Like many of Fassbinder’s films, he features strong, female characters in the leads and supporting parts. In this film, the cast is predominately female, and is among the most feminine of his works. That does not mean that it is feminist. One could argue that it has some feminist attributes, and it can also be seen as anti-feminist since the portrayals of women are mostly negative. It can also be seen as a class contrast, with Petra (Margit Carstensen) representing the bourgeois, Karin (Hanna Schygulla) representing the poor and uncultured, and Marlene (Irm Hermann) representing the working class.
The entire movie takes place in Petra’s apartment. Often films that are shot in a single location can be drab and tiresome, but there is enough visual ingenuity, both with the camerawork and the mise-en-scene, to keep every scene fresh. The performances are all tremendous, particularly Carstensen who was working with a great deal of dialog.
Petra represents the horror that success can have on a person. She is conceited, brazen, thin-skinned, and she asserts her power over defenseless people. Marlene, her assistant, is the object of many cruel and disdainful eruptions. Petra thinks of her as less of a person. At one point she tells Karin that “Marlene has been with me for three years. She sees everything, hears everything. Pay no attention to her.” Petra does not bother to hide her secrets from the help, but we will find out later that this person is not the invisible bystander that Petra considers her.
Petra’s cousin (Sidonie von Grasenabb) introduces Karin as a young model. Petra takes to her, seeing someone with a beauty that she can possibly mentor and control. Petra’s riches come from a life of fashion, and she could make a person’s career. She asks Karin to visit her later, and the girl timidly agrees, knowing that this could lead to a brighter future. When she shows up later, she is dressed to the nines, with a gold outfit and a wide collar around her neck. Petra is dressed in an ostentatious and grossly flamboyant outfit with circular beads decorating her breasts. The outrageous wardrobes are contrasted with the Classical European paintings on the walls. Some of these include nakedness, male and female, and they are prominently placed within the frame. Fassbinder was not bashful with nudity, whether his own or others, and he clearly used these paintings as a way of injecting an uncomfortable sexuality into the mise-en-scene.
Petra is intrigued by the young lady, although seems more interested in bragging about her own experiences. There are mirrors everywhere, and as she talks, she narcissistically watches herself. It is when Karin reveals a horrible tragedy that happened to her parents when Petra really takes to her. It is at this vulnerable moment that Petra sees Karin as someone fragile that she can control, who can fill the void of loneliness that is consuming her. Karin becomes a kept woman and a romantic relationship begins between the two.
In the second act, the tables have turned. Karin is the one who has the power. Petra is helpless to get her affection, much less her attention. Karin cannot be bothered, reads a magazine on the bed and demands that Petra get her a drink. She is playing the role of the spoiled child, and Petra is trapped as her enabler. Earlier she had bragged that “everyone is replaceable,” referring to Karin and Marlene, but to her, that is a flat out lie. She is psychologically tethered to both of them.
Marlene is the anchor for this movie, beautifully played by Irm Hermann in a mostly silent role. She doesn’t need to speak to convey her thoughts. She says plenty with her face, as she reacts to what is happening in Petra’s life, which often does not have anything to do with her. Some of the best shots in the film are when Petra and Karin or whomever are talking about some nonsense, and the camera pans over to Marlene and zooms in for a close-up, showing her utter and absolute disdain for her employer. Her hatred is obvious to the audience, but Petra is oblivious. She is just another plaything, like the dolls and mannequins that she collects. Only this one does her bidding without ever questioning her authority. At least not yet.
When she is left. Petra is completely isolated and in despair. She sits on a white carpet that looks like a cloud. The European, nude painting is still behind her in the frame, fully exposed just like her heartbreak. Has she died and gone to heaven? The shot implies as much, and a major part of her, her power, has died. She feels completely abandoned, but there are still some people remaining in her life. Her daughter Gabby appears with family, and Petra’s behavior is similar to what we’ve seen with Karin and Marlene. She is out of control, lashes out at one moment and tries to apologize the next. She calls them fake, “dishonest little rats.” After her fury passes, she is told that she will pay for her actions, that there will be consequences. There are. I will not reveal them in this write-up, but I will say that Petra’s conclusion is in the typical Fassbinder style.
