Out of the Celluloid Closet

Peter Von Kant: Ozon in Fassbinder’s Shadow

François Ozon’s Peter Von Kant opens on a tightly-framed and significant static image of a bespectacled man, saturated in red, staring from beyond the screen. This is none other than filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant serves as a blueprint for Ozon’s remake, Peter von Kant. This single frame is one of the only images of Fassbinder in the film; he is an absent subject throughout. His name is never mentioned in Ozon’s film, but he looms large.

When it was first announced that Ozon’s next project would be a Fassbinder remake, some rejected the premise as blasphemous. Does Ozon think he can improve upon one of Fassbinder’s masterpieces? New York Times critic Beatrice Loayza dismissed the film as “a tedious tragicomedy” that “comes off as top-shelf fan fiction.” This “fan fiction” analogy is apt, but although Loayza frames this negatively, it is not necessarily a bad thing. In remaking a work by his favorite filmmaker, Ozon’s Peter von Kant aims to be something of a non-biopic biopic of Fassbinder. It embraces the Oedipal flavor of the remake, allowing Ozon to explore and expose his favorite filmmaker.

Though the two never met and their careers didn’t even intersect—Fassbinder made his first short film the year before Ozon was born, Ozon made his first short film six years after Fassbinder’s death—both creators explored the themes of identity, desire, and outsiderness that remain integral to queer cinema. Both imprint their cinema with unique signatures but a versatility that makes for impressively varied filmographies. Fassbinder moved between bare-bone Brechtian projects to lavish melodramas made in the mold of Classical Hollywood while Ozon, a true chameleon, works in multiple and sometimes disparate genres and tones from year to year. It’s difficult to believe that a director could so effortlessly shift between a muted and surreal mediation on loss in Under the Sand to a brightly colored murder-mystery musical like 8 Women.

Perhaps the most obvious connection between the two directors is their prolific output. Early in his career, Ozon proclaimed his admiration for what he called “bulimic directors,” like Fassbinder and Claude Chabrol; directors who, according to Ozon, produced works of varied quality, but have crafted “phenomenal careers.” In spite of the potentially triggering phrase, decades earlier Fassbinder shared a similar view of his own work when he said, “I’d like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.” 

It’s difficult to believe that a director could so effortlessly shift between a muted and surreal mediation on loss in Under the Sand to a brightly colored murder-mystery musical like 8 Women.

Whether Fassbinder considered The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant to be a cellar, wall, or window, is something we’ll never know, but it is now considered to be one of Fassbinder’s greatest films, making Ozon’s remake a dicey prospect. When working on his adaptation of Fassbinder’s unproduced play Water Drops on Burning Rocks, Ozon remarked that “the beauty of adapting the work of deceased authors” is that “they can’t come and tell you off.’ This somewhat flippant remark suggests that he does not care about Fassbinder or what he thinks, but his history with the filmmaker is long documented. Water Drops itself serves as perfect primer for both Fassbinder and Ozon to explore the similar themes running through The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Peter von Kant. Even early in his career, Ozon demonstrated a remarkable fidelity to the source material balanced by the confidence to add his own stamp on the work—in this case, with the addition of a campy musical number and the introduction of a trans character to a cis work. 

Years later, Ozon returned to Fassbinder’s work with Quand la peur dévore l’âme (When Fear Eats the Soul), a 25-minute film-mixe that splices together Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). An important experiment before outright remaking Fassbinder’s, Ozon’s unique edit creates a conversation between Sirk’s film and Fassbinder’s loose remake, becoming “a hybrid object on cinephilic contamination.” The collage of images and dialogue allows Ozon to interrogate the similarities and differences in Fassbinder and Sirk’s work. Peter Von Kant prompts similar questions: where does Ozon adhere to Fassbinder and where does he stray?

Both Bitter Tears and Peter Von Kant are claustrophobically staged in a single apartment and revolve around three central figures. Fassbinder’s film concerns a fashion designer Petra von Kant (Margit Carstensen), her maid/assistant Marlene (Irm Hermann), and a young aspiring model named Karin who is also Petra’s lover (Hanna Schygulla). In Ozon’s version, Petra is transformed into the celebrated film director Peter (Denis Ménochet), Marlene becomes Karl (Stefan Crepon), and Karin becomes the actor Amir (Khalil Ben Gharbia).

Both can be read as quasi-morality tales inspired by the myth of King Midas, as seen by the looming presence of Nicolas Poussin’s artwork Midas and Bacchus, in both films. Both Petra and Peter have the golden touch through their creative endeavors, but find themselves isolated and alone in the process.

