“Is Fassbinder a Sirkian who, despite distancing techniques and irony, achieves audience identification and emotional catharsis? Or is he a hard-nosed Brechtian who distances us clinically from his characters so that we can calmly criticise their shortcomings?”
An ongoing debate has raged amongst Fassbinder’s critics with regard to the influences on his oeuvre. Some academics have argued that Brecht’s influence has been neglected, especially by non-specialists and foreign film critics. In his penetrating study of Fassbinder’s work on the German stage, David Barnett argues against those critics who tend to exaggerate the influence of Antonin Artaud1 on Fassbinder, and portray the German director as “a sensual, irrationalist director, fascinated by the unsayable in performance”2 while downplaying the importance of Brecht: “non-specialists have championed the Artaudian Fassbinder and dismissed a Brechtian influence.”3 Barnett brings out clearly Brecht’s influence on Fassbinder’s work in the German theatre.4 Likewise, H-B. Moeller complains that film scholars have underestimated Brecht’s influence on Fassbinder: “In his trilogy about Germany, the late Rainer Werner Fassbinder remained close to the Brechtian model. However, critical reviews have largely tended to ignore the trilogy’s literary and Brechtian aspects; AngloAmerican critics in particular saw Andy Warhol and Douglas Sirk in Fassbinder. [. . .] In particular, Fassbinder’s trilogy invites a reexamination so as to illuminate the Brechtian attack which Fassbinder waged against the West German success story,” concluding “In their fascination with Fassbinder’s reverence for exiled director Douglas Sirk and his Hollywood work, film scholars tend to overlook or underestimate the Brechtian elements in Fassbinder’s work.”5
I have also previously emphasized Brecht’s influence on Fassbinder. In my article on Fassbinder’s Effi Briest (1974), I show how Brecht’s idea of “Verfremdung” (“alienation” or “estrangement”) definitely influenced Fassbinder’s style — Fassbinder uses an array of distancing techniques to prevent identification and to present a critical, ironic view of Effi.6
In contrast to those critics who argue for either Sirk or Brecht, a third position has sometimes been advanced that looks at the influences on Fassbinder dialectically and posits that Fassbinder achieves a fusion of two opposites, Sirk and Brecht. Ian Aitken claims that Fassbinder goes beyond Brecht by blending Brechtian “Verfremdung” with Sirkian melodrama: “Fassbinder combined Brechtian alienation devices with melodramatic techniques derived from Sirk to make films which are often, and sometimes contradictorily, both affective and distancing. Fassbinder adopted this approach because he wanted to make his audience feel, as well as think, and went so far as to argue that he had ‘gone further’ than Brecht in achieving such a synthesis.”7
The aim of this article is to examine in detail one film, Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), 1972, to ascertain whether the influence of Sirk or Brecht is greater or whether Fassbinder does indeed achieve this synthesis. I have chosen Petra von Kant because it was made just after the 1970 Munich film retrospective dedicated to Sirk8 when his influence on Fassbinder was probably at its peak.
Sirk influenced Fassbinder both in terms of style and content. Stylistically, we find many features that return in Fassbinder’s films: numerous framing devices (window panes, doorways, fences, gates, screens, landings, banisters, staircases); a liking for shadows, mirrors and reflections; an awareness of film clichés leading to over-the-top symbolism. Sirk’s world-weary atmosphere, his mood of failure and pessimism are echoed in Fassbinder’s films. Sirk’s characters long for something better but are powerless against forces they cannot control and are usually doomed to disaster. Like Effi Briest, they are repressed by social conventions and expectations. Their homes are little more than cages or prisons: “They are always behind those window crossings, behind bars or staircases. Their homes are their prisons . . . You are caged. In melodrama you have human, earthly prisons rather than godly creations.”9 Although Sirk often finishes his films conventionally with miraculous, exaggerated happy endings, even these are so contrived that they offer little hope: “All my endings, even the happy ones, are pessimistic.”10 There is no belief in progress but a recurring Nietzschean circularity as films end where they start (for example, in the frothy 1952 comedy Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, it is shown that money cannot buy happiness and we are returned to the status quo).
Having known Brecht personally and having directed Brecht on the Weimar stage,11 Sirk uses a number of Brechtian distancing devices: framing shots, artificial song interludes, flashbacks, irony/dramatic irony, over-obvious clichéd symbolism and colour symbolism, unnaturalistic lighting, etc. However, despite all of these alienation techniques, the audience is still not distanced from Sirk’s protagonists, who are usually presented directly with great intensity. Instead, his films are highly emotional and the audience tends to get heavily involved with his characters. The full-blooded sentimental music helps to produce powerful tearjerkers that reinforce Sirk’s reputation as the “master of the weepie.”12 Paul Willemen has noticed this contradiction in Sirk:
In an interview […] Sirk explains in some detail the importance he attaches to stylisation, and stresses the importance he attaches to establishing a distance between the audience and the depicted action. However, such statements can be misleading. In general in his melodrama Sirk does not employ techniques to distanciate his audience. On the contrary, he mercilessly implicates the audience in the action. (Ample proof of this can be found in the audience’s near hysterical reactions to his films involving abundant tears and/or self-protective laughter.) Such reactions seem to indicate that the distance Sirk is referring to is not necessarily perceived by the audience.13
Let’s now examine Fassbinder’s Petra von Kant. Is Fassbinder a Sirkian who, despite distancing techniques and irony, achieves audience identification and emotional catharsis? Or is he a hard-nosed Brechtian who distances us clinically from his characters so that we can calmly criticise their shortcomings? Or does he achieve a contradictory fusion of Sirk and Brecht, of empathy and “Verfremdung,” a synthesis of feeling and reflection?
Petra von Kant has been called “one of Fassbinder’s most controversial films,” with some viewers “outraged by the harshly limited view of women in this film, from bitchy couturier to slavish secretary.”15 Feminist and gay critics have even labelled the film “both homophobic and anti-woman.”16 Elyse Sommer describes it as a “steamy Lesbian love triangle,”17 while Ryan Gilbey calls it “a berserk, angry, funny and exhausting analysis of sado-masochistic power games masquerading as loving relationships.”18 The releasing company Connoisseur tried to hype sales of its video by calling it “a super-charged melodrama of sado-masochistic passion.”19 The film has also been seen as autobiographical with Fassbinder turning his own gay relationships into a lesbian melodrama. Gilbey quotes Robert Katz, who describes Petra von Kant as “the story, transsexualised into a lesbian love affair, of Rainer’s relationship with Gϋnther.”20 However, despite the sensational descriptions of the film “as a lesbian slumber party in high-camp drag,”21 it seems by modern standards remarkably tame, with any steamy lesbian sex taking place between the scenes and off-camera — disappointingly, we just have to make do with a kiss, a bit of fondling, and a pair of amorous mannequins!
Structurally, the film is the opposite of Brecht’s epic style. Instead of open form and loose, fast-moving, episodic scenes, we find a tightly constructed, upper-class chamber piece in five acts with a small cast of six actresses and the classical unity of place. Petra von Kant started out as a stage play,22 and the film makes few changes. It is very self-conscious, wordy, and “theatrical.” Mannered, artificial, and highly formalistic are the usual descriptions.
