In a Year With 13 Moon
In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden
1978 — 124 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.78:1 — Comedy/Drama
Essential Fassbinder. His most intensely personal film Fassbinder wrote, directed, produced, designed, shot, and edited it about a transgendered woman's search for identity and love.
- Dramatic, Visual & Sound Techniques
- Major Characters
- Analysis of a Scene
- GLBT Connections
In a Year With 13 Moons is one of the most stunning, deeply moving films I've ever seen.
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.
Regarding 'plot spoilers:' although I do not reveal the ending to this film in the summary directly below, in my review which follows I do discuss major plot elements, including the final scenes.
In a Year With 13 Moons covers two pivotal days in the life of Elvira Weishaupt (Volker Spengler, Satan's Brew). Several years before the film's action begins, her earlier male incarnation, Erwin, fell in love with the enigmatic young Holocaust survivor Anton Saitz (Gottfried John, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven), who later became wealthy as a pimp-turned-business-tycoon. When the young Saitz casually remarked, "too bad you're not a girl," Erwin disappeared to Casablanca and returned as Elvira. But even that was not enough to win him, and they haven't seen each other since. The film picks up Elvira's story as she is dumped by her long-time boyfriend Christoph Hacker (Karl Scheydt, The American Soldier), a histrionic actor. Fortunately her friend, the golden-hearted streetwalker Red Zora (Ingrid Caven, Gods of the Plague), 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, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), after revelations Elvira made in a recent interview about the notoriously touchy Saitz who has lethal underworld connections. Elvira begins a roundabout quest ostensibly to find Saitz and "beg his forgiveness," but ultimately this turns into a search for the identity and 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 that 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, Whity). 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.
I have to admit that this is one of the most elusive yet completely involving, on every level films that I've seen, let alone written about. It's the kind of picture to approach at least at first and before perusing any commentaries (such as this one) on a purely intuitive level. Just let it engulf you.
This film works like a dream, developing through incredible images, bizarre connections and associations which feel exactly right, a wild array of characters who seem both intensely real and symbolic, cascades of emotion from sweet tenderness to horrific brutality and everything in between. In this review, I'll look at the film in several different contexts: how it works thematically and stylistically, how it relates to Fassbinder's larger body of work, and even how it connects to the extraordinary tradition of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) art. Rather than flattening the film with too much interpretation (although it's far too resilient for that), I hope that highlighting some of its layers will increase your appreciation and enjoyment.
In a Year With 13 Moons is connected more intimately with Fassbinder's life than perhaps any of his other films. Just before this time, he had reached a new level of international acclaim. His thirty-first film, Despair, had impeccable artistic credentials. It was based on a novel by Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) with a screenplay by acclaimed dramatist Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and starred Dirk Bogarde (who also played the lead in what Fassbinder considered the greatest film ever made, Visconti's The Damned). It also featured Fassbinder's lover Armin Meier in the small roles of two twins and a foreman. Despair's critical and financial success and the fact that it was his first English-language film gave Fassbinder hope of fulfilling his lifelong dream of working in Hollywood ("I'd rather be 'unfree' working in America than imagine I'm free working in Europe"). Then came Meier's suicide. Even worse than the crushed California dream was that the immediate spur of Meier's death was something trivial, and Fassbinder knew he was directly to blame. Tired of Meier's possessiveness and jealousy, Fassbinder had snubbed him by not inviting him to his birthday party. Hours later, he was dead. Fassbinder went into a fit of despair, moving restlessly from place to place, alternately contemplating suicide, abandoning filmmaking, losing himself in the wilds of South America. But little by little, he pulled himself up, through the love of friends and by working through his intense feelings in the writing, then making of In a Year With 13 Moons.
The poetic title reflects the picture's mystical strain, as well as Meier's death. Although Fassbinder did not believe in the occult, or organized religion, he based the title on a conversation he'd had with an astrologer. She told him that those rare years containing thirteen moons made extremely emotional people become prone to catastrophe. On one level, that might have given Fassbinder some solace about Meier; but on a thematic level it brings into play the subtle cosmic imagery which runs throughout the film (as we'll see below). Fassbinder makes no reference to this lunar phenomenon in the dialogue, but he does literally spell it out for us in a lengthy explanation superimposed in vivid lavender letters over the opening scene, which (discreetly) covers much of Elvira picking up a hustler (set to the yearning, haunting strains of the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony, also familiar as the main theme in Visconti's 1971 film of Death in Venice). Here's the essential part of the astrological explanation: "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 thirteen new moons, although not quite so strongly. And if a lunar year also happens to be a year with thirteen new moons, the result is often a personal catastrophe." The year 1978, when Meier died and Fassbinder made this film, was one of thirteen moons.
On a less mystical but still lunar note, the title also brings to mind a work of social criticism, Gerhard Zwerenz's 1973 novel The Earth is Uninhabitable Like the Moon (Die Erde ist unbewohnbar wie der Mond), much on Fassbinder's mind. The title refers, metaphorically but pointedly, to the soulless living conditions in the Federal Republic of Germany; and could even serve as an apt tag line for Fassbinder's feelings about what's really under his country's shiny new postwar surface as we see in this film, as well as the BRD Trilogy. Although Fassbinder didn't live to film this Zwerenz novel, as he'd planned, he was able to use it as inspiration for his most controversial play, Garbage, The City and Death (1976); he even dedicated Veronika Voss to the author. The most obvious Zwerenz connection in this film is, of course, the author himself, who plays the none-too-sympathetic author/journalist who interviewed Elvira, and consequently set in motion Elvira's quest for Saitz.
Fassbinder wrote this picture first as a short story, in the style of a fairy tale, with a great deal of attention to the backstory of young Erwin and Saitz; then he wrote a treatment in preparation for filming. Those versions are published in The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes Rainer Werner Fassbinder; it's fascinating to watch the film's evolution. He wrote the actual screenplay, a page or two at a time, just hours before each day's filming, throughout the six-week shoot.
When longtime collaborator Michael Ballhaus, who had done the acclaimed cinematography for half of Fassbinder's films (and for twenty years has shot all of Scorsese's pictures), said he was "not prepared" to work on the film, Fassbinder was disappointed. But determined to make this film, he decided to shoot it himself (he would be his own director of photography on only one other film, 1979's The Third Generation). He got the small budget (then US $300,000 at a time when a standard Hollywood feature cost over US $10 million) from his friend Peter Märthesheimer, who had produced Despair and five of Fassbinder's most successful television projects, and would later co-write the BRD Trilogy. In what is perhaps the most personal, and autonomous, film ever made, Fassbinder wound up writing, producing, designing, directing and editing as well as shooting this film himself, although he acknowledges several "collaborators" in the credits. Intriguingly, Fassbinder's close friend Juliane Lorenz who edited or co-edited all of his late films and now heads the Fassbinder Foundation says in her interview on this DVD that she believes that by making In a Year With 13 Moons Fassbinder succeeded in working through his immense anguish over Meier's suicide, and that he emerged from it a happy man. He went on to make nine more films, including several of his greatest works, such as the monumental Berlin Alexanderplatz and the BRD Trilogy.
Despite that healing outcome, In a Year With 13 Moons is one of Fassbinder's starkest, yet most strangely beautiful, visions. Although dreamlike in mood, In a Year With 13 Moons begins with a precise day and place noted onscreen: July 24, 1978 in Frankfurt; at the end it's dated August 28, 1978. Fassbinder connects Elvira's story with the actual production, but in fact the plot covers just two days, from dawn on the first day till night on the second. Also, Fassbinder's 'date-stamping' the film has inserted a subtle wedge between the film and viewer. He suggests how personal this work is, even as he's given us some distance from the action which is important in a film so emotionally overwhelming and politically charged.
