In a year with 13 moons – Fassbinder and the desperation of love

“Every seventh year is a moon year. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression in these years. To a lesser degree this is also true of years with 13 moons. When a moon year also has 13 new moons, inescapable personal tragedies may occur. In the 20th Century this dangerous constellation occurs six times. One of these is 1978.  Before that 1908, 1929, 1943 and 1957. 1992 will also be a year in which many peoples lives are threatened. ”

And so opens In a Year with 13 Moons directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

I will start my review with a quote from Jim’s Reviews. I am starting to really love Fassbinder, but Jim is a devotee (his site is dedicated to Fassbinder) and his opening to this incredible film is as fine as you will read:

“A grieving Fassbinder began this picture soon after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier (who appeared in eight of his pictures), and it is arguably his most powerful work. It is also his most personal, not only because he wrote, directed, designed, photographed and edited it himself, but because he laid bare his most profound feelings and ideas. With Volker Spengler in the lead, it also features one of the most breathtaking performances in any Fassbinder film. This riveting character study of a transgendered woman defies categorization, as it joins together – on some primal, intuitive level – melodrama, tragedy, and a unique strain of comedy which is both merciless and tender. How else to describe a film in which the hero/ine recites Goethe in a slaughterhouse over a Handel organ concerto – and makes it seem not only completely believable but utterly moving and unpretentious? Where else can you see businessmen/gangsters staging a musical comedy number from an old Jerry Lewis movie – and it works? The film brings together many levels, as we’ll see below. It’s autobiographical (is Fassbinder’s film ultimately about Meier, or himself?), sociological/historical (about the first generation after Hitler), spiritual, bizarrely poetic, and much more. In a Year With 13 Moons is all that, but it’s not a sit-back-relax-grab-the-popcorn movie. Many people name it as their favorite Fassbinder film; it’s certainly one of mine. Fassbinder himself ranked it second (after Beware of a Holy Whore) on the list of “The Top 10 of My Own Films”. The DVD from Fantoma does full justice to Fassbinder’s astonishing visuals (it’s the only film Fassbinder shot himself) and densely-layered soundtrack; it also includes an illuminating selection of commentaries and interviews.”

I agree with everything said in that opening.


What can I say about this beautiful beautiful film?  I will give a brief run down of the plot without revealing the end, because I know many people haven’t seen it and I have a bit of a problem with “revealing endings” on this blog.

The film opens with a scene in a park at dawn of gay men picking each other up for sexual favours down by the water. The film will cover two pivotal days in the life of Elvira Weishaupt (brilliantly played by Volker Spengler). Several years before the film’s action begins, pre-op Elvira, who used to be Erwin, fell in love with an enigmatic Holocaust survivor named Anton Saitz (Gottfied John) with whom he works in a slaughterhouse.  Erwin offers himself to Saitz who casually remarks “too bad you’re not a girl” (Erwin is married at this point and has a daughter – he may not even be gay) so in response to this Erwin immediately goes to Casablanca and has a sex change. This wasn’t enough to win Saitz over and Elvira hasn’t seen him since. The film starts with Elvira being dumped by her long-time boyfriend Christoph Hacker (Karl Scheydt) an actor prone to hysterics. When literally dumped in the street, her good friend and street-walker, Red Zora (Ingrid Caven) is there to console her. Later Elvira is surprised by a visit from her/Erwin’s wife Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar), who fears for the safety of their teenage daughter, Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes), after revelations Elvira made in a recent interview about the notoriously touchy Saitz – who now has lethal underworld connections.


And so begins Elviras quest to meet with Saitz and “beg his forgiveness”, but this turns into a search for her identity and the love she’s never known.  Along the way, she and Zora visit a mystical gay bodybuilder named Soul Frieda (Walter Bockmayer) and his silent partner, and revisit one of the most important people in Elvira’s past, the nun Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit – Fassbinder’s mother, who appeared in two-thirds of his films), who raised Erwin as an orphan, and who now reveals some startling information about his parents. Continuing on his own, Elvira meets a terminally-ill former employee of Saitz who is so obsessed with the man who every day, all day, he stares up at his skyscraper office; a very philosophical suicide (Bob Dorsay; voice dubbed by Wolfgang Hess); a cleaning woman (Ursula Lillig) who peers through keyholes and laughs hysterically; and Saitz’s quizzical henchman/chaffeur J. Smolik (Günther Kaufmann). At long last, Elvira reaches the man of her dreams, for whom she has sacrificed so much. That fateful meeting sets in motion the engrossing final part of the film which includes, among many other incidents, Elvira’s return to the author/journalist, Burghard Hauer (novelist Gerhard Zwerenz), who fatefully interviewed her.

Despite the linear structure of the narrative above, the film works more like a series of dream sequences. Fassbinder wrote the story first as a short story, then in more detail as he worked through the backgrounds of Elvira and Saitz.  When they actually began filming, he would work out two pages of script at a time a couple of hours before each days filming on the six-week shoot. Earlier in the year Fassbinder had lost hi lover, Armin Meier to a suicide directly the result of an argument the lovers had. In order to get his lover back, Fassbinder didn’t invite him to his birthday party.  Distraught, Meier went home and killed himself. Fassbinder (understandably) sank into a deep depression, and it is claimed by those close to him that working on A year with 13 Moons was the only thing that brought him back from his own darkest internal nightmares.  Because the time the film is made is important to the subject matter and the dedication, Fassbinder bookends the film with dates: July 24, 1978 in Frankfurt; at the end it’s dated August 28, 1978. this date stamping posits a subtle barrier between the viewer and the film. This is not ‘our’ story – we are being told something here.

The film is divided up by important philosophical monologues that pack momentous punch.  Absolutely the most shocking of all is the speech Elvira gives to Zora in the slaughterhouse. Earlier this year I saw Franju’s The Blood of The Beasts, but this is far more shocking. Fassbinder shrewdly focuses on Elvira. She has an epiphany about her earlier life, telling Zora that as Erwin s/he used to work as a slaughterer.  This scene also reveals new depths in Elvira. She interprets this abattoir as few people would, with language which is natural, poetic, and unsettling (not least because it foreshadows her own end): “It’s life itself… Streaming blood is what gives an animal’s life meaning…. Their deaths are solitary and beautiful.” Elvira adds that when young he felt disgust, as Zora does, but “Today I understand the world better.” Who but Fassbinder could find the poetry of slaughter.

Elvira then becomes enwrapped of her memories of the seven years she spent with the actor Christoph. Judging by the histrionic way he dumps her in the opening minutes, it comes as no surprise that this ham’s acting career was on a downward spiral. As Elvira chuckles, “he kept playing smaller and smaller and smaller towns…. The best thing was rehearsing roles with Christoph.” She now launches, with manic fervor, into the climactic monologue of the title character in Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, declaiming, “I faced my exile, disowned, abandoned…. Lead me to an altar like a sacrificial beast…” (as we’ll see below, it’s significant that Fassbinder uses a play by a titan of German literature whom some biographers believe was bisexual about a titan of Italian Renaissance literature who was gay, although Goethe did not ‘out’ Tasso). As a counterpoint to both Elvira’s breathless, rapid-fire delivery and the visceral images of ‘meat processing,’ Fassbinder plays the slow, melancholy yet rapturous Adagio of Handel’s Organ Concerto, Opus 7, Number 4 . In fact, Fassbinder trimmed in half the scene he had originally conceived and shot, so that he could fit it to that particular music.

I could not help but think of Hermann Nitsch in this scene also. Apparently Fassbinder even wore a white suit to the slaughterhouse filming, further cementing my idea that this is who he had in mind.  The images are starkly visceral. Blood runs and runs from the cut throats of the slaughtered animals who are strung up, crucifixion style, head down, so the blood can drain and drain from their bodies. As the blood gushes out, it increases the severity of the cut so that by the end of the assembly lines, the heads are grotesquely hanging by thin pieces of flesh.

We are to endure this scene. Elvira’s storytelling takes on a hysterical tone at several points through the vision, but we don’t see her.  We see only the pieces of meat, battered and bled – over and over again. It is a shocking scene  –  all the more unforgettable for the connection with Goethe and Handel.


Other monologues include the one given by Sister Gudrun (played by Fassbinder’s Mother) as she paces back and forth in the convent, telling the story of Elvira’s complete rejection and inability to find love as a child. This is another chilling scene – again the camera keeps away from Elvira, and closes in on the action alienating her further. In a shocking conclusion to this scene, the camera pans back to find Elvira has collapsed part way through the story, so sad, revelatory and desperate is it in the context of her inability to find love now.

Another crucial monologue is performed by a suicide Elvira anciently witnesses. An anonymous man enters an empty room where Elvira sits and begins to set up his noose. He chats briefly with her on philosophical matters, quoting Solaris, just before inviting her to witness his death.  This monologue ends as follows:

Elvira tells the story of her sex change to the man and ends with this line – “My ego was forced to learn to put up with me, to bear the unbearable.”

Man: “If you want to know the moral worth of people as a whole and in general, just look at their fate as a whole and in general. Nothing but shortcomings, misery, anguish and death. There is an eternal justice and were they not so worthless, in general, their fate would not, in general, be so sad.  We can therefore say, the world itself is judgement day.  But it would be a great misunderstanding to see that as a negation of the will to live, to see suicide as an act of negation. Far from it. The negation of the will to exist is a bold affirmation of the will since negation means renouncing not life’s sufferings but its joys. the suicide wants life and simply rejects the conditions under which he experiences it.  The suicide does not renounce the will to live. He renounces life by destroying the manifestation of his own life.”

Elvira: “you’d better do it now.”

Man: “I don’t mind if you watch.”

The connections with the meaningless of Elvira’s life – the mistakes piled high each upon the other, that can only be ‘explained’ by the devastation of the influence of 13 moons. The heart of this tower’s darkness, though is of course the Suicide. Not only is that Absurdist scene (with its winks to Nietzsche and Samuel Beckett) twistedly powerful in its ideas, or rather mockery of pseudo-philosophical self-destructive ticks, it shows Fassbinder’s visual mastery in its use of dark bloody hues, genuinely ominous shadows, and horrific/ironic imagery which recreates Expressionism in color with ravishing effect. The suicide scene is beautifully portrayed. I haven’t spoken at all about the use of shadow in this film (OH!  So much to say!) but this scene is one of the best examples of Fassbinder’s wonderful direction and camera work.

I have to end the review soon – it’s already gone on for so long and I am all over the shop here because the film is just so touching, bu I have to mention the crazy scene when Elvira first meets up with Saitz.

In one of the film’s richest ironies, when Elvira (wearing her finest Maria-Braun-dressed-for-success outfit… and it must be said… looks very sexy) – after a long and tortuous quest to reach Saitz “to beg his forgiveness” for the “shocking revelations” in the published interview – finally makes it to his suite, she’s not even sure which of the half-dozen guys is him. As if that isn’t odd enough, when she first meets (the as it turns out rather loveable) Saitz, he and his henchmen mysteriously burst into a song a dance number taken directly from a Jerry Lewis film. This simply couldn’t be stranger, but posited against the dark existential angst of the suicide she has just witnessed in the room below, this works. The philosopher has hung himself – the Capitalist thugs are dancing to Jerry Lewis and celebrating their enormous wealth. Welcome to the 1970’s!

I have to stop – I’m way over respectable review time here – but there is so much I have left out. Analysis of this beautiful film could fill a book. In a Year of 13 Moons helped Fassbinder find a way to move forward from (probably) the greatest tragedy of his life. Hopefully it brought him closer to the dead young man who inspired it. This is a story of profound disconnection, loss and great pain. This is a criticism on society but also on our abilities to feel as individuals and as collectives. He has used possibly the most unlikely character to inspire our respect and confidence and yet that is what is solicited by the beautiful and tragic Elvira. She is every man and she is every woman. This si a work of radical, subversive compassion and understanding.

You must must see it!