By Oliver Willham
A long, green candle burns down to a final nub and sputters in the surrounding wax. Hiss… and a smoke trail rises in curly tendrils, reaching, grasping, searching for an exit from the room. There is no exit. The sickly black smoke pools at the ceiling, poisoning the air.
In the final act of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972), Petra Von Kant (Margit Carstensen) has all but burnt out. Her flame, her burning desire for Karin (Hanna Schygulla), captured in the bright red of her wig in the second act, has all been forgotten. All that remains is a smoldering want in her chest. Her wig is now one of blond curls, a pathetic, feeble attempt to replicate Karin’s hair. Petra clings hopelessly to the telephone, begging on her knees for Karin to call. It’s Petra’s birthday, we learn as the scene progresses, and she can't help but hope that Karin will call. That Karin still loves her, as Petra loves Karin. Or maybe Petra never loved Karin, but she loved having so much power over another human being. Petra simply can't stand the roles reversing, losing all her power to Karin. Karin, who doesn’t care. Petra, introduced by how she exerts her will over the silent Marlene (Irm Hermann), can't handle being out of control. She can't stand her new role, she simply “can’t bear the pain,” but neither can she refrain from calling Karin a “rotten little bitch.”
The room is emptied out, white plush carpet like Bauhaus laid bare. Only the telephone remains, so she can torture herself answering every call, always disappointed. She can’t help herself. After cursing Karin, she answers the phone again: “Karin!?” Voiced raised, happy for a moment, and crushed back into the alcoholic stupor of self-hating monologues. Of course, it is not Petra’s fault, none of it has been. What could be?
The bell rings and she runs to the door, spilling her near-empty bottle across the carpets, staining their white. It's only her daughter, Gaby (Eva Mattes), half as beautiful as her and wearing a cheerful, yellow uniform. She's equally cheerful, unknowingly seeking Karin just as her mother is. Seeking it the same, but not equally wanting it. No, Gaby is satisfied to not find her here. “She’s rather common, isn’t she?” she says. As Petra hears this, she turns. The clump of red flowers tied on a black band around her neck crinkle, drawing attention to her throat. It looks like it's been cut and heaps of blood are pouring out, congealing in a great clump around her wound. But no—it's only flowers. “No, she’s not,” Petra replies, and she returns to the phone. Only now does her dress strike us. It's an emerald green, ruffled, darkness hiding between its folds. A jealous color. Is that all she is?
Petra lies in half-darkness. The delicate, precise image of herself she presents to the world—the false face we watched her weave together in the film's opening moments—has collapsed in on itself. She is reduced back to her natural brown hair and a simple white nightgown. A revelation has occurred, the scales have fallen from our eyes. We half expect her to say, “Oh, that was beautiful. I’m really happy about the whole thing.”
Standing, head half-obscured in a shadow ending just before her eyes, Petra apologizes to Marlene. She tries to show Marlene her kind of love. Marlene, that wraith clad in black robes that hung in the background of each scene like a specter of death—or of loneliness—who simply watched emotionless as Petra’s life played out before her, she comes to kiss her hand in fealty. Petra denies her. No… not like that. This time they will be equals. What was Marlene’s purpose? She simply took the abuse Petra heaped upon her. We don't hear her voice, she has no agency, no will other than to serve. The most we hear from her is the clacking of typewriter keys. It's in this final moment that we understand. Marlene has one power: to judge. She's decided. Petra is too pathetic to serve any longer. Petra von Kant’s powerful, commanding presence has wilted, just as her image has, to a small, dead stem. The corpse, picked clean by Karin’s ultimate betrayal and her own breakdown, can provide nothing for Marlene. Marlene silently packs her luggage and leaves as a soulful version of “The Great Pretender” by the Platters plays. Petra can only watch, trapped in her body, and listen: “I seem to be what I’m not you see; I’m wearing my heart like a crown. Pretending that you’re still around.”