Film Rating: 8.5/10
Outsiders: – These are four interviews with actresses from the film: Margit Carstensen (Petra), Hanna Schygulla (Karin), Eva Mattes (Gabby), and Katrin Schaake (cousin Sidonie). This 2014 segment edits their answers together so that they stay within the topic of the film. Most of them felt like outsiders to Fassbinder’s stable of actors, which is strange because they were all cast in many of his films, especially Carstensen, who played many lead roles. Most talked about how they were treated on the set by Fassbinder, and how he would play games to create conflict amongst each other. Some were reluctant to reveal much, while others are more forthcoming. The overall sentiment was that Fassbinder was difficult to work with. The only exception was Eva. He was gentle with her and did not play the same sort of games as with the other actors.
What is surprising is the production time. The filming was lightning fast, 10 days. Carsternsen had an easier time because she had played the same role in the theater and knew the lines, but the other actresses had difficulties. As they put it, Margit was perfect everytime.
The story was autobiographical based on a relationship of Fassbinder’s. It is interesting that he chose women to play the roles, but he often did portray his own life through women, which may have been an element of his homosexuality. Fassbinder felt that whoever had the strength in the relationship loved the person less, and that was what he was trying to convey with this film.
Michael Ballhaus – Ballhause was the Director of Photography. This was his third film with Fassbinder, who had dismissed him as a TV DP. In the other segment, the other ladies had very kind things to say about Ballhause, although those were probably contrasted with Fassbinder. He said that this project was challenging because they shot quickly and he had one room to work with. He had to figure out good angles to keep it interesting, which I would say he accomplished. Fassbinder told him that he was a big fan of Douglas Sirk and wanted this to look as visually rich as a Hollywood film. They would argue and at one point there was a blow-up. At one time Ballhause said “I am not a machine. If you don’t like it, then hire someone else.” They eventually made up, and worked on many other projects together. Ballhause liked working with Fassbinder because he was a good visual director.
Beautiful Destruction – This is a feature from Jane Shattuc, author of Television, Tabloids, and Tears: Fassbinder and Popular Culture.. She talks about how dark his work was, although it was beautiful visually. He had a bleak portrait of humanity, and that was reflected in his work.
Fassbinder started with a theatre troupe, and as we know, he maintained that collective for much of his film career. Many of the issues playing out in film were also part of their personal lives.
She says that the mise-en-scene was very important in this movie. The changing in appearances of Petra reflects how she feels about herself. She starts in the operatic dress, then to red hair, and finally in a white nightgown, showing her true humanity. The set, clothing and shooting change as the character changes.
Role Play: Women on Fassbinder – This was 1992 German TV documentary with many of the women who worked on his films. This was quite a bleak documentary. It was far from a puff piece. The actresses were frank about how far on the edge they were during the Fassbinder age, and how cruel he was to them. Yet he was also successful and gave them continual work if they could endure it. For the most part, he was not friendly with actors save for rare occasions. When Margit Carstensen speaks of her history with Fassbinder, her tone and look are as if she is revealing a traumatic and monumental time of her life. This is not the type of remembrance you’ll see of many directors.
The people that worked for Werner often thought about leaving and starting fresh somewhere. Margit attempted this and distanced herself from his inner circle, which made him angry. She tried to leave one time during the filming of Chinese Roulette and said: “You leave and you’re out of the film.”
Even though he was difficult, he portrayed women beautifully, and most of the women conclude that it was due to his effeminate nature and homosexuality, although none of them really understood it or him. We know that he was bi-sexual and would engage in relationships with actresses, such as Irm, but even she was confused during the relationship.
They all say he was a brilliant filmmaker. He had the capacity to love, but his addiction and dependence got in his way. He had a series of disappointing relationships. Often he would test his lovers and be disappointed. His standard of love was too high for anyone to really achieve. In many ways this tale is a tragedy because Fassbinder, however brilliant, was tortured, never found love, and died due to indulging too much.
Criterion Rating: 9/10