Text by Emily Sack
TEST Presents… provides Londoners with a different take on an art event. The online fashion, photography, and film magazine provides monthly screenings of films. The TEST team invites a local artist to select a film to share with the audience that has been influential in some way to their career, aesthetic or philosophy, and for the second event this summer, artist Julie Verhoeven selected The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972). Verhoeven, after struggling to find an adequate term to describe how the film influenced her life, stated the film leaves her emotionally drained although it is a “super duper movie.”
The film, directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is based on a play of the same title written by the director, and several aspects of theatre certainly come to play in character of the movie. The soundtrack of the film is rather minimalist – only when the characters actively place a record on the gramophone is there music. The film begins with two cats bathing themselves on a set of stairs as the opening credits roll to the sound of the cats’ licking. With the minimalism of sound and setting, the acting and costuming comes to the foreground.
The small cast consists entirely of women and focuses on the relationships between them in terms of family, friendship and romance. The protagonist, Petra von Kant is a successful fashion designer, though it soon becomes obvious that her secretary Marlene is the one who actually does the work. Marlene, present through the entire film does not utter a word and never changes her facial expression. Despite the lack of traditional means of communication, Marlene, through her manner of typing and walking subtly, though clearly, conveys an entire range of emotions.
After two failed marriages, Petra becomes infatuated with a young, aspiring model, Karin Thimm. The two live together though from the outset there is a clear power struggle throughout their relationship. Petra is wealthy and has an established career leaving her materially powerful; however, Karin does not reciprocate Petra’s love, which ultimately causes Petra to break down. Karin, ironically, chastises Petra for her treatment of Marlene who is clearly in love with Petra, though she acts in the same manner. The relationships throughout the film are tragic and filled with pain, but to a certain extent the audience can sympathize with unrequited love or troubled families.
What makes the film interesting, and explains Verhoeven’s selection, is the aesthetic that is simultaneously elegant and quirky. The entire movie takes place within one space – Petra’s bedroom/studio, and the alteration of furniture signifies the passage of time. The characters wear exquisitely fashioned dresses with jewelled bodices and luxurious fabrics, but Petra wears a selection of peculiar wigs that are a bit jarring by contrast.
The complexity of emotions is contrasted by the previously mentioned minimalism of setting, but the surroundings play a definitive role in the film. The cast of women is countered by the mural-scale replica of Poussin’s Midas and Bacchus, prominently featuring male genitalia. As a fashion designer, von Kant’s studio contains life-sized female mannequins, but only once in the film is a mannequin actually used for clothing. The majority of the time, the mannequins’ haunting stillness serves as a foil to the drama of the women’s lives, and their bizarre posing is a welcome relief in the intensity of the film.
The film, in German with English subtitles, is indeed draining to watch as Verhoeven initially stated, but it is certainly a worthwhile experience. The rather experimental cinematography and daring depiction of love and passion are still relevant today. The overall event with TEST Presents held in Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel is an enjoyable evening out to experience fashion and film in a new light.
TEST: Presents next event will be with Penny Martin. Tickets are £5 each and must be purchased in advance. Check the website for further information.