Martin Kušej directs Rainer Werner Fassbinder's classic play on money, love and power

Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant

Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Martin Kušej, Residenztheater

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What does it mean to have power over another person’s feelings? This is the central question in Martin Kušej’s award winning staging of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic. In the sterile white surroundings of a luxu-rious apartment an emotional and vicious cat fight ensues. The play centres on the love affair between successful fashion designer Petra von Kant and the young Karin Thimm, who craftily abuses Petra’s passionate love for her. From the sidelines Petra’s mother and daughter try to influence the relationship, while in the background, Petra’s trusty, taciturn maid Marlene is the only person drawing her conclusions.
Programme Icoon

Background information

The German writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant) in 1971. During that period, Fassbinder's work was inspired by the American melodramas of the 1950's by his compatriot and film director Hans Detlef Sierck, who had emigrated to America just before the war and made a name for himself as Douglas Sirk. In 1972 Fassbinder himself made a film of the play, starring Margit Carstensen, Hanna Schygulla and Irm Hermann.

Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant is about the politics of power, which is exerted consciously or unconsciously by people in personal relationships. It's a recurrent theme in Fassbinder's work. Power is revealed as a deciding factor in human relationships. Afraid to be alone, his characters yearn for love, which then turns into violence, repression and terror.

In Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant this theme is explored through a lesbian love drama set in the glamorous world of high fashion.

Petra von Kant is the uncrowned queen of German fashion, a designer with influence and prestige, whose fasion empire has made her rich beyond belief. However, although she's succeeded in business, she's failed in her private life. Having only recently divorced her second husband, she lives alone in her luxurious apartment, where she is aided from early morning until late at night by her trusty servant Marlene, who she treats like dirt and constantly seeks to humiliate. The two of them are involved in an unequal power relationship, in which Petra is the master making increasingly absurd demands, and Marlene is the servile and taciturn slave, who always complies. As well as Marlene, the other women in Petra's life – her mother and her daughter – are also trapped in Petra's web of money, power and glamour. 

Things start shifting into gear when her cousin Sidonie introduces Petra to the young and beautiful Karin Thimm, who has just left her husband. Petra falls head over heels in love with the sexy Karin and offers to help her become a model. Karin has no real feelings for Petra, but she can use the leg up and the money, and artfully exploits the situation to the full. The taciturn Marlene is powerless, having to witness how 'her' Petra is taken away from her by Karin. At the same time, her constant presence, as a sort of sinister ghost in the background, casts its shadow over what is to come. For it soon becomes clear that Karin has the upper hand, with Petra now reduced to the role of the one exploited, just as Marlene has been in their relationship. When Karin decides she has had enough of the jealous and possessive conduct of Petra, she goes back to her husband, leaving Petra to confront her own behaviour and seek a new direction in her life.

Director Martin Kušej's staging of Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant for the Residenztheater in Munich premiered in 2012. Kušej, who in 2009 featured at the Holland Festival with his staging of Woyzeck, has set the action in a brightly lit, whiter than white room, enclosed by four glass walls, imprisoning the characters in a sterile environment which seems to shut them off from real life. To the audience, it feels like a peepshow of the soul – watching the characters being forced to reveal themselves under the bright lights –, a feeling which is reinforced by the multiple black-outs which confront the members of the audience with their own reflection, like voyeurs who have to put in another coin if they want to continue to watch. The white stage floor is filled with rows and rows of meticulously, symmetrically placed empty glass bottles, a monoculture of outward appearance, as empty, hollow and brittle as Petra Kant's luxurious lifestyle. It's only a matter of time before this fragile dreamworld she has escaped into will be shattered to pieces.