The more I see this film, the more fascinated I am by its layers within layers... within layers. This film contains, perhaps more than any of his other works, an astonishing labyrinth of ideas – and feelings – which play off of each other in extraordinary ways, even as they reflect as much on Fassbinder's own work and life (you sense that the more we learn about Fassbinder's life the richer, perhaps even stranger, this film will seem) as on shared human experience. What an inspired idea to have an overweight, confused transgendered woman serve as a figure of universal humankind – and to do it in such an artistically and emotionally rich manner. Only Fassbinder could weave such a brilliantly dense tapestry of mythic, literary, theatrical, artistic, musical, and spiritual allusions – not to mention conjure up themes and images from his own earlier films – and make it all seem engrossing and unpretentious. He achieves this because he incorporates everything on a deeply personal and emotional level; he never pops in an allusion just to impress. And the film is so organic, that it feels like it burst out directly from his soul. Yet it's worth emphasizing that you do not need to "foonote" anything to be moved by this picture. But for those of you interested in how this film creates his prodigious effects, I hope that the strands which I've found (I'm sure there are many more waiting to be unraveled) and discuss are of interest.
This is certainly one of Fassbinder's key films. Whether consciously or intuitively, he provides a brilliant compendium, and expansion, not only of themes from his earlier pictures, but also of his distinctive narrative, visual and sound strategies. Of course, you do not need to know Fassbinder's earlier work to be moved, even stunned at times, by what's onscreen. In this film we see him draw on such fascinatingly abstract early works as Katzelmacher, which grew out of his avant-garde theatre work, as well as his brilliantly revisionist 'middle period' melodramas like Martha even as he paved the way for the stylistic extremes of such later films as Lola and Querelle. His narrative form here, with its episodic structure, provides a superb opportunity for Fassbinder to sum up the many different types of earlier works, since each sequence allows for a different stylistic slant.
Fassbinder brings together both the highly-stylized, theatrical (and Brecht-inspired) techniques of his earliest works – as seen in the clearly-articulated, block-like structure of scenes, the recurrent use of extended monologues, and the sometimes ritualisitic performances, such as Sister Gudrun and the Suicide (compare The Niklashausen Journey) – with his unique take on the melodrama, as seen in the basic nature of Elvira's story, the florid emotionalism, the use of suspense as a structural device (will Elvira reach Saitz in time to stop him from wreaking vengeance on her innocent daughter? what will happen next? and next? and... – compare Martha). As in most of his previous films, Fassbinder uses his narrative not only to dramatize his core themes – the dynamics of emotional conflict from self-mutilation to exploitation, and back again – but to distance us from the action. That distance can come from sources as different as extreme stylization (the Suicide's scene) or visceral realism (the slaughterhouse sequence). Yet there is always an element of emotional involvement, since, paradoxically, sometimes forestalling emotion makes it even more powerful. But Fassbinder's goal is always to give us freedom to contemplate what we're seeing, to free us from the illusion which he's creating so that we can see the contradictions of our society – and of ourselves – with eyes wide open. Of course, in this film there is another, more personal goal for him: to work through the unbearable pain of Armin Meier's suicide, to find some kind of understanding, catharsis and peace.
Unique to this film is the sheer range of forms which Fassbinder incorporates, from avant-garde theatre to revisionist melodrama (although you can see a mixture of both those in, say, The Merchant of Four Seasons) to myth and spirituality (below I'll discuss the various parables given to Soul Frieda, the author Hauer, and more), and even fairy tales. In the beginning of the film, when Elvira stumbles home to her apartment and collapses, she sings a children's song in which she compares herself (unflatteringly) to the deformed Rumpelstiltskin. After the devastating visit to Sister Gudrun, Zora tucks Elvira into bed and soothes her with a fairy tale (which may be a Fassbinder original) about "magic powers which drew children into the woods" and how "an old witch casts a spell on a brother and sister, turning him into a mushroom and her a snail." What makes this tale so characteristically Fassbinder is not only the domestic emotional cannibalism – here made literal because the snail/girl is so hungry that she literally eats her mushroom/brother's "right ear" and "left foot" – but because we understand her needs, her desperate hunger; it's also creepy and funny, two of Fassbinder's other aesthetic strong points. There's maybe also an autobiographical element here, reflecting Fassbinder's loving but mixed feelings towards Ingrid Caven (who superbly plays Red Zora): on the night they were married (briefly) he left her to go to bed with his lover, Günther Kaufmann (who here plays the enigmatic "J. Smolik, Chauffeur").
There is also a rich mythic element to the narrative, which is basically a quest – perhaps the most ancient form of story. The search for a mysterious tower or castle (here Saitz's skyscraper) is fundamental not only to fairy tales and legends but to literature, as in Robert Browning's poem "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came," as well as pop fantasies, like Stephen King's Dark Tower saga. Of course, from a psychological point of view, the quest for a phallic locale like a tower suggests a young male child's quest for manhood, a theme which also applies to Elvira as she's grown increasingly uncomfortable with her woman's body (we see her in the first scene and the final sequences dressed as a male). Another connection with fairy tales and myths is that their apparently arbitrary and cruel nature allows a symbolic way for a child to kill off a developmental phase which they've outgrown. We certainly find Elvira in such a transitional phase. Not only does she not fit her clothes any more, she doesn't fit her transgendered body either. That internal dislocation, which also mirrors the almost apocalyptic external dislocation of the world presented in this film, is central.
The works which seem closest to this film are Shakespeare's deeply mysterious final plays, the tragicomedies The Winter's Tale and The Tempest (both written about 1610). Although Fassbinder never directed either work, he doubtless had read and fully imagined them. He also mentioned to an interviewer, not long after making this film, that he had been deeply impressed by a recent production of The Winter's Tale directed by his friend Peter Zadek (to whom he dedicated The Marriage of Maria Braun).
This film especially recalls The Winter's Tale with its extraordinary mixture of tragedy, comedy, fairy tale and extreme formal experimentation; also in its retrospective nature. More than in any other play, Shakespeare used that one work to draw together eclectically his earliest comedies and his magisterial late tragedies, especially Othello with its similar apparatus of jealousy. We have already touched on how Fassbinder used this film – which initially he thought might be his last picture – to draw together many of the themes and techniques from thoughout his career. (Shakespeare's emotional and creative state, at that late point in his brief life, is of course even more opaque than Fassbinder's.) Structurally this film is like The Tempest in that most of the defining action took place in the past, and we see only the events immediately leading up to the climax. While the Aristotelian unities of place and time are intact, the amount of emotional progress is enormous. And although Elvira herself does not come to an end as reconciliatory as that of Shakespeare's diverse characters, the important people in her life – perhaps shocked into a reevaluation of their own blindnesses by her suicide – may. There is a similar feeling of charged serenity at the end of both works. Shakespeare's enigmatic final plays and this film share yet another common quality: for all of their wild mixing of genres and forms, and their resolute use of abstraction, they produce – as if by a magic which would do Prospero or Sister Gudrun proud – an astonishing emotional immediacy.
This film is rivetting. And that can be attributed, even more than to the densely-textured narrative, to the engrossing characters which Fassbinder created and to the uniformly excellent performances which make them immediate. Fassbinder often drew on the same 'family' of actors, who were with him from his early theatre days; some appeared in ten, twenty, even thirty or more of his films, sometimes playing the lead, other times featured parts (after all, there are no small roles, right?). Their commited performances bring even Fassbinder's most abstract characters, like the man staring up at Saitz's office, to life, allowing us to connect with these 'symbols' on a human level.
Fassbinder is also adept at using rhythm to keep the action, and ideas, flowing – in the ways he blocks his cast, moves his camera (or keeps it resolutely still), and edits. You can see how all three forms of movement work throughout the film, from the tense serenity at the beginning (especially clear in the Sister Gudrun sequence) to the taut pacing at the end after Elvira feels betrayed by Saitz and Zora, cuts her hair, and begins a final desperate run for connection. Note how Fassbinder slowly but inexorably builds – like a musician – the rhythm of the final scenes to a fevered pitch, then modulates into an eerie stillness after Elvira's suicide. In the final seconds, he gives a last rhythmic jolt to the film, using a skipping Connie Francis record and a shock cut to black: The End.