Sirk’s fondness for framing shots to depict the home as a prison and love as a cage have clearly influenced Fassbinder, who, through his single confined setting, heightens the sense of claustrophobia and imprisonment. Fassbinder uses a vast range of framing devices to distance the spectators from the characters, reminding them that they are watching a film, an artificial creation, and to hem in the action — beams, stairs, bed rails, shutters, a wooden partition/shelf unit, a doorway, mirrors, etc. Despite her success in the fashion business, Petra is trapped, lonely, and bitterly miserable: “It is as if Fassbinder were using the resources of film to close in, rather than open up, his play; to force even more pressure on Petra. She is often framed within bars of shadow, and frozen in tableaux. And the camera’s sinuous tracking shots — rather than simply following her movement, as in a conventional picture — encircle Petra, binding her.”24
A classical mural, a cropped reproduction of Poussin’s 17th-century painting “Midas and Bacchus,” serves as a backdrop for much of the “action.” This is usually interpreted as symbolic. Although we have a small all-female cast, they cannot escape the world of men: “This is Fassbinder’s visual representation of the oppression that women receive from men even when they are not present.”25 The backdrop represents “the patriarchal system which underlies, and perhaps even dooms, the relationship of Petra and Karin.”26 The symbolism distances us from and makes us critical of Petra: “The Poussin painting, in short, serves as a mocking rebuke to Petra’s pretence to have transcended the limitations of her two previous and failed heterosexual marriages”27.
There are clear signs of Sirkian influence, but now we arrive at the main issue: does Fassbinder generate the same intense emotional involvement in his characters as Sirk? As already noted, Aitken sees Fassbinder as fusing “Verfremdung” and feeling. Barnett concludes his study of Fassbinder’s theatrical work in similar fashion: “The confluence of feeling and thinking marks Fassbinder as a post-Brechtian in that he was happy to offer empathy as long as the audience was prepared to reflect on their allegiances within the theatre.”28 He sees Sirk as having softened up Fassbinder so that Petra is not presented unsympathetically: “Petra is portrayed as both a slippery linguistic operator and as someone whose life has become so confused by such fictions that a feeling of cautious compassion might be evinced from a spectator. Petra’s self-deception is so pronounced that her blindness may elicit sympathy. Fassbinder betrays his debt to Sirk in that he cannot treat Petra with contempt.”29 Aitken’s and Barnett’s ideas of post-Brechtian synthesis are echoed by Fassbinder himself: “With Brecht you see the emotions and you reflect upon them as you witness them but you never feel them. That’s my interpretation and I think I go farther than he did in that I let the audience feel and think”30.
This is the key question. We know that Fassbinder’s films make us think, but can they also make us feel? Is he capable of generating empathy and emotional appeal? Does Fassbinder achieve this fusion in Petra von Kant? We have already noted that, although Sirk uses some distancing devices, they are so ineffective that they do not prevent hysterical audience reactions to his slushy films, with emotions and tears triumphing over cold reason.31 Is the same true of Fassbinder?
I would now like to explain why I do not think that Fassbinder achieves this synthesis of feeling and reflection in Petra von Kant. I disagree with Barnett that Fassbinder avoids treating Petra with contempt because of his debt to Sirk and that a new mellow Fassbinder arouses sympathy and compassion toward her. The main difference between Sirk and Fassbinder is that Sirk’s distancing devices are weak and ineffective. In contrast, Fassbinder’s “Verfremdung” is far more intense and, because it is so effective, he cannot generate empathy. I now want to discuss in detail two differences between Sirk and Fassbinder that help to illustrate why Sirk’s audiences whip out their hankies while Fassbinder’s viewers calmly continue chewing on their popcorn.
A major difference is the music. Sirk’s soundtracks are more omnipresent and dominating. His lush, full-blooded scores build up the audience’s involvement with the sentimental scenes onscreen. They heighten the emotional impact. Is it any wonder that an ϋbercool cynic like Fassbinder cannot hold back his tears during the Imitation of Life? Is there anything more overpowering than the fabulous funeral scene where the wonderful Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson performs the stirring spiritual “Trouble of the World” and Sarah Jane begs her dead mother for forgiveness, but far too late? Instead, Fassbinder offers just musical interludes in Petra von Kant that do not have the same effect. The music, instead of creating an emotional climax, proves more ironic. At the end, Petra plays the R&B song “The Great Pretender” by the Platters. This distances us from her. We see her as a fraud, a liar, a charlatan with too much self-indulgence and self-obsession.
