Review: In a Year of 13 Moons

The film comes down to a series of operatic, sometimes campy examinations of questions pertaining to free will, chance, cause and effect.

In a Year of 13 Moons
Photo: New Yorker Films

The year 1974 saw the release of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s brilliant Fox and His Friends, a bitter indictment of an upper-class gay society that toys with and subsequently destroys a working-class male hustler (played in the film by Fassbinder himself). Many of the director’s best works took their cue from explosive melodramas that transpired in his own life. Fox and His Friends was motivated in part by Fassbinder’s romantic relationship with Armin Meier, who starred in seven of the director’s films (most notably Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette, and Despair) before killing himself in 1978 shortly after their break-up. Just as the torturous behind-the-scenes fiascos on the set of Whity would lay down the foundation for his acclaimed Beware of a Holy Whore, the guilt Fassbinder suffered in the wake of Meier’s death would inform much of his brilliant In a Year of 13 Moons.

Like Josef von Sternberg and his hero Douglas Sirk, Fassbinder understood and loved women in ways few directors have. Because so much suffering came to his women, Fassbinder had to dodge erroneous sexist accusations for much of his unfortunately short career in cinema. (From 1969 until his drug-induced suicide in 1982, he directed some 40 feature-length works.) But regardless of their sex or sexual proclivities, Fassbinder’s characters (the emasculated straight man from The Merchant of Four Seasons, the divas of Lola and Veronika Voss, the hoity-toity lesbians of The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant, the oppressed straight women of Martha and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, and the gay men of Fox and His Friends and Querelle) all suffered from the same inability to fully connect and engage with the people around them, a frustration the director likened to cosmic, world-weary ennui in In a Year of 13 Moons, the story of a transsexual forced to come to grips with the meaning of “her” existence shortly after a humiliating break-up.

“Every seventh year is a lunar year. Those people whose lives are essentially dominated by their emotions suffer particularly strongly from depressions in these lunar years. The same is also true of years with 13 new moons, albeit not quite so strongly. And if a lunar year also happens to be a year with 13 new moons, the result is often a personal catastrophe.” So warns Fassbinder during the film’s opening scene, which begins in Frankfurt during a year of 13 moons: 1978, also the year of his ex-lover Meier’s suicide. Fassbinder’s ability to evoke allegory through rigorous framing techniques is unmatched. These distancing effects can be suffocating at times (Chinese Roulette’s constantly roving camera brings to mind a pistol randomly aiming at and threatening to shoot the film’s “victims”), but In a Year of 13 Moons they blissfully and ravishingly equate broken lives to solar planets dislodged from the orbital flow of the sun.

“He says he’s not a man, but a woman,” says the man who beats Elvira Weishaupt (Volker Spengler) at a Frankfurt cruising spot for gays when he discovers she doesn’t have a penis between her legs. If the man and his posse of Wakefield Poole queens are largely archetypical, Elvira represents something more prototypical: a transsexual who suffers so that all others who find themselves caught “in between” can flourish. Save for his monumental miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, In a Year of 13 Moons may be Fassbinder’s greatest achievement, because the film’s kitchen-sink melodrama collectively addresses the domestic, cultural, psychological, spiritual, and existential hang-ups of the human condition his others films addressed individually. In Elvira’s relationship to her lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt), Fassbinder acknowledges the brutal way men treat their woman, but in Elvira’s relationship to the world around her, the director posits a journey of self-discovery that ends with a tragic yet hopeful emotional uplift.

You can see Fassbinder sorting through the guilt and grief he suffered after Meier’s death throughout the film, which makes Elvira’s humiliations and bizarre rituals of atonement that much more difficult to watch. Fassbinder wasn’t a religious man, but In a Year of 13 Moons feels not unlike a series of bibilical encounters between the Christ-like Elvira and the film’s other cripples as she spirals knowingly to her inevitable doom. Humiliated by her lover, Elvira befriends a prostitute named Zora (Ingrid Caven) and together they go to a slaughterhouse where Elvira (then Erwin) used to work as a butcher. There, Elvira discusses her crippling loss of self, but rather than linger on Spengler’s face, Fassbinder shockingly and cynically subverts her castration anxiety by showing a group of cows being cut open, decapitated, and subsequently skinned. Throughout this notorious sequence, Fassbinder means for us to think of the medical procedure that turned Erwin into Elvira but, more importantly, the degrees of free will human victims have over their own brutal slaughters.

Like Sirk, Fassbinder was big on mirrors and reflective surfaces. Early in the film, Christoph refers to Elvira as a soulless “piece of meat” before forcing her to look at herself in a mirror. She has a difficult time opening her eyes. Later she walks into a casino and is embarrassed by a potential suitor who calls her “grandma” before threatening to cut her throat—again, another reference to Elvira intimidated with human butchery. Both times, Elvira has a difficult time opening her eyes and looking at herself. Only once is she confident enough to gaze at her ambi-sexual exterior: inside a mod bathroom where the mirror is so fractured that she can never see herself in full. There are always numerous visual allegories at play during any given frame of the film. Here, the fractured glass calls attention to Elvira’s displaced self, but by lingering on her confident gaze and then noting her abrupt sadness, Fassbinder points out his character’s inability to ever truly escape the identity she’s created for herself.

