I know I write about blocking a lot but…this is possibly the best-blocked film I’ve ever seen. One room, six total characters, Fassbinder at the top of his game and getting ready to go on a run of masterpieces. He definitely had his obsessions, but hair lights and American pop music have to be towards the top of that list. Basically any frame with Margit Carstensen (playing fashion designer Petra) or Hanna Schygulla (playing her would-be muse Karin Thimm) has a gleaming rim light.
The film is “dedicated to the one who became Marlene here.” Marlene is played by Irm Hermann. She’s quite subservient to – and in love with – Petra, in a way not so different to, perhaps, Hermann’s real life relationship with Fassbinder (making the last shot of this film all the more interesting).
That dedication takes place over the opening shot. One that begins static on a stairwell, and then pulls back and tracks right:
The shot continues until it lands on Petra in bed:
Space is so important to this film. Fassbinder gets an amazing amount of beautiful coverage in such a small area and this opening camera move really lays out where a lot of things are. It also establishes that mural, and sort of works to push the allegory: the steps, by the end of the film seem so far away. Those cats lapping up milk on the stairs seem like something from another world. The exit that the stairs promise feels impossible.
I recently read an article about Ali: Fear Eats the Soul on Mubi. I liked the article, but about halfway down the author makes the claim, “In fact, you might notice in watching a number of Fassbinder works how very spartan the use of the camera is, often static and with very few pans, zooms or close-ups.”
Sure, Fassbinder likes a good static frame (see the ending of Pioneers in Inglostadt for example), but he moves his camera more than a lot of people. In Petra it’s ridiculously active.
That said, it’s some of the static frames that I want to look at here. There’s so much character movement in Petra that it seems it’d be easy to lose track of simple spatial relations. It’s pretty well-documented how obsessed with pre-blocking Fassbinder was and it shows here.
We see so many divided frames (much of that emphasis is on Marlene, as in the first frame above), and also a really expertise way of moving us around the room. In those frames above Fassbinder establishes Marlene’s back area where her typewriter is; shoots with that beam in the foreground to not only separate Karin and Petra but also to put us in, what has often been to that point, Marlene’s point of view; and shoots flat and romantic.
He also gets a lot of mileage out of some mannequins. They’re quite clearly compared to Marlene (again, often placed in her back “sketching” area):
I particularly like the second shot above. Petra looms in foreground (just before Fassbinder pulls focus to Marlene in the background) while Marlene is surrounded by all sorts of inanimate female representations. It just makes Marlene that much more lifeless.
Then there are other shots, also using those mannequins, that are just so expressive. Petra peeking out, like Benjamin to Mrs. Robinson, while a mannequin seems to spy in the background. Petra and a mannequin mimicking one another, while Marlene faces away, forced into her corner:
There’s also a real effort to make this about Marlene, though so much of the narrative revolves around Karin and Petra. Those first two shots below, showing Marlene by herself, framed deep in the hallway, represent a strategy that’s pretty consistent in here: even when others are having a conversation, find Marlene alone and frame her emphasizing that solitariness.
The last shot above is the last shot of the film. The room is sparser. It feels more like a stage than at any other time. Marlene takes center stage in a switch of the power dynamics that is at once empowering and depressing.