A good way to highlight this difference in acting styles is to compare Annie in Imitation of Life with Marlene in Petra von Kant. Both are servants and confidantes. Annie, the emotional heart of the film, is presented directly and without irony. We admire her devotion to Lora and feel for her when she is disowned by her daughter Sarah Jane, who is ashamed of her mother’s “blackness” and wants to pass for white. Sirk pulls at our heartstrings when Annie says that, as a black, Sarah Jane was “born to be hurt.” Marlene could not be a greater contrast. Moving stiffly like a robot or mannequin, she comes across as completely mannered, posed, and unnaturalistic. She is basically a distancing device, juxtaposed between the viewer and the “action” (just like the function of the narrator in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest), reminding the audience that they are watching a film, an artificial construct. Our involvement in the other characters is often filtered and mediated through Marlene, who forever hovers in the background, watching, observing, spying. Even when she is off-camera, while Petra is trying to seduce Karin, we know that Marlene is still present, ominously, in the background, expressing her frustration and disapproval through the relentless rat-a-tat of her typewriter. Whereas Annie intensifies the emotional impact of Sirk’s film, Marlene “simply does not conform to the melodramatic aesthetic”33 and undermines our emotional involvement.
Before coming to an end, it is necessary to deal with John and Ann White’s intriguing essay on Petra von Kant in which they argue against the view that Fassbinder imposes Brechtian “anti-illusionistic” distancing devices upon melodramatic material. They maintain that many of the elements of stylisation and formalism are not employed for Brechtian reasons. Perceiving a general sense of eeriness, they suggest that the film is more enigmatic than many interpreters have implied. Various elements in the film, which were rarely present in the stage version, create a series of unresolved enigmas.
The Whites conclude that “the high formality of the film’s dominant mode is not infrequently counterbalanced by a number of heterogeneous mysterious elements: sometimes involving a teasing absence of convincing motivation or plot causality, but on many occasions having the effect of pushing realism in the direction of the rationally inexplicable and deliberate mystification.”34 The main elements they concentrate on are the dolls and dummies, Marlene’s pistol and the ending.
The problem for the Whites is that Fassbinder’s explanation seriously contradicts their attempts to bring out the film’s “enigmatic openness.” Perhaps, in the overall context of the film, their unexplained mysteries are not as important as they make out? A film gave Fassbinder many more possibilities to introduce extra elements and touches that were not in the stage version. It was a lot easier practically to move the dummies around onscreen than on the stage, whether this is intended uncannily, ironically, playfully or simply for visual appeal. For whatever reason, they have an unsettling effect and do nothing to create empathy.
One of the main changes between the film and the play is the ending. On stage the ending was relatively open — Petra offers Marlene freedom and equality and the play closes with the possibility of reconciliation. For Gilbey, the change in the film’s ending when Marlene packs her suitcase and walks out on Petra, leaving her all alone, “darkened the tenor of the piece.”40 Fassbinder provides a bleaker ending, which is consistent with Marlene’s masochism. She does not want the freedom and equality Petra offers, preferring masochistic subjugation and choosing to leave so that she can become a masochistic slave elsewhere.41 The enigmatic pistol that Marlene packs into her suitcase can also be explained in this context. As Rosenbaum remarks, echoing Fassbinder, the revolver “was used in order to stress that Marlene’s slavery was voluntary.”42 She could have defended herself against her subjugation at any time and always had the means to leave whenever she wanted.
In conclusion, Fassbinder’s film is not 100 percent Brechtian. The structure is more classical, and there remain some unresolved mysteries, although, if we accept Fassbinder’s explanations, the film is not as open-ended and enigmatic as the Whites suggest. There are also many Sirkian elements. However, these do not dominate and Fassbinder cannot arouse the key Sirkian ingredient — powerful cathartic empathy. Sirk’s audiences are moved, whereas Fassbinder is too stylised and Petra too distanced to provoke such feelings. Petra may display volcanic emotions on the screen but is unable to generate them in her audience. Although not totally consistent, the Brechtian devices are still strong enough to prevent identification with Petra. Because of this lack of empathy, Petra von Kant cannot be considered a synthesis of Sirkian feeling and Brechtian reflection. If we make use of one of Brecht’s favourite images, that of the boxing match, we could conclude that neither Sirk nor Brecht achieves a knock out with regard to their influence on Petra von Kant. In the heavyweight contest between Sirk the Sentimentalist and Brecht the Bruiser, it is my opinion that Brecht just about edges it, on points.
Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Cinema. Edinburgh: University Press, 2001.
Barnett, David. Rainer Werner Fassbinder and the German Theatre. Cambridge: University Press, 2005.
Gilbey, Ryan. “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant: Love’s a bitch.” The Independent, 11 April 2003.
Grunes, Dennis. Review.
“Interview with Douglas Sirk.” Bright Lights Film Journal, originally issue 6 (1977) ,which is out of print but now available online:
Klinger, Barbara. Melodrama and Meaning: History, Culture, and the Films of Douglas Sirk. Indiana: University Press, 1994.
McCreadie, Marsha. 11 July 2010. “Petra’s Place.”
Mitchell, Glenn. Insert notes. DVD box set Directed by Douglas Sirk. Universal Studios, 2007.
Moeller, H-B. Jump Cut, no. 35 (April 1990), 102-07 at “The Marriage of Maria Braun. Veronika Voss.Lola — Fassbinder’s Use of Brechtian Aesthetics.”
Morris, Gary. “Dark Angel: Notes on Fassbinder.”
Pott, Sabine. Film als Geschichtsschreibung bei Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Bern: Peter Lang, 2002.
Ramblings of a Film Snob. Review.
Sirk, D and L. Fischer. Imitation of Life. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991.
Sleeve notes. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Connoisseur Video, n.d.
Smith, Derek. Review of All I Desire.
Sommer, Elyse. Review.
Tyson, Peter K. “Distancing Techniques in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest.” Neophilologus online, 25/11/09, DOI 10.1007/s11061-009-9187-3 and Neophilologus 94 (2010), 499-508.
White, J. and A. “Marlene’s pistol and Brady’s rule: elements of mystification and indeterminacy in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant.” GLL 53 (2000), 409-425.
- Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) is associated with the “Theatre of Cruelty,” which tried to shock spectators out of their complacency by forcing them to engage with a performance on an instinctive level. [↩]
- Barnett, 5. [↩]
- Barnett, 6. [↩]
- Barnett’s study reveals many Brechtian features, e.g., the defamiliarisation of the normal, the de-individualisation of character, the distanced acting, the episodic structures, the materialist underpinning of character behaviour, the undermining of naturalistic language, and the prevention of identification and empathy. [↩]
- Moeller, see Jump Cut article on website. [↩]
- Peter K. Tyson, “Distancing Techniques in Fassbinder’s Effi Briest” in Neophilologus. [↩]
- Aitken, 150. [↩]
- I would like to take this opportunity to thank my daughter Natasha Tyson, who is studying English and Film Studies at Lancaster University, England, for her background research on Sirk. [↩]
- “Interview with Douglas Sirk,” see BLFJ website. Sirk has definitely influenced Fassbinder’s use of framing devices and his images of love as a prison. See Sabine Pott, 41-42, who notes that the bird cage is a common motif in films like Effi Briest and Berlin Alexanderplatz to symbolise caged love. [↩]
- “Interview with Douglas Sirk,” see BLFJ website. For example, in All I Desire (1953), we are left with a lot of troubling unresolved issues despite the apparent reconciliation between Naomi and Henry: Will Henry lose his promotion? Will Naomi be brought to trial? Will Joyce lose her fiancé, the son of the town’s most prominent citizen, because of her mother’s scandalous return? And will Lily run off to the stage, just like her mother? The prospects of living happily ever after do not look promising. Indeed, Derek Smith calls it “the most depressing happy ending I’ve seen”; see website review. [↩]
- Comparing Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli, Barbara Klinger describes Sirk as “the most self-consciously Brechtian of these directors,” Melodrama and Meaning, xii. [↩]
