The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

Part I of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center is well underway. Just before the series opened last week, FilmLinc Daily asked a group of critics to name their favorite two or three Fassbinder films (his television work was also fair play). Among the over more than dozen people who weighed in, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and In a Year with 13 Moons (1978) tied as top picks.

Fassbinder's Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) also ranked as a popular choice in addition to the German filmmaker's TV miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980). Other favorites included Chinese Roulette (1976), Fox and His Friends (1975), World on a Wire (1973), and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979).

Fassbinder is considered one of the most prolific European filmmakers of the 20th century. He completed nearly 40 feature-length films between 1969 and 1982. He died that year when he was only 37. Themes of love, crime, labor, and social and emotional exploitation manifest throughout his many melodramas, gangster movies, literary adaptations, and sci-fi works.

Writing about Fassbinder in 1997, Roger Ebert took a look at his life's work, considering how the filmmaker's movies had stood the test of time, at that point 15 years after his death. “Has his work dated? Does it seem less exciting that it did? I've been looking at some of his films again recently, and I believe Fassbinder's work has not only survived but grown in stature. At a time of timid commercial projects in the mainstream and copycat coming-of-age dramas on the fringes, he stands as a bold original artist who took universal themes and handled them in a defiantly anti-establishment way.”

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant centers on the titular successful but arrogant and self-satisfied fashion designer who mistreats her secretary/maid/co-designer Marlene. Karin, a 23-year-old beauty and aspiring model, enters the picture. Petra falls in love and invites her to move in, resulting in a tumultuous roller coaster and emotional fall out.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

“The film is a fascinating but strange document of the trickle-down effects of power and an even stranger observation of the way women treat and sometimes enslave each other, but Fassbinber's galvanizing aesthetic approach to the material, however fitting, is so unbearably oppressive that it borders on the pathological,” observed Ed Gonzalez, film critic at Slant. “For his audience, the only points of departure are the high-camp exchanges between the film's actresses.”

Kevin B. Lee told FilmLinc Daily: “Of so many wonderful films by Herr [Rainer Werner Fassbinder], one that resonates with me is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, because it's the simplest, purest expression of his vision.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is screening Memorial Day weekend at the Film Society. Details about part 2 of the Fassbinder series taking place in November, which will spotlight Fassbinder's films from 1974 until 1982, will be unveiled at a future date.

Also a top choice in the informal poll, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is screening in Part 1 of the series, which continues through June 1. The film reworks the narrative and thematic framework of Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama All That Heaven Allows (also the inspiration for Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven) in telling the improbable love story of Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), a thirty-something Moroccan immigrant working as a mechanic, and Emmi (Fassbinder muse Brigitte Mira), a German widow who is old enough to be his mother. The motley pair gets married and quickly encounters prejudice and discrimination from neighbors, friends, and family.

After it screened at the New York Film Festival back in the '70s, The New York Times praised Fassbinder and Ali in particular for its unconventional storytelling. “There's no question that Mr. Fassbinder, whose “Ali” was shown at the New York Film Festival on Saturday and yesterday evenings, has a great deal of talent, so much that he seems driven by it in the healthiest sense… “Ali” is not an easy movie to warm up to. It's no May-December romance that tugs at the heart. It is, rather, another quite courageous attempt by Mr. Fassbinder to develop a film style free of the kind of realistic conventions that sentimentalize life's mysteries.”

World on a Wire

World on a Wire (1973) was made for German television and was also a favorite among our poll respondents. World on a Wire is a noir-spiked tale about a cybernetics engineer (Klaus Löwitsch) who uncovers a massive corporate conspiracy. Film Comment noted that Fassbinder's work on the film marked “an unlikely genre-deviation” from his other work. “As a result, it deserves recognition on at least two planes of space-operatic history: first, as an accomplishment to stand alongside those great moments in television science fiction engineered by the extraordinary Nigel Kneale (Quatermass and the Pit), and second, as a decidedly auteurist celebration/rethink of two disparate though not entirely dissimilar sorts of cinematic science fiction.”

Film Society Director of Programming Dennis Lim observed about Fassbinder: “In some ways, the time is always ripe for a Fassbinder retrospective. More than three decades after his death, he still looms large, a widespread influence and a singular force. His films are undimmed and untamed by the passage of time—more than that, many of them seem more vital than ever these days.”

[Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist screening details and other information can be found here.]