Opera Meets Film: The Ambiguous Thematic Use of ‘La Traviata’ in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.”

Fassbinder’s famed “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” is a study in claustrophobia, taking place in a single room throughout its runtime and examining the intimate relationships of its central figure. The filmmaking, while stylish and masterful (this film is a dynamic masterclass in the art of blocking), never pushes beyond the bounds of its location. As a viewer, you are stuck in this room, your only choice to engage with these characters rather directly.

But Fassbinder offers another “escape” in the form of music with diegetic pieces layered throughout the film at moments when Petra seems to be riding high and feeling quite good. We hear The Platters and The Walker Brothers in this context. At the start Petra starts dancing with her mute maid Marlene; later she listens to some music as she contemplates her beloved Karin; and at the end of the film she puts on a record when she has seemingly come to grips with herself and asked Marlene for an opportunity to improve what has been an abusive relationship. Of course, Marlene pulls off one of the most powerful plot twist decisions (which we won’t reveal here). In each of these instances, there is a literal or metaphorical liberation taking place within the characters, specifically Petra, that also extends to the audience’s own sense. In a film that lacks any music and is dominated by non-stopped dialogue, it can feel asphyxiating when the emotional toll ramps up. Music thus provides this sense of freedom and respite from such action.

It also can’t be ignored that every single song selection that Fassbinder employs features a male voice; men are completely absent from the film as a whole but are constantly referenced in differing context. For Karin, her husband becomes her means of freeing herself from Petra. Sidonie talks about her happiness in marriage. Petra’s own relationship to her husbands has been fraught with far more complex emotions, ranging from a sense of freedom to prison-like intensity and tragedy. It also cannot be ignored that the song selections are, from an aural perspective, upbeat and energized; there are no sad ballads.

So what do we make of the simple excerpt from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” the only opera used in the entire movie. In an opera about a woman suffering for the man she loves, Fassbinder doesn’t bring us a piece of music that can relate Violetta’s suffering with that of Petra. He brings us quite the opposite – another male excerpt that explores the beauty of love. This time it’s the introduction of “Un dì felice,” the love theme allowed to fully develop and then fading before Violetta enters with “Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi.” And it doesn’t come in diegetically like the other pieces of music. In previous excerpts Fassbinder takes the time to show how Petra puts on her record player and starts the music. Here, at the apex of her crisis, she falls to the floor, the other four women standing over her. Everyone freezes in their spot, the image a frame of powerlessness and disconnected, and Alfredo’s hopeful melody takes over. In other scenes, the music was simply there to underline the action. But here, where there is no action but a lingering emotion, the music is the central driving force; the image has been left to contextualize the music.

It is a haunting effect to be sure and in Petra’s lowest point, the hopefulness of Verdi’s melody creates this counterpoint effect that amplifies the tragic dimensions of the moment. On an abstract and emotional level, it makes us yearn with Petra for that optimism and hope that the melody imbues. We wish that in that moment of despair, she could hear that music to lift her up.

Or perhaps she is hearing that music in her mind; perhaps this seemingly objective moment is a truly subjective one in which we really hear what is hurting Petra so much. She not only understands the “delizia” of which Alfredo sings, but also the “Croce” that love is for those that embrace it. This is the music that dominates her in her lowest point, a melody full of hopeful longing for her loved one to return her affection.

Or perhaps there is a more transcendent quality at work here given the contextual differences between this piece of music and the others in the soundtrack. Once the music and screen fade out, the audience would not be blamed to think that the film is over. But we fade into a dark room with Petra and her mother where the protagonist seems to find some enlightenment. Suddenly she is kind and loving to her mother. When Karin calls, she seems over her. And then she finally treats Marlene with forgiveness. And when Marlene does the thing she does at the end, Petra is calm and collected, a radical shift from other scenes where there was greater emotional volatility. Did the “Traviata” excerpt signify a turning point emotionally for Petra?

I don’t think there is any true conclusive interpretation, which is quite refreshing and fascinating. Fassbinder constructs a taut and masterful film in which many of his technical choices are very revealing and communicate directly to the audience on how he intends for their use to be interpreted (the camera movements and the wardrobe are examples of this). But his use of music operates on a more abstract level, asking as many questions as it answers. And no musical passage leaves the audience more bewildered and fascinated, than his use of “Un dì felice” from “La Traviata.”


Opera Meets Film