Fassbinder is also a master at enhancing, and sometimes purposefully undercutting, his narrative through brilliantly original visuals and sound. This is the only film which Fassbinder photographed himself, and I think that – shot for shot – it contains his most consistently creative and audacious images. Yes, there are many jaw-dropping shots throughout Fassbinder, from his first short film to his last feature and who could ever forget, say, that double 360 degree turn around Martha and her sadistic husband-to-be but having seen In a Year With 13 Moons several times, I must say that every single shot is worth a close look, and there is no visual filler.
As with the eclectic narrative, which summed up the dramatic strategies of his entire career (and then went beyond), we also see a creative recapitulation of his essential images and visual techniques. As in all of his films, there's the shifting balance between realism and stylization, with extremes of both (the documentary technique in the slaughterhouse sequence, the Expressionism of the stairwell scenes in the Saitz Tower and Hauer's apartment building). We also see all of Fassbinder's patented visual motifs: a shallow visual field – with action staged in a narrow plane, often in medium shot; angles which exclude the sky – except to show it cut off by towering structures; tense compositions – characters wedged into odd corners, a purposeful lack of balance; closed frames – with no sense of a world beyond what we see (the opposite of, say, Robert Altman); shadow effects which mimic prison bars; objects (doors, hallways, windows) which create further frames within frames – sometimes many levels deep (as in the Saitz building); and the most Fassbinderian element of all, mirrors – which allow him to distort and fragment people, sometimes creating a vertiginous infinite regression.
An ideal example of the power Fassbinder can wrest from a mirror shot – even as he reflects (pun intended) his deepest themes of identity, power, and alienation – comes in the early scene when Christoph leaves Elvira. (On a personal level, Fassbinder must have noticed the resemblance between Karl Scheydt, who plays Christoph, and Armin Meier - which would make the abandonment even more poignant for him.) Fed up with Elvira's whining and weight problems, Christoph violently shoves her in front of a mirror and demands that she look at herself. In a foreshadowing of the emotional and spiritual journey which awaits her, she does everything she can to keep her eyes closed tight as long as she can. But then she has to look.
This film also features perhaps Fassbinder's most complexly-layered soundtrack (although any film in the BRD Trilogy might also claim that honor). There is an astonishing mix, often overlapping, of dialogue, ambient sounds, conversations, and a commentative use of music (extremely eclectic, ranging from Beethoven to Connie Francis to Roxie Music). And all of those sound elements are used in evocative counterpoint to both the action and the images.
To take just one example, look – and as importantly listen – to the scene in which Zora, after lulling Elvira to sleep with the mushroom/snail fairy tale, starts playing with the VCR and flipping TV channels. We hear – and sometimes see on the TV, far in the background – a fragmented collage which ranges from the intimate (home movies of Elvira and Christoph) to the kitschy (a soap opera) to the suggestively political (the dictator Pinochet being hailed, by the obviously state-run TV, as Chile's great "liberator") to the autobiographical (Fassbinder being interviewed about his troubled childhood). Later, in the film's final minutes, I'll never forget Elvira’s brutally honest tape-recorded interview played under the climax and coda, as all of the important people in her life – some show up as if by magic, or fate, or divine intervention – come together around her lifeless body. Overwhelming.
With all of its virtuosic accomplishments, In a Year With 13 Moons is foremost a direct outpouring of Fassbinder's heart and mind. It focuses passionately on one unforgettable character.
Before looking closely at Erwin/Elvira, it needs to be acknowledged that In a Year With 13 Moons is disturbing to many people, not least to some who are transsexual. Fassbinder never intended this to be the final world on trans experience. For many years after its release in 1978, it remained for better or worse the major onscreen treatment of a transgendered person. And although its biting worldview was certainly not limited to Erwin/Elvira, the dismay which his/her depiction caused some people is understandable. But this film brought not only recognition to transsexuality, it also paved the way for later works with more diverse, and affirmative, views of life, both trans and otherwise. We have Hedwig and The Angry Inch (stage 1998; film 2001) from composer/lyricist Stephen Trask and author/star John Cameron Mitchell (who also directed the film): that hugely popular work owes a clear debt, in content and style, to Fassbinder. And recently there's Doug Wright's Pulitizer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, I Am My Own Wife (2003), in which one actor plays many roles to tell the real-life story of a German transvestite who survived both the Nazis and Communists. Notably, both of those shows, like this film, concern Germans. To name just two outstanding films about trans experience, there is Neil Jordan's The Crying Game (1992) and François Ozon's Water Drops On Burning Rocks (2000), which he adapted from an unproduced play by the teenage Fassbinder, with a liberal dash of this film thrown into the mix. But even more than In a Year With 13 Moons' distinguished, and ongoing, legacy, it should be acknowledged that Fassbinder, for the first time, placed a transgendered character who was depicted with tremendous complexity and compassion at the heart of a film. And then, in his boldest move of all, he used her as a flesh-and-blood symbol of our common humanity.
Erwin/Elvira was brought fully to life by the astonishing performance of Volker Spengler, in his first starring role. He had played some intriguing, and bizarre, earlier characters for Fassbinder including the tormented wannabe philosopher Gabriel in Chinese Roulette and the deranged Ernst who tries to copulate with houseflies (!) in the farcical Satan's Brew but nothing prepares us for his breathtaking work here. Spengler reportedly lived this role fully, although not surgically, and even spent most of his offscreen time with Fassbinder. The director's typical hands-off approach, allowing actors maximum freedom (so long as they remained true to his vision), clearly brought out the best in Spengler. The actor also relished the spontaneity which came with getting final script pages hours, or minutes, before filming. Incredibly, most of the shots were done in just one take.
Although most of Fassbinder's films focus on one central character, perhaps no other creates such a tight, and multi-layered, bond between protagonist, story and form.
Erwin/Elvira is this film. The focus of every scene, she brings to life Fassbinder's complex vision, emotionally and thematically. Although some viewers may, at first, be put off by her appearance there's no mistaking the Erwin behind the plump Elvira Fassbinder lets us connect with her through her vulnerability. Whatever our feelings about her trying to buy sex from a hustler, in the opening scene, she gets our sympathy when the guy and his cronies beat her, horrified that "he's a she." In the next scene, back at her apartment, almost her first words are a statement of who she is: "The only thing I did wrong was to yearn for someone to caress me, kiss me." So from the first minutes, Fassbinder shows us how Elvira is part of our common humanity through her vulnerability and need for connection: who has not wanted love? A profoundly weird yet beautiful emblem for this need comes in the dream, or allegory, which, a few scenes later, Soul Frieda tells Elvira and Zora about what at first seems be a graveyard of children with dates on headstones showing that some had been alive for just a few hours. But then he reveals, tenderly yet chillingly, that those are actually "the times when the person had a friend."
Visually, although Fassbinder throughout his body of work typically eschews close-ups (as a way of giving us distance from his characters), he includes many of Elvira. He wants us to feel close to her. And we do.
Fassbinder also makes us aware that Elvira is closer to her name of Weishaupt (literally, "smart head") than the string of self-deprecating comments she makes about her intelligence. She says, in several scenes throughout the film, that in her head there are "rags" or "clogged pipes" or "sawdust between my ears" instead of brains. But we know Elvira better than she knows herself; and hence our 'superior' understanding also helps us feel sympathy. We can also relate to Elvira as a person who just doesn't fit: Saitz kids her for becoming fat and she is squeezed into her dresses which she attributes in a not-compelling defense to her "drinking too much." She also never connects as deeply with anyone in the film as she would like. So our hearts go out to this lovable misfit as they do to, say, one of Fellini's long-suffering child-women, like the title character in Nights of Cabiria (1957). And it's no coincidence that Fassbinder plays Nino Rota's bouncy yet heartbreaking theme from that film as Elvira runs after Christoph's car, and later uses it a half-dozen other times to underscore her scenes (you can also hear it playing under the main menu on the DVD).
UPDATE (March 3, 2009): Thanks to Ed F. of Duke University for writing that "The Nino Rota music played during certain Elvira scenes from In a Year With 13 Moons comes not from Nights of Cabiria (1957), but rather the later film Amarcord (1973). The music from the two is quite similar, but I think if you'll listen to the Amarcord music, you'll agree. I think great thematic parallels can be drawn from all three of these wonderful films."
