Sometimes one of the trickier parts of this series is that a film’s visual power can’t always be conveyed by a still image. Camera movement or shot duration can be as revealing as the composition of the frame, and despite evidence to the contrary, the internet can only contain so many gifs. Hopefully you get the idea if you’re playing along at home *wink, wink*.
The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is almost constantly in motion, whether it’s the camera or the actors floating about the space. Rainer Werner Fassbinder stages the film within an inch of its life, every shift in performer posture and glacial pan of the camera manufactured to maximum beauty. The marvel is that the film preserves an irresistible, austere gorgeousness despite its mannered approach. You reach out to touch it as it keeps you at arms length.
The effect is that some long takes throughout the film almost have shots within shots, telling one completely different story between the start of a shot and the end. Part of the effect of Fassbinder’s meticulous staging is that as the camera pulls back or glides ever so glacially the spacial distance between performers is more revealing than their words. A change in posture or pose presents Petra’s constantly shifting dominance and codependency, and her increasing isolation.
Often on the fringes of these long and sensual takes is Irm Hermann as Marlene, Petra’s much abused romantic doormat. Hermann is the film’s silent source of soul and justice, her plainness revealing an honest longing in stark contrast to Petra’s narcissistic selfishness. Whereas Petra can barely look directly at someone she speaks to even when professing passion, Marlene’s gaze is always squarely on Petra. She’s minimalist in expression, but every turn of the head or swift arrival is emotionally revealing.
Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is as accomplished here as his famous American work and not just for the intuitive camera movement. When you remember his work, it’s his shadows that come to mind – and here the final scene is almost enough for Best Shot simply for it’s plainspoken beauty. His work always has an unflashy hand that is almost a necessity here against the mannerisms of the director, a necessary balance to find the soul underneath the psychosis.
The film’s Best Shot is the film’s centerpiece, one of the best examples of how the film’s long takes evolve as they unfold:
An evocative slow pan outward reveals the shot to be the film’s most expressive about self-absorbed self-love and self-flagellation. Petra may be falling for Karin, but even her outward affections are all about serving her own sense of self. Meanwhile, Karin is feeling herself, girl – basking in the glow of being an adored creature, nevermind the lack of reciprocated feelings. And Marlene is ignored in the background, knowingly longing for the woman that abuses her.
More of Hit Me With Your Best Shot!