Blogging Fassbinder VI: Creatures of Need: Margit Carstenson in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha and Fear of Fear.
Margit Carstenson, in background, with Hanna Schygulla in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; below, as the title character in Martha and the troubled housewife Margot in Fear of Fear.
"I don't think you're very beautiful, and certainly not attractive and charming," says Karlheinz Boehm to Margit Carstenson, playing the title character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1974 Martha. "You're too thin, almost skinny. When one looks at you, one can almost feel your bones. And I have this impression your body smells."
Cruel, yes, but not far off the mark. Among Fassbinder's female muses, where Hanna Schygulla is the lush, sensual dream tramp, Barbara Sukowa the lusty, heart-breaking live wire and Irm Hermann the sad, wounded hausfrau, Carstenson is a creature of stark need: for love, warmth, meaning, approval.
In both Martha and its predecessor, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, two of Fassbinder's most dynamic portraits of women, both dating from the early 1970s, Carstenson plays two very different women, one accomplished and (at least theoretically) strong, one entirely dependent, yet emotionally both share a great deal. Both are like the German version of what Tom Wolfe dubbed a "social X-ray" in The Bonfire of the Vanities, a society women who diets herself down to nothing: tall, pale, more skull than skin, her toothy face framed by exotic hairstyles that scream "trying too hard," underscoring someone whose confidence is just a facade, who wants to believe the best of herself but whose own worst self-image is never far from her mind, who is trying to believe in illusions that a viewer sees through immediately.
In the title role of Petra von Kant, Carstenson plays a well-regarded fashion designer who has just recently divorced her husband. According to her, describing the break-up in long conversations with her friend Sidonie, it was all her idea. No, she insists, adultery wasn't involved; fact of the matter is, Petra simply got tired of a husband living off her. She's better than that. She's tougher. Indeed, the way Petra treats her assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann, an actress who can convey everything by saying nothing) clearly indicates she's a woman who entirely knows her own mind and what she's about, knows her posaition, is beholden to no one for nothing
Enter Sidonnie's friend Karin (Schygulla), who is young, beautiful, naive, and for Petra looks to be just the kind of made to order love slave she needs. A game of seduction begins, as Michael Ballhaus' camera ponders faces and caresses bodies, in which Petra tries to lure Karin into her web, promising to make her a model, to set her up with all the right contacts, to give her the kind of established life she has. Instead, it is Petra who proves the victim, as Karin realizes what Petra does not: that the object of desire holds all the cards. Karin is lazy, mean, spurious and cruel; Petra the strong becomes Petra the enslaved, the seduced, the powerless.
In Martha, Carstenson looks ravaged, physically and emotionally. A 31-year-old virgin who has always lived with her mother and father, she's been starved for affection for a long time. With her father's sudden death of a heart attack, she needs someone who will give her what he did: someone she can cling to, someone who can bring her to heel; she's a submissive who responds to power, cruelty, and domination. With Helmut -- played with cold demonic power by Karlheinz Bohm, the tormented photographer in Michael Powell's Peeping Tom -- she gets all she could have hoped for. Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, and with a obvious nod to both Hitchcock's Vertigo and Bunuel's Tristana, Fassbinder's film is a study in need and domination, that kind of perverted power relationship where a man finds his identity in domnation and a woman finds hers in subservience, where been used and tormented is the key to reminding yourself you're alive.
I did not think much of Fear of Fear -- Fassbinder's made-for-TV study of a woman's descent into depression, possibly post-partum depression, and not a subject on which Fassbinder has all that much to say -- except this: the bourgeois life drives you mad. There is no particular reason for Margot's depression, which she staves off with either adultery (with a pharmacist, who is taking advantage of her) or booze or whatever distraction is at hand, but it serves as a kind of metaphor for what it means to be a wife. In this regard it compares with the Cassavetes great Woman Under the Influence, although that was more convincing and gripping. (Others that come to mind from around the same period: Diary of a Mad Housewife and Up the Sandbox.) Both deal with the same issue: the confnements of a typical normal marriage and motherhood, creating a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere from which the victim cannot escape. In this regard Margot's case is a little like the title character in Why Doers Herr R. Run Amok? -- who implodes because he cannot have a life of freedom, and is squeezed into this social trap, this model of living, the same one his parents knew. Margot similarly is plagued by having a mother in law and sister in law living nearby, women who have gone along with the systemization, the regimentation of domestic life; the mother in law is all the time coming over and complaining that Margot doesn't feed her kids and husband enough vegetables, and the sister in law Lore (Irm Hermann) is positively gleeful when Margopt's husband Kurt announces his wife has schizophrenia; for Lore, it's a confirmation of her own normality.
Margot Carstenson is a striking figure, and she does well in the role; it's Fassbinder who does have much to say on the subject, and in the end this is a very conventional film, not so much subtle and crafty as simply uninspired, particularly when Margot has these occasional mad turns. which are filmed in standard Crazyvision, with suitably overbearing mood music. It's all mellow and no drama.