- Paul Willemen, “Towards an Analysis of the Sirkian System,” in Sirk/Fischer, 273. Glenn Mitchell calls the sentimental melodrama Magnificent Obsession (1954), starring Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson, with its improbable coincidences and lush soundtrack, “the greatest weepie of all time.” Insert notes, 8. [↩]
- Paul Willemen, “Distanciation and Douglas Sirk,” in Sirk/Fischer, 270. [↩]
- R. W. Fassbinder, “Imitation of Life,” in Sirk/Fischer, 245. [↩]
- See “Jim’s Reviews/Fassbinder” on website. [↩]
- “Dark Angel. Notes on Fassbinder”; see website. Fassbinder was accused of “anti-lesbian bias” and protests were sparked by the film’s title, which implied, politically incorrectly, that lesbians are unhappy! See Marsha McCreadie article on website. [↩]
- See Elyse Sommer review on website. [↩]
- See Ryan Gilbey, Independent article. [↩]
- Sleeve notes to Connoisseur Video, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. [↩]
- Robert Katz, quoted by Gilbey, see Independent article. Fassbinder was infatuated and had a homosexual relationship with Gϋnther Kaufman, the black Bavarian actor of mixed parentage whose father was an American GI and who appeared in a number of his films. The Marlene figure is considered to be based on Peer Raben, a long-standing colleague described by Rosenbaum as Fassbinder’s “assistant (or devoted ‘slave’)” see website article. [↩]
- The Village Voice; see Connoisseur sleeve notes. [↩]
- The play, which premiered on 5 June 1971 at the Experimenta Drama Festival, was condemned as trivial and kitsch; see Barnett 160-162. The film version only took ten days to make in January 1972 and was premiered on 25 June 1972. [↩]
- As already noted, Has Anybody Seen My Gal? shows that money can’t buy happiness, and this is also true of the unhappy, self-indulgent super-rich in Written On the Wind. In Magnificent Obsession (1954), guilt cannot be assuaged by money; philanthropy is more important — being of service to others in secret and without payment. In All That Heaven Allows, inner security and being true to yourself are more important than empty materialism and keeping up with the Joneses. At the heart of Sirk’s films lies a serious radical questioning of 1950s American materialistic values. [↩]
- See “Jim’s Reviews/Fassbinder” on website. Ryan Gilbey writes amusingly: “This film is more claustrophobic than Twelve Angry Men; think of it as Three Pissed-Off Lesbians and you’re close”; see Independent article. Even when she is trying to seduce Karin, Petra is not allowed loose, free-flowing robes but shuffles around in a high-class bondage outfit! [↩]
- ramblingsofafilmsnob; see website review. [↩]
- See “Jim’s Reviews/Fassbinder” on website. Dennis Grunes writes: “Emaciated, alcoholic, overplaying her hand for fear of losing it, Petra comes to resemble the nude mannequins that are strewn about in the apartment — a shimmering symbol of female disadvantage in a male-dominated society, and of gay disadvantage in a straight-dominated society.” See website review. [↩]
- See Rosenbaum article on website. [↩]
- Barnett, 174. [↩]
- Barnett, 157. [↩]
- Fassbinder, quoted in Pott, 125. [↩]
- According to Pott, the main aims of melodrama, which originated in the English theatre of the nineteenth century, are to have an emotional impact on the audience and to achieve identification with the characters, 24, note 13. [↩]
- Fassbinder writes: “I haven’t emphasised enough that Sirk is a director who gets maximum results out of actors. That in Sirk’s films even zombies like Marianne Koch and Liselotte Pulver come across as real human beings, in whom we can and want to believe,” Sirk/Fischer, 246. [↩]
- Barnett, 159. [↩]
- J. and A. White, 425. [↩]
- Whites, 414. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Whites, 415. [↩]
- Whites, 420. [↩]
- Whites, 421. [↩]
- Gilbey, see Independent article. [↩]
- Fassbinder is quoted to this effect by the Whites, 420. [↩]
- See Rosenbaum article on website. [↩]