Further tugging at our heartstrings, we later learn about the many ways in which Erwin/Elvira was betrayed and abandoned, beginning with his/her mother Anita Weishaupt who gave birth to the illegitimate Erwin during the war but then dumped him in an orphanage to hide the guilty secret from her husband (whom she believed to be dead) to the Webers, who all-too-readily gave up trying to adopt the little boy to his childhood friend Anton Saitz, both then and now. At the end Elvira is betrayed by both Saitz (again) and his best friend, Red Zora, as well as by his wife and daughter (who don't want him back, even as Erwin), and even by the writer to whom he unburdened his soul (in a cold-comfort confession) for the interview yet who now brushes her off despite her obvious need to talk, to connect. Yet, with increasing poigancy, throughout the film we see what the insecure Elvira herself cannot: that she is cared about, respected and even loved by many people themselves broken, albeit in different way. They are the very ones who can never give her as much as she wants: Red Zora, Sister Gudrun, Irene, Marie-Ann, and even Saitz. As you can see, Fassbinder's view is bleak but compassionate too, leavened with tongue-in-cheek humor. With a jab at himself, Fassbinder writes, in his treatment for the film, that Elvira Weishaupt is "a person burdened with excessively great existential anxiety" a charge which some viewers, but not I, would level at this entire film.
Focusing on the extraordinarily ordinary yet "different" character of Elvira gives the film much of its directness and even beauty, and helps make it so involving. Yet Fassbinder never sets Elvira up as some sweet martyr. He depicts her in such an edgy, sometimes downright unflattering way she whines, she blubbers, she shrieks that the schmaltz factor of this picture is very low. And to say that Spengler gives one of the bravest, most multi-layered performances in any Fassbinder films is, well, an understatement.
Fassbinder also makes Elvira a denser in the aesthetically positive sense character, as we would suspect knowing about his encyclopedic knowledge of all of the arts. Elvira's name conjures up the most famous Elvira, who was well known to Fassbinder the opera fan, as the comically vengeful jilted lover (one of many hundreds) of the title character in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni (1787), whose insatiable rakishness is a bit comparable to Saitz's insatiable racketeering. The name also recalls Bo Widerberg's popular Elvira Madigan (1967), whose title character is a much more conventional, though no less doomed, romantic heroine. As we will see later, Fassbinder's film connects through a vast web of references to both mainstream and GLBT arts traditions (of course, the two are often synonymous) in music, theatre, literature, painting and film.
Allusions aside, Elvira gives the film both its narrative momentum, through her (structurally organizing) quest for love and identity, as well as its periodic moments of strange serenity. Most importantly, her contradictions are also the film's. She not only illustrates but incorporates, and feels profoundly, its themes (like those of so many other Fassbinder films) of alienation from both oneself and a bleak postwar society, of the desperate search for identity and love, the dangers of emotional dependency, of exploitation and how victims are sometimes complicit in their own victimization (themes which I'll look at more closely below). Yet there is also an energy, strength and unique beauty in Elvira. All of those factors, together, ultimately seal her fate which is both pathetic and tragic.
One of Elvira's most important dramatic functions is to reflect everyone she knows and their roles: male, female, husband, 'wife' (to Christoph), father, 'son' to Gudrun, friend, 'subject' to Hauer. In doing so she provides an ever-shifting, and unwitting, context for them to define themselves, although ironically she was never able to create an identity all her own. Despite the endless frustration of her inability to connect with other people, or them with her, it is not an indictment of an intrinsically 'evil' human nature. Rather she points up that they are as mired in themselves as she is in herself: not bad but self- and culturally-blinded. Like the prisoners chained to the wall in Plato's Allegory of the Cave (in The Republic), everyone here is mistaking shadows for reality. Although I'll discuss this theme more fully below, let me mention that, at the end, we see that Elvira's suicide has actually helped galvanize the people around her (as Meier's jolted Fassbinder), and there's a suggestion that it could just possibly lead to some of them becoming more of what they want to be.
Elvira is the embodiment of their and our common humanity. She is us at our most confused, lost, vulnerable, needy; and that allows Fassbinder to show both his deep compassion for her plight and to use her, critically, as an object lesson in the dangers of remaining in that state. Yet by the end she has moved from a figure of pathos to one of tragic stature; and one of the most memorable characters in all of Fassbinder. She embodies the tragedy of what befalls one who does not know themself and that, of course, is the defining essence of all tragic art, from the ancient Greeks to Shakespeare and Goethe to today. But that failure of self-understanding is, paradoxically, also the essence of comedy. Fassbinder's vision is expansive enough here to encompass the full tragicomic nature of Elvira's life and its broader implications. He shows us the vast, interconnected range of what is necessary for full understanding, drawing a vector from the personal to the sociopolitical and back again.
Fassbinder's respect for Elvira in spite of the many self-deprecating barbs she directs at herself suggests that he believed she had the potential, both emotional and intellectual, to understand herself, to integrate herself into wholeness: that's the pathos of her character. Her tragedy is that she did not. Her emotional dependency on Saitz, then Christoph, even on Sister Gudrun, Zora, Irene and Marie-Ann, and near-strangers like the people she meets on her journey kept her from finding her true self, doomed her. Part of Fassbinder's greatness comes from his having shown us the many dimensions which led to that failure, including the psychological, historical, and socio-economic, rather than treating Elvira solely as some philosophical mouthpiece or symbol. The fullness of Fassbinder's understanding of her is why this film, so filled to bursting with pain, ultimately is not depressing but deeply moving, even exhilarating, as a work of cinematic and humanist art.
From a narrative perspective, focusing on Elvira and her quest also allows Fassbinder opportunities to introduce a wide variety of unforgettable characters through her. As in those first films from his avant-garde theatrical period, like Katzelmacher and The Niklashausen Journey, Fassbinder gives each of these half-dozen or so people their own defining, and often unforgettable, monologue. All of the characters in the film are, of course, important. But two seem pivotal: the diametrically opposed, yet complementary, Sister Gudrun and Anton Saitz. By understanding how they stand in relation to Elvira, as well as each other, we'll see Fassbinder's larger thematic plan for the entire film.
Although onscreen for just a few minutes, Sister Gudrun the goddess-like nun who believes that "There is no God" emerges as one of the most complex characters in any Fassbinder film. Her significance extends beyond her formative role in Erwin/Elvira's life to dimensions which are mythic, literary, historical and very personal, since she is played by Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder's own mother. All of those aspects make her the defining, yet ambiguous, spiritual force in the film.
The name Gudrun conjures up both Teutonic mythology and a major character from novelist D.H. Lawrence. Of special significance to Fassbinder, as both opera fan and German, is that Gudrun (Gutrune) appears in the final part of the defining Teutonic music drama, Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen tetralogy (at sixteen hours, roughly the same length as Fassbinder's Berlin Alexanderplatz). The Ring has both aesthetic and historical implication; it is not only an artistic peak in Western music but an infamously beloved work of Hitler. Gudrun/Gutrune has three principal associations: as a figure of treachery she stole her husband, super-hero Sigurd (Siegfried), from his intended bride by magical means; vengeance she seeks bloody retribution after the murder of her husband; and ultimately suffering, as a wife, sister, mother, and, on a cosmic scale, as the person who indirectly caused the flaming destruction of the world in the apocalyptic Götterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods). Fassbinder might also have been thinking of Gudrun's best-known cinematic incarnation: she is the same mythological character, sometimes known in German myth (the Nibelungenlied) as Kriemhild, who appears in the great Fritz Lang's opulent, but not-so-great, Kriemhild's Revenge, which followed his awe-inspiring heroic fantasy, Siegfried's Death (both films 1924). Fassbinder also likely relished turning a 'pagan' temptress/vigilante into an atheist nun; but that split fits well with the countless purposefully-contradictory elements in this film. And we can see the connections between the mythic and operatic Gudrun and Fassbinder's nun, who "treacherously" (at least from Erwin/Elvira's point of view) does so little to help him rejoin with his mother, or even be adopted the Webers. In a way, Sister Gudrun's laissez-faire attitude, even though it follows the hypocrisies of both civil and church policies, is responsible for Erwin's rootlessness: she could have done more for this boy whom she professed to care about, but did not. I can't find any 'Gutrune revenge element' in the nun, but in a moment we'll look at Gudrun's cosmic implications.
