Film: Lesbian Cinema From Germany - Something Old, Something New

Two films about women's lives come to digital formats. One is a daring film from a maverick director who died too soon. The other is a recently produced work.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was the undisputed leader of the New German Cinema movement. From the late 1960s until shortly after Fassbinder's death at age 37, Germany produced some of the era's finest films. These films were produced on miniscule budgets by emerging new filmmakers, and were deeply personal. They were a far cry from the films being produced by the Hollywood studios at that time.

One of the most impressive aspects of Fassbinder is the sheer volume of his work. His career lasted around 15 years, during which time he directed an astonishing 39 feature films and several television productions. He also wrote plays and acted, both in his own films and in the films of others.

Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant is an intense lesbian drama about obsessive love. Produced in 1972, the director filmed his own play at a time when LGBT characters were often invisible on screen. The openly bisexual auteur, who sometimes cast his lovers of both sexes in his films, was known for ignoring convention--he made other gay themed films in the aftermath of Petra Von Kant's acclaim.

Margit Carstensen plays Petra, a twice divorced fashion designer who has a peculiar relationship with her assistant Marlene (Eva Mattes). Marlene does as she is told, including work on Petra's designs and dance with her boss--Marlene never speaks during the film.

Petra mentors a beautiful if lower class young woman named Karin (Hanna Schygulla). Karin moves in with Petra even though she is married. They become lovers, and with Petra's help, Karin becomes a famous supermodel. Now that she's gotten what she wants, Karin leaves Petra to return to her husband.

Petra goes mad at the loss of Karin. Her behavior becomes erratic as she begins lashing out at everyone around her.

A riveting script and superb acting makes for some fascinating, mesmerizing viewing. The entire film is set in Petra's home, and the camera rarely strays more than a few feet from her bedroom. The acting is highly stylized and theatrical, with a self aware quality that pulls viewers into the dream world Petra has created for herself. Though the film is set in what was then the present day, Fassbinder dresses his all female cast in colorful period costumes from the 1920s and 30s. It's all about setting the stage, creating just the right mood. It works beautifully.

Four decades later, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant stands as an early example of a courageous director who was willing to put gay characters on the screen long before it was fashionable to do so. Though Petra, as a character, is hardly a positive LGBT role mode, her story does paint an accurate portrait of how many people lived in generations past.

Anne Zohra Berached's Two Mothers was produced in 2013. The film is a fairly straightforward drama, shot with hand held cameras in an almost documentary style. It tells the story of a comfortably middle class lesbian couple and their difficult road to motherhood.

At first Katja and Isabella are turned down by a series of fertility clinics because they're a lesbian couple. They find a private physician willing to work with them, but his fees are high. The women remain steadfast and determined in their quest to begin a family--but there are more bumps in the road than they were prepared for.

As they begin to interview potential sperm donors, Katja and Isabella find to their disgust that not all the men are willing to provide semen in a test tube--some have a fetish for sex with lesbians. The tensions between the two women begin to escalate, but their deep love for each other remains clear.

Two Mothers is a dark drama. It should be required viewing for any lesbian -- or gay man -- who might be thinking of becoming a parent. The film will serve as an education on what it might take to achieve your dream.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Two Mothers are in German with English subtitles. Both films are now available. Petra Von Kant is on DVD and Blu Ray, while Two Mothers is available on DVD only.

The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972)
125 minutes
The Criterion Collection

Two Mothers (2013)
75 minutes
TLA Releasing