Ozon adheres to Fassbinder’s plot, even using some dialogue verbatim, but manages to accelerate the pace by clipping the runtime by a half-hour. Beyond the gender swap, the most noticeable changes come in the brighter look and farcical tone that contrasts Fassbinder’s moodiness, but Ozon’s most profound change comes by switching the protagonist’s profession from fashion designer to film director, an obvious reference to Fassbinder himself. Ozon removes a layer of disassociation to expose and explore Fassbinder through his remake. Even Ménochet as a performer resembles Fassbinder in every way: stature, mustache, and even the styling of his clothes, notably a black leather vest. Ozon does not attempt to obscure the fact that he is making Fassbinder the subject of his “remake”, allowing him to indulge in meta moments while paying tribute to and critiquing Fassbinder as a filmmaker and as a person.

Both Petra and Peter have the golden touch through their creative endeavors, but find themselves isolated and alone in the process.

From their first scenes, each opening with their titular characters in bed, Ozon and Fassbinder’s films feel like a perfect pair. They take a phone call from their mother, who is vacationing in Miami. They dictate a letter concerning an upcoming creative project to their dutiful assistant. They put on some music as they commence with the rest of their day. In Fassbinder’s film, Petra puts on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by The Platters. As she sways to the music, she buttons a remarkably glamorous housecoat and puts on a wig while looking at herself in a hand mirror. 

Ozon’s alteration to this moment is where the true differences begin: instead of The Platters, Peter puts on a record titled “Sidonie,” a character who will be introduced shortly. The chanteuse sings “some do it with a bitter look…” before the repetitive chorus takes over purring the lines from Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “each man kills the thing he loves.”

Peter, diverging from Petra’s movements, enters the bathroom, disrobing instead of dressing up like Petra. He stares into a large circular mirror adhered to the wall instead of a hand mirror, and while this may seem minor, it’s a significant distinction. Ozon’s framing allows us to see both Peter and his reflection, and more importantly, Peter looking at his own reflection and his reflection looking back. It sets up one of Ozon’s visual signatures in which his characters gaze directly into themselves without being about self-absorption. It is, instead, the potential for self-transformation, even when the character returns to going through the same motions as their inspiration.

This relationship between assistant and creative extends beyond the screen and into autobiography for both Fassbinder and Ozon, one of the most direct connections between Fassbinder’s cinematic and personal worlds, which were often chaotically entangled. Petra, as a demanding and abusive creator, functions as a female avatar for Fassbinder while Petra’s silent servant Marlene, exists as a substitute for the actress playing her, Irm Hermann, a fixture of Fassbinder’s entourage for most of the director’s life.

A former secretary, Hermann met Fassbinder in 1966 when he encouraged (or coerced) her into abandoning her profession for a career in acting despite having no training or desire for her new vocation. Their relationship was bizarre, to say the least, with Fassbinder often cast her in conventionally unflattering roles, including the subservient and mute Marlene. Hermann’s devotion was often met with emotional and physical abuse, which she disclosed after his death. 

Where Hermann’s Marlene is restrained and stoic, with each movement measured carefully, Ozon turns Karl into a more comedic than tragic figure. Karl, played by Crepon, is obedient and disciplined, highlighted by perfected posture and a piercing, sometimes puppy-dog stare. Ozon also intensifies the sadomasochistic relationship between employer and employee (a theme he has explored in previous films like 8 Women), even having Peter note to his own daughter that Karl likes the degrading way he speaks to his submissive assistant.

Ozon does not attempt to obscure the fact that he is making Fassbinder the subject of his “remake”, allowing him to indulge in meta moments while paying tribute to and critiquing Fassbinder as a filmmaker and as a person.

At the end of each film, the doms try to rectify their relationships with their subs, both of whom have unexpected and negative responses. Marlene simply starts to pack a bag to leave Petra, but Ozon’s version toys with the explicitness of the relationship between these men. Peter finds Karl editing a project (the image on the screen being that of Fassbinder in Fox and His Friends) and he laments that Karl should have pleasure in his life. Karl, ever the sub, misinterprets Peter’s meaning when he drops to his knees to fellate the director. In an attempt to prove that he thinks of him as more than just a sexual toy, Peter takes Karl into the bedroom and says “tell me about you,” to which a searing Karl spits in his face and quickly exits the apartment. The exit of Marlene and Karl, one that Hermann would eventually make herself from Fassbinder’s inner circle, shows that Petra and Peter are still inept at reading the needs and desires of those around them. 

Ozon continues to blur the cinematic and the biographical in the character of Amir Ben Salem, played by Khalil Ben Gharbia. Amir takes the place of Karin as the object of desire, played in Fassbinder’s film by Hanna Schygulla. Karin and Amir both arrive in Germany from Australia and without their spouse, both quickly infatuating Petra and Peter; where Karin is a beautiful, cold and calculating blonde and Amir is the epitome of a twink, with supple skin and a mop of curly hair. Karin and Amir ascend to stardom based on their own looks and talents as well as the connections of Petra and Peter. In both cases, it is difficult to ascertain who is using who more and how genuine their affections for one another may be in reality. This would be a constant recurrence in many of Fassbinder’s romantic relationships.