For his direction of Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant, Kušej won the prestigious Faust Preis in 2012, while leading ladies Bibiana Beglau and Andrea Wenzl also won prizes for their roles. Beglau, dressed in a tight designer dress and dangerously high heels, delivers a magnetic performance as the whimsical Petra von Kant, instantly switching between sadism and tenderness, and between haughty arrogance and vulnerable dependence. Andrea Wenzl plays femme fatal Karin Thimm with an enticing mix of girlish vice and irresistible sex appeal. Playing the taciturn Marlene, Sophie von Kessel, with boyish short hair and with eyes wich are rimmed with kohl and never seem to blink, moves across the stage like an ominous spectre.


Born in 1961 in Wolfsberg, Austria, Martin Kušej studied German studies and Sports Science, and subsequently Theatre Direction at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Graz.

He started out as an assistant director at the Salzburger Landestheater and the National Slovenian Theatre in Ljubljana. In 1987 he made his debut as a director with his staging of Es by Karl Schönherr. In 1990 he teamed up with Martin Zehetgruber and Sylvia Brandl to form the company my friend martin, premiering his piece Tode in three transport containers. In 1992, he staged his first play for the Residenztheater, Thomas Strittmatter's Irrlichter-Schrittmacher.

From 1993 Kušej was for a number of years engaged as a director at the Schauspiel Stuttgart. His staging of Sarah Kane's Cleansed was invited to the Festival Theaterformen in Hannover, as was his first opera, King Arthur by Purcell in 1996. Kušej went on to direct at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg and the Burgtheater in Vienna, amongst others, and opera at the Opernhaus Zürich, the Staatsoper in Berlin and with De Nederlandse Opera, staging a legendary production of Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District in 2006.

In the 2005/2006 season Kušej was responsible for the theatre programming at the Salzburger Festspiele. In 2009 he staged a theatre version of Theo van Gogh's 2003 movie Interview at the Theater am Neumarkt in Zurich. That same year, his staging of Büchner's Woyzeck with the Residenztheater was one of the highlights at the Holland Festival. Kušej was three times invited to the famous Theatertreffen in Berlin, winning the Nestroy prize for best direction in 2008. Since 2011, Martin Kušej has been artistic director at the Residenztheater.

The Residenztheater is the name of a collection of theatre buildings at the historic Residence of the Elector of Bavaria in Munich, as well as the name the Bavarian State Theatre (Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel) is generally known by and has been using for some years in all its publications.

The theatre was originally built between 1751 and 1753 at the behest of Prince-elector and Duke of Bavaria Maximilian III Joseph. In the grounds of the Residence in Munich, the palace of the Bavarian electors, dukes and kings, the Belgian-born court architect François de Cuvilliés led the construction of a 560 seat theatre in rococo style. Originally, the theatre was used for opera, especially performances of Italian opera.

The Residenztheater was destroyed during World War II and in 1951 the new 1000 seat Residenztheater was built on the foundations of the old theatre. The rococo interior of the old theatre, however, had survived the war. It was rebuilt in one of the wings of the palace, which was renamed the Cuvilliés-Theater.

Since 1833, the Residenztheater as well as the Cuvilliés-Theater have been home to the Bavarian State Theatre (Das Bayerische Staatsschauspiel), which has up to the present day been one of the principal and leading theatre companies in the German speaking world. The company has been able to attract a host of renowned directors and actors, including Andrea Breth, Frank Castorf, Stephan Rottkamp, Johan Simons, Herbert Fritsch and of course the incumbent artistic director Martin Kušej.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Martin Kušej
set design
Annette Murschetz
Heidi Hackl
Jan Faszbender
Tobias Löffler
Andreas Karlaganis
Bibiana Beglau (Petra von Kant), Elisabeth Schwarz (Valerie von Kant, her mother), Elisa Pluss (Gabriele von Kant, her daughter), Michaela Steiger (Sidonie von Grasenabb, her friend), Andrea Wenzl (Karin Thimm, her lover), Sophie von Kessel (Marlene, her maid)

‘Es ist … eine Art Schauprozess über den Kapitalismus unserer modernen Gefühlswelt, hart, eindringlich, frostig kalt.’

Süddeutsche Zeitung