LGBT Movies: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972)

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant follows an affair between a successful fashion designer and a young model. Petra (Margit Carstensen) treats Karin (Hanna Schygulla) as a mannequin. A plaything to provide inspiration and affection. Karin enjoys her wealth but resents her obsessive nature. Writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder slows their conversations to a snail’s pace. His images are striking but his performers are chilly. The film is heavier than his simple story can bear. Those expecting the wit of All About Eve or the trash of Valley of the Dolls will be disappointed.

Let’s take a look in this spoiler filled recap.

Scene One: Petra’s apartment

COUSIN: Sorry about your divorce.
PETRA: (A Fashion Designer in a black wig.) Don’t be. He was always jealous.
COUSIN: I’ve brought someone who’ll cheer you up. She’s young.   
KARIN: (An ingénue.) OMG! My dad killed my mom. It was super sad.
PETRA: You should model.

Scene Two: Several Months Later

PETRA (Wears a red Coco Peru wig. Drinks.): Say you love me.
KARIN: Stop. You’re always jealous.
PETRA: I got your picture in the papers.
KARIN: Really!? I love you. And my boyfriend. And my husband.
PETRA: Whore.
KARIN: Whore? Then pay me $500.
PETRA: Take $1000.
(Karin takes it and leaves.)     

Scene Three: Birthday Party

PETRA (Wears a curly blonde wig. Drinks.): WHY DOESN’T KARIN CALL!
DAUGHTER: Happy birthday mama!
MOTHER: Happy birthday daughter!
MOTHER: Wait. You’re bi?

Scene Four: That Night

PETRA: (Wigless.) I didn’t love Karin. I just wanted to possess her.
(KARIN calls on the phone.)
KARIN: I’m flying to Paris. Can I see you before I go?
PETRA: No. (Hangs up.)
PETRA: At least I still have you.
(Lovelorn Servant packs her suitcase and leaves.)


Peter von Camp

Initial reception from some quarters was frosty. The nascent gay liberation movement was dismayed that The Bitter Tears portrayed lesbians as perverse and manipulative. Lesbian groups even picketed it at the 1972 New York Film Festival.

Senses of Cinema

Scholars have claimed that Fassbinder wrote von Kant to process the parallels to his own rocky relationship. He was aware of his self-sabotaging behavior. The original play still gets produced with both women and men in the roles. Gerald Barry’s 2005 opera dialed up the heat. It was a logical next step for the work. It wouldn’t be the last re-imagining.

François Ozon’s 2022 remake turned subtext into text. Peter von Kant presents the lead as an aging, hedonistic film maker. He falls for a callow twink. The film is faster and funnier than the original. But there aren’t many surprises. Denis Ménochet’s lead is so pathetic from the start that his “downfall” barely registers. Khalil Ben Gharbia’s boy toy shows no interest so there are no stakes. The real Fassbinder was, reportedly, an abusive tyrant. Peter is a neurotic teddy bear by comparison.

The original film’s Hanna Schygulla provides a lovely cameo as Peter’s mother. But the scene stealer is Stefan Crepon as his assistant Karl. His predecessor, Irm Hermann, glowered. Crepon is shady and sarcastic. His reactions provide comic relief and moments of true pathos. Peter performs his passions. Karl lives them.

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