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.