In naming the character Amir Ben Salem, Ozon crafts an amalgamation of two lovers from Fassbinder’s life. It’s a reference to Fassbinder’s former lover El Hedi Ben Salem, who he met in 1971 at a Parisian bathhouse, and who moved to Germany to be with and work with Fassbinder. He was cast in minor roles and even served as prop master on the set of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, but is best known for playing Ali in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Though inspired by Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, it is difficult to discount how Ben Salem’s own biography may have influenced the film: like Ben Salem, Ali is a Moroccan immigrant who falls in love with a German and experiences xenophobia and rampant racism that exacerbates his romantic relationship.  

At the end of each film, the doms try to rectify their relationships with their subs, both of whom show unexpected negative responses.

While Amir soars to stardom, Ben Salem’s life ended tragically. He was prone to violence when he drank, and he and Fassbinder had a volatile relationship, one that ended in 1974, the same year that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was released. They continued a working relationship with Ben Salem making his final appearance in Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, a film featured briefly in Peter von Kant. The break-up worsened Ben Salem’s drinking which culminated in a non-fatal stabbing of three people.  Fassbinder helped Ben Salem evade the police by smuggling him into France, where he was arrested. He ended his own life in prison in 1977, a fact that was withheld from Fassbinder for many years. Upon learning of it, Fassbinder dedicated his final film Querelle (1982) to him, shortly before the director’s own premature death.

 In addition to Ben Salem, the name of Amir is a near anagram for another Fassbinder lover, Armin Meier. Like Ben Salem, Meier’s life ended tragically when he committed suicide in the apartment he shared with Fassbinder after reportedly not being invited to the director’s birthday party. His death is widely believed to have inspired Fassbinder’s film In the Year of 13 Moons (1978), in which the main character Elvira revisits pivotal people and locations from her past before her own suicide. 

In referencing both Ben Salem and Meire, Ozon’s Amir takes on their tragedy as well. In one of the film’s key deviations from the original, Ozon manages to strike a hopeful note at the end of the film in contrast to all the pain. Following the birthday fiasco and a day of waiting for a call, Petra and Peter finally hear from Karin and Amir. While the conversations seem to match in content – an offer from the young lover to visit and a polite, resigned decline from Petra and Peter – Ozon films the interaction differently. Fassbinder rigidly remains in the apartment focused on Petra, with Karin neither seen nor heard. Ozon, on the other hand, reveals Amir’s end of the conversation. It is one of the film’s few shots taking place outside of the apartment. After the call, before heading to Rome to shoot a new film, Amir enters a cab with Sidonie inside. It appears that she has arranged the call, a final act of kindness for Peter on his birthday. She even asks Amir if he was kind, which he affirms. In softening the ending of Peter and Amir, Ozon seems to exercise some kindness to Fassbinder, who despite his failings experienced his own tragedy and loss of love. 

Ozon’s tapestry of cinematic and biographical references reach its most complex in a quadrangular relationship between the characters of Sidonie and The Mother, through the actresses Isabelle Adjani and Hanna Schygulla. Perhaps the character Ozon alters the most, Sidonie’s original function is as a catalyst for introducing Petra and Karin. In Ozon’s version, Sidonie becomes Peter’s first muse and life-long confidant.

By making Sidonie a star, Ozon needed a star to play the part. He found that star in Isabelle Adjani. Despite working with nearly every female star of her caliber—Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Sophie Marceau, and even Adjani’s former roommate, Isabelle Huppert—Ozon and Adjani have never worked together before Peter von Kant. As a star playing a star, Ajani infuses the role with a verisimilitude that is hard to describe. Counter to many of her past roles as Adèle, Camille Claudel in the film of the same name or Ana/Helen in Possession, Ozon capitalizes on Adjani’s deft, if underused, comic timing that provides Peter von Kant with a farcical camp largely absent from Fassbinder’s film. Sidonie’s side-eyed looks, cocaine compact, and the way she tosses her fur coat à la Miranda Priestly at an adoring Karl, could earn Adjani a renewed queer fandom. 

