Gilbey on Film: Fassbinder's unrequited Lamborghinis

How rejection fuelled the director's vision.

A belated "happy birthday" to Günther Kaufmann, who turned 64 last week. If you are at all familiar with this Bavarian actor and his work, chances are you will remember him like this rather than like this. Not a towering figure in cinema history by any means, but a tangentially influential one, given the effect he had on a director for whom "towering" would not be overstating the case. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was besotted with Kaufmann, and in 1971 he wrote a play based on their relationship. The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant was a berserk, angry, funny and ultimately exhausting analysis of sado-masochistic power games masquerading as love. In 1972, he made a film version. I wonder if Kaufmann watched it as part of his birthday celebrations. I would think not.

Many of Fassbinder's films were painfully autobiographical works. But of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, his biographer Robert Katz writes: "Rainer never challenged the view held by those closest to him that every word in the play was spoken either to him or by him." When Fassbinder became infatuated with Kaufmann, the latter soon realised that the attentions of an increasingly wealthy film-maker could, with the minimum of reciprocation, prove profitable for him. "Suddenly prosperity stepped into Kaufmann's life," said Fassbinder's collaborator Kurt Raab. "Every wish, pronounced or merely read in his eyes, was granted." Lamborghinis took the role played in most relationships by chocolates and flowers. "There were four in one year, because hardly had Kaufmann wrecked one of these previous vehicles when the next one had to be found."

By all accounts, Fassbinder did not feel sufficiently reimbursed for his extravagances. So when the opportunity arose to shoot a film in Spain, he decided to combine business with pleasure: he wrote the bizarre and brilliant western Whity for Kaufmann, complete with scenes specially orchestrated to relieve him of his shirt. Away from Kaufmann's wife and children, Fassbinder hoped that this access to his leading man's body would continue when the camera was switched off.

The shoot was hell. "Fassbinder would start the day demanding ten Cuba libres -- rum and Coca-Cola," remembers the producer Peter Berling. "He would drink nine and throw the tenth at the cameraman." If the previous night had been a sexually fruitful one between actor and director, then the following day would be fruitful too. But if Fassbinder had been rebuffed in bed, everyone would pay. After one long, sexless night, the director threatened suicide. "He even went as far as borrowing a razor," said Berling. "But in the end he simply shaved."

Fassbinder was nothing if not a man who knew how to spin gold from heartache. So blatant is the autobiographical thrust of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant that Robert Katz can without fear of contradiction call it "the story, transsexualised into a lesbian love affair, of Rainer's relationship with Günther." Petra is a self-absorbed fashion designer besotted with her doll-faced model, Karin, who responds only with scorn, boredom or material demands. Lamborghinis are not mentioned, but you get the gist. By the end, Petra has trashed her friends, her family and her crockery, all for a woman who barely notices she exists.

The play premiered in Frankfurt in June 1971, when Fassbinder was just 25, and received lukewarm reviews. By February 1972 he had shot a film version that was faithful to the play with the exception of a final-act divergence to darken further the tenor of the piece. He had addressed the perils of love and cohabitation previously in his maligned play Water Drops on Burning Rocks, which he wrote as a teenager (it was filmed 16 years after his death by François Ozon). But in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, there is a weight of experience and anxiety that was merely cosmetic in the earlier play.

Only once in the film's two hours and three minutes do we depart from the cramped single set -- that's during the opening shot of two cats preening on a staircase. After that, we are cornered, like the characters, in Petra's garish apartment, with its vast murals of reclining nudes, and its staff of bald mannequins with heads pressed together in wordless and sinister gossip. It is here that Petra (Margit Carstensen), ponders her life, and receives a procession of visitors who line up like courtiers paying their respects to a dying queen.

The picture is even more claustrophobic than Twelve Angry Men; think of it as Three Pissed-Off Lesbians and you're close. For his cinematographer, Fassbinder returned to Michael Ballhaus -- the man with the Cuba libres down his shirt-front. It might seem incongruous that Ballhaus went on to work with Martin Scorsese after completing 14 films for Fassbinder: what do the roaming spectacles of GoodFellas and Gangs of New York have in common with this airless torture chamber? More than you might think. Ballhaus's camera finds depth in Petra's dungeon. He examines its dimensions, magnifying them, distorting them -- at one point, the white shagpile occupies half the screen, with Petra relegated to the top half of the frame, where she cries into her gin.

In 2005, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant was adapted into an opera. The film has legs, as they say. Next month, there are two screenings of it at BFI Southbank. It's one of Fassbinder's most robust and punishing movies, almost on a par with his masterpiece Fear Eats the Soul, which is another picture born out of his destructive relationship with a male actor. Great director and everything, one of my favourites in fact, but he couldn't compartmentalise to save his life.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant screens at BFI Southbank, SE1, on 24 and 26 July.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis