Rainer Werner Fassbinder
In an extraordinarily prolific life Fassbinder made his first film at the age of 24. He died at the age of 37 having completed over forty films, two television series, three short films, four video productions, and twenty-four plays, often acting as well as directing. In a Year of 13 Moons, made late in his career in 1978, is one of his most personal films.
Fassbinder’s 1978 film, In a Year of 13 Moons opens with a long shot, photographed at the Magic hour of dusk, of a parkland gay beat by the Main river in Frankfurt. The shot is penetrated by the tottering, incoherent figure of Elvira, dressed as a man, who makes contact with one of three hustlers, to whom she hands cash for sex. He begins to caress her genitals while the screen now lights up with another totemic signal of so many 70s arthouse movies, a “sage commentary” text about the seasons of the moon and the alleged lunar effects over periods of 13 moons upon folk with a depressive bent who may commit suicide.
The text reads as much a piece of baloney as the title text page of fake “Buddhist wisdom” by so-called “Bushiido” which Jean-Pierre Melville also slides into the opening sequence of his existential gangster masterpiece, Le Samourai from 1967. We are now in a rarefied conceit of reality as artifice.
Fassbinder has now added a third iconic element to the opening sequence with the music track, the fourth movement Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth. The piece at this point in cultural history was already a cultural hymn for the decade of the Tragic Queen Movie, initiated as it was by Visconti in his lumbering Death in Venice from 1971. Where Visconti’s film sinks under the weight of production design, costume and music and leans on its cultural attachments to signify greatness, Fassbinder’s film makes explosively derisive and satiric counterpoint with the music, as he and Peer Raben so often did with classical material, and the movie powers into an unmatched level of bleakness.
The trio of hustlers turns on Elvira and beats her up after discovering she has no cock beneath her silk frilly panties. Thus Fassbinder propels the movie into sequences of tableaux as Elvira takes a Feu Follet style path down the road to suicide, with a voyage through her past and the people who “made” her identity. To set the tone early, a seven minute two shot sequence leads us through the slaughterhouse where Elvira, used to work as former working class man, Erwin, and is again blasted with Mahler. But the music and dialogue are now pierced by the screams of the cattle, and the conversation of Elvira and his companion at this point, the amazing Ingrid Caven, a compassionate neighborhood hooker, and real life former Mrs Fassbinder. The mixture of screaming on the live track and Mahler on the Foley looks forward to the mind bending slaughterhouse scene for the Epilogue of the 1980 TV series, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fassbinder’s layering of formal elements to propose as much contradiction and antipathy as possible is by now total.
So does the titanic Rainer Werner Fassbinder knit formal elements of his texts and his movies into great films focussing on despair, greed, and the human condition. His staging and blocking of actors has been unique in cinema since he began making movies from the late 60s. His early days as actor and writer in the Munich arts communes gave him the expressive possibilities for layered meaning, irony and razor sharp insight, especially from masters of formal deconstruction like Brecht.
It’s been said that Fassbinder revered the Alienation effect so beloved of Brechtians but I would suggest he actually reinvents it, so unrecognizably has he created a unique personal style in the cinema for staging and directing actors.
One angle of this movie I want to mention briefly is, as one of his “centrally” queer films, not only is the queer (here transsexual) character not the subject in herself, it’s her identity. Elvira begins the movie in a state of literal derangement that has started before the movie began. Her boyfriend who leaves her at the beginning says “your head is full of marmalade.” In having the sex change operation in Morocco to please a former Jewish property developer boyfriend who also rejected her, she began a process of building an identity, and a mode of even walking and speaking that is still unformed. Volker Spengler’s performance in this film is simply extraordinary. Every element of performance itself has been turned inside out, and the usual tools of makeup, costume, even screen diva camp signifiers, are played with. Elvira’s body movements are angular, contorted as though she’s not really learnt how to walk. In fact she does not know how to live any more.
Fassbinder considered this his personal favourite, along with Beware of a Holy Whore from 1971. If you can make the journey with him you may well agree.
Notes on the Restoration
In a Year of 13 Moons was restored by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. The DCP is supplied by StudioCanal Australia.
IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS/IN EINEM JAHR MIT 13 MONDEN
Director/Screenwriter: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Director of Photography/Art Direction: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Editors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Juliane Lorenz. Music: Peter Raben. Production Designer: Franz Vacek. Makeup: Jo Braun. Production Manager: Isolde Barth. Sound: Wolfgang Mund, Karl Scheydt. Camera Department: Werner Lüring, Wolfgang Mund, Karl Scheydt.
Cast: Volker Spengler (Erwin/Elvira Weishaupt), Ingrid Caven (Die rote Zora), Gottfried John (Anton Saitz), Elisabeth Trissenaar (Irene Weishaupt), Eva Mattes (Marie-Ann Weishaupt), Günther Kaufmann (J. Smolik, Chauffeur), Lilo Pempeit (Schwester Gudrun), Isolde Barth (Sybille).
West Germany, 1978, 124 mins, DCP (from orig 35mm), German with English subtitles, MA15+
Notes by David Hare