Like the assistants and the lovers, Sidonie has a real-life counterpart in the life of Fassbinder that Ozon evokes: Hanna Schygulla. In Fassbinder’s film Schygulla played Karin the lover, but Ozon is more interested in the actress and her relationship with Fassbinder as explored in the role of Sidonie. After a storied career working with iconoclasts of European cinema, Schygulla is still most associated with her collaborations with Fassbinder. The actress and director met in a Munich acting class before he ever directed a film and frequently worked with him after appearing in his first feature, Love is Colder than Death. Just as Sidonie is Peter’s first muse, it would be fair to say Schygulla is Fassbinder’s, and her significance is best shown during a scene where Peter confesses that he is “sick of cinema” at his ill-conceived birthday party. She is shocked by the revelation. When he asks what’s the point, she retorts, “to live intensely, Peter,” cleverly recalling one of Fassbinder’s most enduring quotes. Ozon is asking the audience to think about what Fassbinder once said: “Everyone must decide for himself whether it is better to have a brief but more intensely felt existence or to live a long and ordinary life.” Fassbinder, of course, chose the former.

When he asks what’s the point, she retorts, “to live intensely, Peter,” cleverly recalling one of Fassbinder’s most enduring quotes.

Despite collaborating on over 20 films together, Fassbinder and Schygulla were an explosive pairing. They had an intense falling out during the production of Effi Briest (1974) over creative differences and compensation. It resulted in a 5-year separation, in which she made two films and he made twelve. The break-up of their creative collaboration provides Ozon an entry point to levy his harshest critique at Fassbinder in Peter von Kant. After Peter rails against all the women in his life, Sidonie offers a condemnation that could be equally directed at Fassbinder himself: “In your films, you claim to be on the side of the weak, but in real life, you side with the strongest.” She comes closer to Peter and calmly seethes, “Great director, but human sh*t!” As she exits, she croons the song heard earlier–“each man kills the thing he loves”–epitomizing the complicated argument for separating the art and the artists and suggesting the kind of compromise that might ignite feuds on film Twitter.

Unlike Hermann, Ben Salem, or Meier, Schygulla is both a reference and a presence in the film with her role as both mother and muse. Ozon’s most poignant casting choice, Schygulla’s participation underlines the biographical elements of his remake; once the cold and calculating Karin, she is now the nurturing and forgiving mother, and in another form of fan fiction, Ozon even orchestrates a final fictional goodbye between actress and director. After calling his mother a “miserable old whore,” a possible echo of Fassbinder and Schygulla’s own falling out, Peter is comforted by her. The same scene occurs in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, but like the phone call between Peter and Amir, Ozon’s version has a different effect. Both mothers discuss the birth of their child and the loss of their husband, but Ozon frames his conversation against a snowy windowscape that recalls Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. The mother sings a lullaby to soothe her son as he realizes that he did not truly love Amir; he only wished to possess him. The same occurs with Petra and her mother, but there is a lingering disconnection between the characters. Their realizations make them feel even further isolated. Ozon softens the scene by introducing a tenderness and sense of hope that feels absent in most of Fassbinder’s films. At the risk of being trite or oversimplifying matters: hurt people hurt people. This would not be an excuse for Fassbinder’s bad behavior, but rather an acknowledgment that he was a neglected child and prone to pessimistic outlooks of people and the world. 

The final alteration Ozon makes on Fassbinder’s original film is perhaps its greatest sequence. After Karl’s exit, Peter watches from the window and draws the curtains closed. He begins to thread a projector, which has sat idle in the middle of the apartment for the duration of the film and begins to screen images of Amir. In the style of screen tests and home movies, black-and-white images of Amir loom large on a white sheet. The scene is the essence of Nicole Kidman’s infamous AMC line, “heartbreak feels good in a place like this,” as Peter smokes a cigarette and reaches toward the screen. With each grasp toward Amir’s moving image, a shadow of Peter’s hand is cast on the screen. That void, that inability to connect, that ephemeral elusiveness, is the lesson that he has learned. He cannot possess Amir. He would be killing the thing he loves. The final image reciprocates the first, as Ozon’s camera moves in on Peter’s eyes stained with his own bitter tears as he lets out a knowing laugh. Ozon’s conclusion is warmer than Fassbinder’s, which finds Petra falling back into bed in the dark. Peter may be flawed and in the darkness, but he still has the light from his projector and a chance to try to be better. 

In The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom put forth a poetic and literary theory that in order to create good art an artist must confront the influence of past artists and works of art. Confronting that postmodern conundrum that “everything has been done before,” Bloom’s theory finds no better cinematic equivalent than the remake. Is Peter Von Kant “top-shelf fan fiction?” Sort of. Bloom asserted that “the French have never valued originality,” but it would seem that, by embracing fan fiction, or rather the biographical and cinematic of Fassbinder, Ozon has created something new and fresh out of a past work.

More than a remake, Peter Von Kant is both a love letter and an interrogation of Fassbinder. It’s Ozon’s way of wrestling with the legacy and reputation of one of his favorite filmmakers, a master of cinema. In a new era in which society is reevaluating power structures, most prominently in the film industry, in remaking Fassbinder, Ozon is able to come to terms with his messy life, impact, and influence, reconciling with both the art and the artist: a great director, but human sh*t.♦

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