LGTBQ Film Series #6:
“In a Year with 13 Moons” (1978) is a west German drama film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Fassbinder is somewhat of a Renaissance man in the film industry, as he has been throughout his career a filmmaker, actor, playwright, theatre director, composer, cinematographer, editor, and essayist, and has been considered one of the most prominent figures of the New German Cinema movement.
Many of his films reflected on the gay and lesbian experience, such as “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” (1972), “Fox and His Friends” (1975), “Satan’s Brew” (1976), and “Querelle” (1982), and then of course, this film. Tragically, Fassbinder died on 10 June 1982, at the age of 37, from a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates. Although his career lasted less than two decades, he was extremely prolific; by the time of his death, he had completed over forty feature films, two television series, three short films, four video productions, and twenty-four plays. When speaking of his career, he said, “I would like to build a house with my films”, Fassbinder once remarked. “Some are the cellars, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope in the end it will be a house.”
This was stated as Fassbinder’s second favorite of his films, behind “Beware of a Holy Whore” made in 1971. This film was made as a response to the horrible suicide of Fassbinder’s lover, Armin Meier, who died in 1978 – the setting of this film. With a foreboding introduction, “In A Year With 13 Moons,” Fassbinder explains, “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.” 1978 is a lunar year that also happens to be a year with 13 new moons, set in Frankfurt, Germany.
Volker Spengler is Elvira, a trans woman formerly known as Erwin, as she moves throughout her world trying to make sense of her pain, her decisions and her relationships with those around her. She is cripplingly uncomfortable in her own skin and her suffering is so rooted in her being, that it seems to take a physical affect on her ability to engage with the world around her. The film starts with Elvira being beat up for trying to buy sex at the park by a group of gay men, no less. Defeated physically and mentally, she returns home only to discover that her lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt) has returned unexpectedly after being gone for weeks. He is cruel and abusive, and announces he is leaving for good – a threat that Elvira begs him not to carry out. When he leaves, Elvira finds solace in her friend Zora (Ingrid Caven), with whom she visits her old place of work, a slaughterhouse of all places. The scene that follows is shocking and dark, but there is a sort of poetic symbolism that Fassbinder embraces. As Elvira speaks to Zora about the process of her castration – when she underwent a sex change – and how she has felt deep anxiety ever since, feeling unsure if she has done it for the wrong reasons, the scene focuses not on Elvira or Zora, but on the cows at the butchery being cut open, emptied and skinned. Her decision to undergo such a drastic operation was out of an attempt to please her lover, and in that, she was making herself into a piece of meat, made for the enjoyment of someone else, and not as a person with her own intimate relationship with her body.
Later on, the two venture to Elvira’s childhood orphanage, where they speak to the nun who took care of Elvira, then Erwin, growing up. This interaction proves somewhat enlightening to Elvira, as she is given insight into her feelings of abandonment, and how they may have emerged as a child. The atmosphere surrounding these adventures is extraordinarily heavy. Her depression wears on her like a fur coat in the middle of summer, adding weight and discomfort to every single experience that she has day to day. But there is a perseverance to Elvira that is incredible. Through every abuse, every dismissive interaction, judgmental look, stumble and bumble, her pain is cutting, but she presses on. She even speaks of her previous contemplation’s of suicide, and how she has made it out on the other side, how she has been saved, with an energy that feels almost hopeful – until the next assault comes.
Through each observation of herself, it becomes clear that the man responsible for her castration and subsequent anxiety is her ex-lover, Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), a pig and a corporate goon. Reflecting on their relationship, Elvira discusses how when she was with him, as Erwin, years earlier in Casablanca, she declared her love for him, and was met with the thoughtless response, “That’s nice, too bad you’re not a girl.” With a bit of solemn humor, she adds, “It all started with cheese, since meat made Anton nauseous.” Her confusion over her own identity persists throughout the film, and the cheery on top is when her best friend and confidant, Zora, theorizes that “she didn’t even have a real reason” for becoming a woman, after another friend makes the case that Elvira has always felt she was a woman inside.
There are so many small moments that lead to the ultimate demise of our heroine. No one person can be blamed for ignoring her final cries for help, but the film seems to be Fassbinder’s attempt to sort through his own guilt and grief following Meier’s death. This is the film that fleshes out Elvira, and possibly Meiers’, final days. It is dark and brooding throughout, at times feeling almost campily moody. But it is, ultimately, a beautiful film about the persistence and ultimate giving way of the human spirit.
She is just constantly carrying herself with shame, a sunken spine, a fearful gaze. It hurts to watch her work overtime to maintain her dignity, while the slobbish men in her life do everything that they can to shred her of it. It is a story of how people end up feeling so suffocated by their own sadness. It is a heartbreaking, but an undoubtedly important film. Hopefully films like this can help shed light on how destructive bigotry and intolerance can be for those on the receiving end of it, and conversely, how far a little bit of kindness can go. A hard film to stomach at times, but Fassbinder’s immaculate eye for cinematic moments and lyricism help the medicine go down, so to speak.