Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen) is a successful fashion designer. She’s also rather self-absorbed and doesn’t appear to leave her house—the world comes to her.
She loves a wig and extravagant outfits even though she doesn’t go out. (This isn’t due to agoraphobia—it’s more down to the film being based on a play.)
Her assistant, Marlene (Irm Hermann) does everything she asks. She’s a sort of secretary, maid and co-designer. Petra thinks of her as a servant and ignores her for the most part while expecting her will to be carried out posthaste.
Marlene is rather a modern day Mrs Danvers (well, more modern—this was made in 1972). You know, a female servant obviously in love with her boss. Service-oriented submissives will identify with this character.
In the first act Petra has a guest stop by, her cousin Sidonie (Katrin Schaake), and they have a long, philosophical conversation about marriage and relationships between men and women. Then Sidonie says she invited over a woman she recently met who was planning on resettling in Germany. The woman had been in Australia.
And instantly she’s there. Her name is Karin (Hanna Schygulla) and Petra is instantly taken with her the way impetuous, melodramatic people you want to run the hell away from are. She invites her back to her place again later where there’s more long conversation about life and relationships between men and women.
This is not a film for people who enjoy explosions or boobs. Or exploding boobs.
Right away (and to Marlene’s consternation) and the two women are living together—the younger one is beginning to model for older one. As is required for good drama, one person is more enamoured than the other, and because this is a German film, this means the melodrama is whacked right up to ten by the end of the scene.
Act three and the teeth gnashing and breast beating has reached peak levels. It’s this act that the film’s basis as a play is most obvious. Not in a bad way—but both the play and film were written by (and then the film was directed by) Rainer Werner Fassbinder so it’s pretty close to a straight translation from stage to screen.
It’s in the staging.
Unlike many European films, perhaps because this is based on a play, this film has an ending—it sort of has two endings. One for the typical audience and one for the service-subs that—made me clap my hands with glee. It was a wink and a nod to us.
After Petra has a break-through about what a jackass she is through the events of the entire films, she decides to apologise to Marlene and treat her as an equal and friend. Well. Marlene is having none of that. She immediately packs her things and leaves. And that’s the end of the film.
It’s the sort of thing that if I’d seen the movie before I knew what service was I would have understood her response exactly, but not why.
Oh yes, and Marlene doesn’t say one word the entire film. She just does as she’s told.
General notes: Well, it’s Fassbinder. So you know you’re going to get something memorable. And…kinda weird at times.
The costumes alone are something to behold. In a way, the sets and clothes are almost timeless in a couture sort of way. Other than the shag carpet, that is.
Music is used specifically. As in—the only time there is music is when Petra puts on a record.
Kink-wise, the characters talk about power-dynamics a lot and several characters are in constant power-battles with one another. One character, when her masochistic desires are denied, decides to leave.
This is a very intellectual, melodramatic film. There is no nudity or sex—just one passionless kiss—and no physical kink, just mental domination and submission.
I’d watch it again, though, as I loved Marlene and understood her. I’ve already got some Marlene fanfic going in my head.
This one isn’t easy to rate—you’d either love it or hate it.