The other famous Gudrun appears in D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love (1920), in which the character is an avatar of artistic and sexual freedom. Fassbinder may or may not have read the book, but he must have seen Ken Russell's exceptional 1969 film version (written and produced by Larry Kramer, who achieved even greater renown as a novelist, playwright, and the founder of both GMHC and ACT-UP). In Martha, Fassbinder includes an ironic inverse of the classic scene of Glenda Jackson (Gudrun) and the cattle: while she excites the bulls to a sexual frenzy with her 'life force,' poor hysterical Martha can't even get them to stop chewing their cud. Sister Gudrun shares the freedom of thought of Lawrence's Gudrun (who is both artist and school teacher). But by making her a nun, Fassbinder laces her with an ironic edge.
Also significant is that Fassbinder cast his own mother, with whom he had a loving but extremely complicated relationship, in this pivotal role. Lilo Pempeit (who appeared in two-thirds of her son's films, using a few different stage names) was a remarkable woman. Although like other young Germans, she was a staunch support of the Führer during the war, afterwards she came to see him and it for what they. She was also gifted with languages, and was the first German translator of Truman Capote, among others. Yet her personal life was stormy, and after divorcing Rainer Werner's physician father when the boy was very young, she often found it necessary to park him in the cinema, for double or even triple features, while she worked at home to keep food on their table and books on their shelves. Although Fassbinder had her play an enormous range of roles in his films, from the most abject to the most spiritual (as here), there is always a palpable resonance in her performances.
Viewers who see a nun and expect the non-religious Fassbinder to take an easy satirical jab at Catholicism (although many of Fassbinder's closest friends were Catholic) are in for a surprise. From Sister Gudrun's first moments we are struck by her dignity, serenity and, in all senses of the word, grace, even though we see her, seated in a garden, enclosed by a heavy prison-bar-like fence, with Frankfurt's skyscrapers looming overhead. Zora had brought Elvira to Sister Gudrun, hoping her distraught friend could find some peace of mind by reconnecting with his childhood, which he spent in this orphanage under her care. But Zora and Elvira are also in for a surprise. Sister Gudrun begins by telling Elvira that society not individuals are responsible for "ruining lives." She then, in one of the film's most spellbinding monologues, tells the truth of Erwin's troubled childhood. He was born out of wedlock to Anita Weishaupt, who thought her husband was killed in the war. When he returns (shades of The Marriage of Maria Braun), she is too ashamed of Erwin whom she refers to as if he were an object to tell her husband and ruin their happy home life, which now includes numerous children. So Erwin has no mother or father; and because of Anita's cowardice, he can't be adopted: his father would have to sign papers giving him up for adoption, but Anita never wants him to know of her 'indiscretion.' Of course, that also reflects poorly on Sister Gudrun, who did nothing to try to persuade Anita to take back her son, even as she did nothing to help the Webers, who liked Erwin, go through the process of adopting the boy anyway. Doubly, even triply, abandoned, little Erwin shriveled up inside himself. Yet Sister Gudrun now seems to realize that she has led to Elvira's unhappiness by having gone along with the dictated adoption policies of the church and state. Of course, we all know what was happening to the German people, at the time of Erwin's birth, when they went along the state's dictated policies.
Fassbinder extends the richness of what could have been a simple, and even tediously protracted, expository scene in lesser hands. He brilliantly accompanies Sister Gudrun's monologue with Beethoven's late string quartet masterpiece, the Grosse Fuge ("Great Fugue"), Opus 133. It provides the perfect, if unexpected, musical counterpoint to the emotions underlying her words. It's also remarkable in that although it sounds 'rough' it actually employs a profoundly high form of structure and harmony. This leads us to the cosmological significance of both Sister Gudrun and other fundamental elements in this film of so many, many layers. Like some heavenly creature, Sister Gudrun walks serenely around the entire periphery of the orphanage's garden, as if she were the moon circling the earth (here the garden), or even the earth circling the sun (again the garden). On a personal level for Fassbinder, this particular combination of dialogue, action and tracking shot recalls his awkward, and unsuccessful, initial attempt at the effect in The Niklashausen Journey, as well as his immensely successful later uses of it in Beware of a Holy Whore (the director and cameraman discuss the next day's shooting in a moment which captures the bliss of artistic creation) and Martha (she and the handsome librarian Kaiser walk around the periphery of the library), to name just two.
Upon re-re-seeing this scene, I realized that it points to the rich motif of cosmological imagery throughout the entire film: again, recall the astrological significance of the film's lunar title. You'll see 'planet symbols' all over the film: white moon-like lights hang over Elvira's bed; gold and red orbs dangle from the ceilings of various rooms; big round Chinese lanterns in Irene and Marie-Ann's garden (although in the final shots of that scene, after they have rejected Erwin, Fassbinder composes his frames to exclude those planet-like decorations). Also, Soul Frieda's apartment is lit, in a subtly spectacular effect, with hundreds of candles as if they were stars in the firmament (inspired in lighting, color, composition and mood by Caravaggio's paintings, and the candles recall Death's castle in Fritz Lang's 1921 Destiny). Perhaps the funkiest astronomical symbol is Elvira's disco ball which casts swirling patterns of light all over her apartment hey! did that one look like the Milky Way? But Sister Gudrun feels like the center of the film's cosmological bent. Also, she brings to mind in her combination of humanity and spirit the divine women (such as The Eternal Feminine) of the final scene of Goethe's Faust, Part II, which was set to shatteringly beautiful music by Mahler in his choral Eighth Symphony, which Fassbinder said he loved more than any other piece of music (he used it in some of his films, including, to ironic effect, in Chinese Roulette). Yet as we know, Fassbinder would never lard a film with symbols just for the sake of giving viewers 'Easter eggs' to hunt. This astral imagery, albeit in a strangely playful way, indicates some of the core themes of this film, as well as most of Fassbinder's others (although only here does he set them in an astrological context): ideas about chance/randomness, free will, the nature of cause and effect, transcendence, and spirituality although elsewhere he casts those concepts, or more precisely implied questions, in purely humanistic (or materialistic) terms of personal responsibility.
Since ultimately this is Elvira's film, despite the space it allows so many other characters to express themselves through quirkily individual monologues, let's look at what Sister Gudrun suggests about our protagonist (beond the important expository information). Once I picked up on the pervasive spiritual level of this film, I saw more clearly how Elvira is presented, at times, as a Christ-like figure. For instance, she is able to connect with the Suicide, and even gives him as Jesus did his disciples at the Last Supper bread and wine... before he hangs himself anyway. In a way, the entire film feels like the spiritual suffering, the Passion, of Elvira. Although the timeframe of this film is roughly comparable to that of Jesus's Passion, I don't see Fassbinder making any hard-and-fast parallels. Still, there is a biblical quality to the series of almost ritualistic humiliations she undergoes, even as many of the people's monologues she hears are cast in that most Christian of narrative forms, the parable (Soul Frieda's graveyard of friendship, Zora's mushroom and snail children, Hauer's hypocritical Swabian). And there are suggestions of Elvira making a Christ-like sacrifice at the end (as discussed above) so that her loved ones can perhaps be 'born again' into a new level of self-understanding. In any event, as Fassbinder knew deeply from Meier's so-recent death, sometimes it takes a suicide to wake people up.
There are still other evocative connections between Elvira and Sister Gudrun. Ultimately, both of these spiritual women are made more human, more approachable, by their flaws in judgment and resolve. In fact, one of the qualities I respond to most deeply in this film with all its over-the-top scenes of Elvira flying off the hood of Christoph's car and slaughterhouses and suicides is the underlying yet distinct tone of forgivenes, of acceptance, of serenity, of Elvira and the other characters making peace, on many levels. Fassbinder provides an intriguing cap to the film by bringing back Sister Gudrun. In the final scene, after Elvira's suicide, Sister Gudrun enters last. Her presence is mysterious, since no one called her as if she knew telepathically, spiritually. She hovers about like a ghost or angel, passing unnoticed by almost all of the characters gathered around Elvira's corpse, even as she lightly touches them, giving the benediction not of a divinity but of a deeply spiritual yet humanly flawed woman, whose character suggests the progression from pagan (Gudrun) to Christian (she's a Sister) to post-sectarian spiritual society.