Looking to bring Elvira some peace of mind (and to understand for herself why he decided to become a woman), Zora takes her to the orphanage where a young Erwin was raised by a group of nuns. There, the peaceful Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s mother) sheds a little light on the order of the universe. “No one ruins his life of his own accord, the order human beings have made ruins them,” the old woman says before detailing the particulars of a young Erwin’s abandonment. In what has to be one of the most incredible sequences ever directed for the screen, the goddess Gudrun begins to methodically walk around the exterior of the orphanage’s garden center. Like the red and golden spherical objects that hang from the ceilings of so many rooms in the film (not to mention the home garden where Elvira’s ex-wife and daughter sit peacefully, the daughter reading from Franz Kafka’s The Castle), the garden’s center is meant to represent the sun and Sister Gudrun the planet that moves around it in perfect alignment.

This revelatory moment is very much In a Year of 13 Moon’s centerpiece, around which the first and second halves of the film revolve. Fassbinder’s films have a geometry all their own but the overall emotional and theoretical configuration Fassbinder conveys with In a Year of 13 Moons is very specifically that of a human solar system out of whack. While Sister Gudrun is making her circular journey around the orphanage, Elvira collapses off-screen on the concrete floor. (The poor girl is such a mess that she can’t even go down a spiral staircase without tripping over herself.) Like so many other characters in Fassbinder’s films, Elvira has yet to conquer—let alone define—her emotional center. And so she continues to fall into the empty void of the film’s emotional universe (in classic Fassbinder-style suspended animation), always on the brink of sacred fulfillment but constantly frustrated by that rigorous moral order enacted by the human beings around her.

Though Elvira continues to spiral uncontrollably into nothingness, she still manages the strength to pay a trip to the man supposedly responsible for her sex change operation, thinking that he’s angry at her for having spilled dirty secrets about him to a newspaper reporter. Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), a corporate pig who levels and rebuilds the world around him for profit, sheds fascinating light on Elvira’s body consciousness. After Elvira, Anton, and his bodyguard/goons engage in a curious choreographed dance timed to a musical number from a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis film that plays on the television, Anton throws a tennis ball at Elvira. When Erwin declared his love for Anton years earlier in Casablanca, Anton replied: “That’s nice, too bad you’re not a girl.” And so that’s what it took for Erwin to become Elvira, proving Zora’s theory that “she didn’t even have a real reason” to make the change. (“It all started with cheese, since meat made Anton nauseous,” Elvira humorously hints earlier in the film as to the reasons for her current emotional predicament.)

Fassbinder strains for a world-weary political contextulization at one point in the film: Zora watches television while Elvira is asleep and a news program details the horrors of Pinochet’s regime in Chile. More interesting (and you’ll have to look carefully for this), Fassbinder places himself on the television right after newsreel footage of Pinochet, implicating himself in the world of hurt he no doubt believes to have wrought on Armin Meier. Before meeting Anton at the top of his corporate tower, Elvira gives a man bread and wine in Christ-like fashion before he hangs himself in front of her. The man justifies his “self-murder” by telling Elvira, “I don’t want things to exist because I perceive them.” What’s to blame then for the tragedy of Elvira Weishaupt: her own free will or the collective pressure of the people around her? It’s a question Fassbinder doesn’t pretend to know the answer to, or maybe he’s saying it’s a little bit of both. Elvira and Meier made the decision to commit suicide, but there’s still that “order human beings have made” to ruin them.

In a Year of 13 Moons comes down to a series of operatic, sometimes campy examinations of questions pertaining to free will, chance, cause and effect, moral responsibility, self-sacrifice, and spiritual atonement. When Zora and Elvira visit the bitchy Soul Frieda (Walter Bockmayer), the spiritual queen describes a strange cemetery seemingly inhabited by the corpses of young children. But he explains that the dates etched on their tombstones refers not to their lifespan but to “the time during his life he had a friend.” In a Year of 13 Moons begins at/on FRANKFURT AM MAIN/AM 24, JULY 1978 and ends at/on FRANKFURT AM MAIN/AM 28, AUGUST 1978, the length of time during Elvira’s life Fassbinder allows both Zora (and his audience) to enter her universe. When Elvira dies, there’s plenty of blame to go around. But that everyone in her world is there to hover gently and in perfect sync around her body suggests that her death has restored a more genteel order to this personal solar system.

 Cast: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Eva Mattes, Günther Kaufmann, Lilo Pempeit, Isolde Barth, Karl Scheydt, Walter Bockmayer, Peter Kollek  Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder  Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder  Distributor: New Yorker Films  Running Time: 119 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1978  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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