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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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times