On a deep, maybe even intuitive, personal level, Fassbinder's casting his mother in this remarkable role may have been a way for him to reconnect with her, perhaps even forgive her for his own quasi-abandonment as a child even as he came to a measure of peace over Meier's suicide.
But Fassbinder could never leave us with a schmaltzy ending, so as soon as Sister Gudrun exits down the narrow, winding stairwell (another recurrent, and sinister, motif in this film), he blasts on the soundtrack Connie Francis singing, in German, the hyper-ironic "Schöner fremder Mann" ("handsome stranger man"). Not only does the lyric reflect the theme of desire ("handsome") and dislocation ("stranger") and gender ("man"), it also reminds us as Fassbinder was to do with stunningly witty effect throughout the soundtrack of Veronika Voss of just who won the war. Connie may be singing in the tongue of the Fatherland, but she's as American as apple pie. And in the final, brilliant thematic twist, Fassbinder has the record stick on one word which sums up the deepest theme of the film playing over and over and over Wirklichkeit 'reality.' You can almost hear Fassbinder saying, Forget the astrological title, the fault lies not in the stars, or moon, but in ourselves which is exactly what he had Sister Gudrun tell us at the beginning of Elvira's quest.
Gudrun is spiritual, yet Fassbinder always photographs her on a horizontal plane 'earth-bound,' if you will. By contrast Anton Saitz, who represents the brazenly conflicted social order, is vertical, from his skyscraping office tower (which in this film about 'castration' looks mockingly phallic) to the tall, lean actor, Gottfriend John, who plays him to the hilt. Saitz and Sister Gudrun are also connected structurally. Like a pair of thematic goal posts, Sister Gudrun appears one-quarter into the film, but we have to wait until the three-quarter point for Elvira finally to reach the man who so incisively changed her life. But Saitz is so brilliantly enigmatic that the payoff is golden. Talk about a memorable entrance: we first see him wearing tight white tennis shorts and recreating a Jerry Lewis musical comedy number with his merry henchman!
On one level, Fassbinder's choice of Frankfurt as the setting is as much a reflection of Saitz's, and hence capitalism's, contradictory nature as a mere locale. In reality, Frankfurt may be Germany's transportation hub, a world financial center, and Goethe's birthplace not to mention a sparkling new city built on the rubble of the one the Allies obliterated but you'd never guess that from Fassbinder's vision. Knowing Frankfurt first-hand, from when he resided there in 1974-75 as director of the Theater am Turm (where he first met Volker Spengler), Fassbinder decided to make the city appear here both symbolic yet grittily real. It's a Waste Land, of cruel memories and desires, dominated by very real bars, video arcades, orphanages, slaughterhouses, and everywhere skyscrapers, which ultimately reveal themselves as shiny empty shells (and behind which are alleys littered with rubbish and bullet-riddled bodies). As Fassbinder once remarked, "Frankfurt is not a city of amicable mediocrity in which opposites are balanced out; it is not peaceful, fashionable or nice; Frankfurt is a city in which you are constantly confronted on every street corner with general social contradictions, at least with those that are concealed relatively successfully everywhere else until you actually fall over them."
Fassbinder has Elvira reveal Saitz's name as a cryptic acronym (years earlier, Fassbinder did something similar for his alter ego Franz Walsch): S is for Saltz (salt), A is for Auschwitz (the Nazi concentration camp), I is for Ich ("I"), but here the subtitles become misleading: the T actually stands for Tod (death) NOT "T for Time", and Z for Zeit (time) NOT "Z for Zora"! Those certainly provide a provocative web of references for Saitz. Perhaps as suggestive are the name's intriguing linguistic connotations. Saitz brings to mind three German words. Saite (literally string or a musical chord) and Seite (a side of something or a book page) suggest both an incomplete-in-itself nature (one chord, one side, one page) and his being part of something constructed. His name is also a verbal echo of Zeit (time or an historical era); and for Fassbinder, Saitz certainly embodies the greedy, empty and all too fallibly human postwar zeitgeist.
Saitz's spellbinding life story is told in bits and pieces throughout the film. We learn most of it through Elvira (primarily in her monologue to Zora in the slaughterhouse scene) and two of the people Elvira meets on her quest: Saitz's obsessed former employee with kidney cancer who stares up at his office all day (who seems to have stepped out of a Franz Kafka tale), and Saitz's chauffeur/henchman J. Smolik (played by one of Fassbinder's most iconic actors, and most volatile lovers, Günther Kaufmann).
Saitz's wildly contradictory life, with its unmistakable parallels to Fassbinder's view of postwar Germany, helps move the film's thematic reach into historical and socio-economic realms. It's also a great yarn, and sometimes wickedly funny. Much to his credit, young Saitz survived the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. But he let his dream of moving to the U.S. stop in Frankfurt, where he became involved in the shadier side of the meat-packing trade which is where he met young Erwin. Ironically, Saitz "hated the smell of dead meat," and so took up a life of pimping. In a key passage in his treatment for the film, after Erwin confesses his love, Saitz nervously brushes him off: "Erwin said again that he loved [Anton Saitz], and Anton said again that if Erwin were a girl, then... [ellipsis in original text] and quickly changed the subject, explaining to Erwin that in his brothel he had introduced approximately the same structure of command and obedience, duty and fear that he had once experienced in the concentration camp, and how well the whole thing worked. At that Anton clapped his hands, happy as a little child, and was apparently very contented." Later Saitz progressed to evicting poor tenants from their homes and racketeering, which naturally (Fassbinder implies) paved the way for a lucrative career in big business.
So what about that over-the-top ersatz Jerry Lewis musical number? Let's look at it in context.
In one of the film's richest ironies, when Elvira (wearing her finest Maria-Braun-dressed-for-success outfit) 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. J. Smolik, with a wry grin, points to "the skinny guy in tennis clothes" bouncing a tennnis ball (planetary symbolism alert!: Saitz has 'the whole world in his hands').
Even before Saitz speaks, we immediately notice that the office of this powerful broker (we know his public profession from the big gold plaque on the outside of his massive office tower) is barren. Just a couple of pieces of furniture. This is only slightly less of a surprise, because we have just followed Elvira through several other areas of the Saitz Tower, all of them empty. Doors within doors within doors, each open to show an ever-receding line of bare offices: so much for the German "Economic Miracle" in the late '70s. At least as significant is the eerie, sometimes terrifying, darkness which Elvira also finds in this real-yet-mythic tower. When Elvira hears Saitz and his entourage passing on the winding stairwell she hides, but can still see the Expressionist shadows they cast on the walls: a direct quotation from Murnau's Nosferatu, in the climactic scene where the vampire goes up the stairs to the heroine's room.
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.
Playing off the "excessively great existential anxiety" (to again quote Fassbinder's wryly self-mocking line from the treatment), which runs throughout the film (and is magnified by the Suicide's scene), is the Jerry Lewis number, the yin to the Expressionist scenes' yang. As Juliane Lorenz tells us in her commentary on this film, Fassbinder was a big Jerry Lewis fan; in fact when he bought one of those then-new VCRs in the late '70s, one of the first movies he taped as we can see here (the egregious scan lines are a technical defect, but they're reminiscent of the 'prison bar motif' which runs throughout this and most other Fassbinder films) was the one we see here. It's the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin vehicle You're Never Too Young (1955), Norman Taurog's remake of Billy Wilder's The Major and the Minor (1942). Besides the wonderfully wacky tonal contrast with the rest of this film, note the scene which Fassbinder not only quotes but recreates with his own (fearless) cast. The key line of this Arthur Schwartz/Sammy Cahn ditty is "face the music." Despite the shenanigans of Lewis and Martin, and the dozens of young women prancing about in tennis short, that phrase reminds us that the entire film is about confronting reality, 'facing the music,' and not being led astray by deceptive surfaces. (Recall that the film opens, in violent fashion, when the hustler and his pals beat Elvira not because she's looking for sex but because, when undressed, she's not the john she pretended to be.) Beneath the hilarity, this is also another opportunity for big boss Saitz to get his underlings to do his bidding; and there is certainly a bit of a sado-masochistism in this mini-show-stopper. The 'choreography,' improvised in minutes on the set while Fassbinder had his cast watch the videotape, is also reminiscent of the theatre games sometimes used in acting classes; in fact, it's reported that as a student Fassbinder was keenly interested in the sado-masochistic dimension of such teaching aids. So even while the hijinks help balance the many desperate, painful moments of the film, things aren't always as snappy as they seem.
