the scene with Petra Von Kant dictating a letter to Joseph Mankiewicz would need to be revised. The biggest obstacle to best evaluating the stage production though is that the production on the same floor level as the audience, making is difficult to view much of the action, especially with several of the characters sitting or reclined on the bed that is the center of the action.

The still chosen above illustrates the difference between film and stage. While we hear Margit Carstensen and Katrin Schaake discussing their lives, the camera is focused on Irm Hermann, isolated both literally and symbolically, yet seen as part of the same visual field as the other two actors. In the stage production, the audience would be more likely focussed only on the two characters in conversation. Fassbinder is able to emphasize certain points by shifting the camera angle, or by having characters seen but not heard, or heard but not seen.

Even though the film takes place in one location, the set is photographed from several different angles, as are the actors. The use of dolls and mannequins in the set echo, Petra's transformation of Karin into a model, or more literally a living doll. Petra is seen transforming herself with the use of several wigs. Fassbinder also has a visual gag in one scene with two nude female mannequins embaced on a bed, while a third mannequin stands "observing" the action, a play on the relationship of the three main characters.

In research, I have found an opera and a television production of Petra Von Kant. The themes of class and use of power in the original work still make Petra Von Kant of more than casual interest. One of Fassbinder's quotes is: "Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It's a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other." With multiple productions of Petra Von Kant one may wonder if Fassbinder, the filmmaker who wanted an Academy Award, would have approved his play being canonized as it were, or if the perpetual rebel would complain that he was being exploited in the name of art.

Posted by peter at January 22, 2006 06:21 PM

Comments

I have been trying to find that quote from Fassbinder, but in German, or at least where it came from originally. Where can I find it?
Every decent director has only one subject, and finally only makes the same film over and over again. My subject is the exploitability of feelings, whoever might be the one exploiting them. It never ends. It's a permanent theme. Whether the state exploits patriotism, or whether in a couple relationship, one partner destroys the other."

Posted by: Lil at December 9, 2006 11:28 AM