Saitz's presence reminds us that he both gave Elvira her first taste of (albeit unconsummated) love and inspired her gender- and life-altering change. Yet there are several levels even to that act. As we learned in the dialogue, repeated for emphasis a couple of times in the Soul Frieda scene, Erwin "wasn't even gay." As Fassbinder spells it out in his treatment, "Elvira wasn't homosexual in the usual sense. Even her love for Anton had never reached a stage where Elvira really pictured physical union wih Anton." So, ironically, Elvira "sacrificed" her manhood for no good reason: Saitz's off-hand response, when Erwin professed his love, that "maybe if you were a girl" was just a casual, thoughtless remark with profound consequences.
From another point of the view, which the film also presents, Saitz is not evil; rather he's the embodiment of crass post-industrial material success. Fassbinder brilliantly cast the likeable Gottfried John in the role, whose edgy sweetness brings out all sides of the character, from the unscrupulous to the playful (as he did with the scheming reporter in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven). We see that basically Saitz is a guy who did the best he could to survive the Nazis (he still uses "Bergen-Belsen" as the ultimate password which will admit anyone to his reclusive inner sanctum: Elvira basically guesses it) and has done some unsavory, unethical things to make a lot of money. But the film never presents him as a monster. And the only thing that gets him really mad is when somebody misspells his name as "Seitz" instead of "Saitz" (although, paradoxically, in the treatment Fassbinder did spell it "Seitz"). After finally remembering who Erwin was, now twenty years before, Saitz breaks out in a grin, recalling that Erwin "made good coffee like my grandmother." He gathers up his henchman and gets Elvira to lead them back to her place so that she can make everybody some of her famed brew (and, implicitly, fulfill her 'feminine duty' to serve her man). Of course when Saitz fatefully meets Zora, at Elvira's apartment, the pathetic/tragic final movement of this unsung-opera begins.
So what in Saitz attracted Erwin so profoundly? Maybe Erwin intuited that, on one level, they are both people of enormous contradictions which complement each other. Erwin/Elvira's deep emotions and Saitz's instinct to survive and succeed. If they could unite into one, maybe they could be a whole. (Shades of Plato's Symposium with the allegory of the ancient people who contained both sexes in a single spherical body which, by the way, was turned into a catchy song in Hedwig and The Angry Inch!)
Looking at Saitz in relation to Sister Gudrun as noted above they exactly balance the structure: she appears one-quarter in from the start, he appears one-quarter in from the end we see that they are richly complementary figures who reveal the narrative strategy of the entire film. This is a structure based not on simple opposites but on seeming opposites who actually contain many layers of contradictory (paradoxical) meaning. In other words, there are no clear-cut heroes (or saints) and villains in this film. In fact, the only villain is society as a reflection of people's broken natures; and for every pair of victim and victimizer we realize that the roles are not only much more complex than a simple melodrama would allow, but disturbingly fluid. Fassbinder made that theme shatteringly clear in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; but even in this film recall the moment when Elvira in the video arcade points to the handsome hustler who beat her up. Zora says she knows the guy and adds, "I still like him." We also realize that this young man, who from his speech we can tell is not a native German, is a "guest worker" (or even illegal alien) trying to earn a living, just as Fassbinder's own "guest worker" character did in Katzelmacher (where he found himself beaten up by the "real Germans," not because of his sexual orientation but because he was a "foreigner"). Victims/victimizers/victims/victimizers, round and round in dizzyingly vicious circles. Perhaps but only perhaps the 'sacrifice' of Elvira will let people see the cycle for what it is and free themselves.
This extraordinary film, with all of its purposeful contradictions and mixed emotional resonances, approaches the texture of real life. Considering how in-your-face symbolic, and political, this film can also be, that 'higher realism' is an even more astonishing achievement. We can see that strategy, raised to the peak of Fassbinder's and cinema's art in the unforgettable slaughterhouse scene, as he masterfully interweaves image, rhythm, sound, tension, and the radical exchange of many kinds of information. All directed by Fassbinder who, that day on the set, actually wore a white suit, even as he was surrounded by pools of blood. That stark, yet strangely complementary, split between (literally) visceral subject and (literally) luminous filmmaker also informs every aspect of the finished scene.
The scene reflects the complexity within all of Fassbinder, between outward horror and inner, aesthetic beauty. It also reflects what we see implicitly in the final scene of this film, and throughout his other works: Fassbinder is a closet utopian. As he said in his essays and interviews, by exposing the venality of society he hoped people would become aware of its current debased nature and work towards improving it, for themselves and future generations. That visionary goal was certainly a fundamental part of what kept Fassbinder going perhaps even more than the drugs and alcohol which provided so much fodder for the tabloids. Of course, in his films and plays he never gives any ham-fistedly idealistic speeches to any of his characters; and the aesthetic distance which is a hallmark of his work is intended to free us from the manipulations inherent in all fiction, even his own films. He expects, or rather hopes for, us to come to a nuanced understanding of human nature and society ourselves. His work often focuses on the hideous consequences of not exploring, of not exposing and trying to correct, the deep problems which man creates, and which can make our culture as emotionally barren as the moon or as methodically fatal as a slaughterhouse.
Cattle, in an endless line, are cut open, decapitated and skinned. I was so nauseated at first that it took a couple more viewings (I never give up on Fassbinder) before I could begin looking at this scene objectively. Gradually I came to realize that it is emblematic of the entire film in the way it works on many levels. There is sexual/psychological metaphor: slaughter and Elvira's castration; German history: Nazis and methodical killing; social and economic satire: people as cattle, gobbled up by The System; spirituality: 'sacrifice;' the most radical astronomical symbol: carcasses as planets moving in a fixed obit... along a meat processing conveyer belt. There is also maybe a personal note of artistic competition: as Fassbinder out-Buñuels Buñuel or out-Bacons visceral painter Francis Bacon; most pointedly, he has (arguably) topped the power of one of the greatest documentaries, Franju's The Blood of the Beasts (1949). On a poignant level, Fassbinder would have remembered that Armin Meier was a butcher when they met. And of course, each of you will find your own additional levels of meaning and richness in this extraordinary scene and film.
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. The young man had wanted to be a goldsmith but couldn't get an apprenticeship, so went to work for a butcher and met his daughter Irene (his insecurity forces him to add, "She's a lot smarter than me. She became a teacher"). Although "not love... we felt something;" they married and had a child (Marie-Ann is now about 18). In a moment of heartbreaking pathos, we hear Elvira admit, "Irene stuck by me, even after I got back from Casablanca" and her sex change. When we recall this moment later, there's the sharp pang of thinking, if only Elvira could have understood that she was loved even if Irene wasn't able to take him back she could have derived comfort, saved her own life.
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 (which he had also used in his very first short film, "The City Tramp"). In fact, Fassbinder trimmed in half the scene he had originally conceived and shot, so that he could fit it to that particular music.
All of these elements work together to touch me, and to shock me, as deeply as any scene in cinema. Only as a tribute to Fassbinder have I gone back over this profoundly disturbing sequence several times, to explore it from the various perspectives outlined above. But I'm very glad I did. The many overlapping, mutually-enriching layers of meaning I (eventually) found there led to a fuller understanding, and even enjoyment, of the entire film. Art isn't easy, nor should it be.
Of course, while analysis can be enriching, it's worth noting that Fassbinder who had no patience with wind-baggy critics [ouch!] takes some sharp jabs at mystics, philosophers, and authors (who fare rather less well than either the spiritual Sister Gudrun or the "idealistic swine" Anton Saitz). Look at how messed up the 'thinkers' of this film are. Soul Frieda's idea that The Body = The Will sounds more than a bit loony; and his acumen is not necessarily validated when he mentions that he's spent eight years in a mental institution. (Fassbinder's name for this character is Seelenfrieda, which literally means "Soul of Peace" but since he is usually referred to as Soul Frieda, that's the name I use throughout this review.) Then there's the philosopher who demonstrates his argument that 'reality is illusory' replete with references to Solaris, presumably both Lem's novel and Tarkovsky's film by hanging himself: well, what can you say except 'intellectual game over.' And in the final sequence, the author Hauer seems to be as clueless about human compassion as the elderly Nazi in the parable he recites, and whom he hypocritically excoriates for being, yes, hypocritical. Fassbinder used 'vicious circles' of many kinds throughout his films: here they take a literary form. Well, at least Hauer has enough sense to hear Elvira's cry for help while his mysterious girlfriend, Sybille listens to Elvira's taped interview. But clearly this Sybille with her penchant for appearing nude in shots lit like Caravaggio's darkest canvasses is not as insightful or prophetic as her namesake, the sibyl of classical mythology (and Plato's Socrates) whose most famous utterance was, "Know thyself."
Despite his ironic view of intellectuals and bodybuilding mystics Fassbinder knows the vital importance of trying, as best as we can, to know oneself. In a way, Elvria's tragedy is that not only her intellect but her raw intuition has been blocked by so many forces throughout her life, from the cloistered and sectarian Catholic orphange to a lack of educational opportunities for which Fassbinder implicitly blames oppressive socio-economic forces (he elaborates this critique in other works, including the BRD Trilogy). Interestingly and this is certainly an aspect of Fassbinder's work which is still ahead of its time Fassbinder never places the responsibility for Elvira's plight on her sexual orientation. Although Erwin saying he "wasn't even gay" when he was in love Saitz smacks of self-blindness, nowhere does Fassbinder blame Erwin's state on the oppression of GLBT people although that was certainly more pronounced, if perhaps not more pernicious, than today. This is also true of that handful of his films which deal directly with issues of sexual orientation: Beware of a Holy Whore (bisexuality), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (lesbians), Fox and His Friends (gay men), and this film (transsexuality). Fassbinder knew, even then, that GLBT people are in essence the same as non-GLBT people (aka heterosexuals), with the same needs, desires, strengths and foibles. That's why Fassbinder's films may have appeared (self-)homophobic thirty years ago but seem brilliant today. Just a few years ago, you could count the number of other major films dealing in depth with GLBT characters on one hand; so who wanted to see Fassbinder's cutthroat gay men and bitchy lesbians (it's understandable why women picketed Petra when it was first shown) when there were so few alternatives. But now there is such a diversity of exceptional GLBT films, from romantic comedies to historical dramas, that there's plenty of room for Fassbinder's darkly ironic vision. Besides, Fassbinder is an equal-opportunity social critic: he let's no one off the hook whether GLBT or straight or in-between. All of his films, including the few which focus on GLBT people, reveal that the line between victimizers and victims is permeable, and that ultimately we are all part of society's destructive power dynamics. His films haven't changed, but the cinematic and social context certainly has.
But on another level, this film is even 'gayer' than its overt dramatic content. And paradoxically, Fassbinder's film about emotional disconnection presents an extraordinary wealth of connections, not only to his own earlier films but to the full expanse of the Western arts tradition. More specifically, a unifying element to much, indeed most, of the artistic works which inform this film is that they were created by gay or bisexual artists a tradition to which Fassbinder had already earned a distinguished place. If "footnoted" with reference to same-sex cultural history as I'm about to do briefly this film provides a whirlwind tour of many of the key gay/bi artists, from ancient Greece to modern times. So pervasive is this element that it seems more than coincidental.
A few eyes will roll at this list since there is sometimes little incontrovertible proof of a person's same-sex orientation; but remember that until just a few decades (or even months) ago it was a criminal offense in most countries to "practice" sodomy, which could result in prison ask Oscar Wilde or even execution (as is still the case in Islamic regimes which subscribe to Sharia law). So it's no wonder that GLBT artists, or any GLBT people, left so few surviving documents about their intimate lives. So biographers of GLBT people who lived in earlier eras must piece together private, and secret, lives as honestly as possible. Also, for at least the past three centuries, many GLBT artists were consciously aware of the same-sex tradition. For example, writers could "code" their knowledge of the GLBT tradition which of course shares many principal artists with 'mainstream' culture by referring to the (openly homoerotic) Symposium or Phaedrus of Plato, the poetry Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Whitman, or the wit of Wilde. Like-minded people would know what was implied, while the authorities absent-mindedly jangling their jail-cell keys would only see the names of people they'd been forced to study in school. Of course ultimately it's the enduring value of the artist's work which matters most; but clearly their sexual orientation played a fundamental role in the creation of those works, and hence is of intrinsic interest. A few great artists whose work influenced this film can't be included on this list Mozart, Lang, Beckett but look at the range of who can be, from the first playwrights to contemporary filmmakers. Some of these references were looked at in more detail above, others are unique to this section:
- Music: Handel (the opening Adagio movement from the Organ Concerto, Opus 7, Number 4 in D-Minor provides an overwhelmingly sweet and melancholic counterpoint to the site of the cattle being slaughtered; Fassbinder used this same music in his first short film, "The City Tramp"); I don't often bring up gossip, but here's a juicy exception: some historians conjecture that Handel, as a rising young musician, may have been sleeping alternately with both of the great Scarlatti composers: the father Alessandro and son Domenico); Beethoven (his late string quartet, the Grosse Fuge ("Great Fugue"), Opus 133 plays under Sister Gudrun's monologue); Mahler (the Adagietto from his Fifth Symphony provides a haunting counterpoint to the opening scene of Elvira and the hustlers; about Mahler: controversially, bi/gay author Thomas Mann said he based the bi/gay main character, Aschenbach, in Death in Venice (1911) on Mahler which, by the way, makes it doubly appropriate that gay filmmaker Luchino Visconti turned Aschenbach, in his 1971 film of the novel, from a novelist into a composer and used only Mahler's music on the soundtrack). (Here is a list of GLBT classical composers.)
- Literature: Plato (the Allegory of the Cave in The Republic; his 'character' Socrates quoting the sibyl's "Know thyself"); Nietzsche (the grandiose Will- and Reality-oriented ideas espoused by the Suicide, and especially Soul Frieda; Kafka (reminiscent of The Castle is the paranoia-inducing labyrinth of the Saitz office tower; also the man in the hat and suit with kidney cancer who, every day, stares for hours up at Saitz's suite on the sixteenth floor); D.H. Lawrence (whose character Gudrun informs both Sister Gudrun and her dark double, Saitz, who is himself reminiscent of Women in Love's seemingly-dominant business magnate Gerald Crich). (Here is a list of GLBT literature.)
- Theater: the ancient Greek tragedians who saw tragedy stemming from the protagonist's lack of self-understanding (as is the case with Elvira here) Aeschylus (Seven Against Thebes) for the concentrated, block-like dramatic structure, Sophocles (Oedipus Rex) for the relentless focus on one character and the tragic ironies of fate, and Euripides (The Bacchae) for the piercingly eclectic mixture of tone; Shakespeare (The Winter's Tale and The Tempest for the experimental mix of tragedy and comedy, fairy tale-like form, philosophical abstraction, and emotional immediacy); Goethe (Elvira quotes, and mimics, Christoph's over-the-top delivery of the title character's monologue from his 1790 play, Torquato Tasso the real sixteenth-century Tasso was not only one of the most influential poets of the Renaissance but also gay, as Goethe would have known); Alfred Jarry (invented Theatre of the Absurd which paved the way for Beckett, not to mention the many Absurdist elements in this film with his 1896 play King Ubu, which Fassbinder staged in 1968); Brecht (Fassbinder's early idol and perhaps the single greatest influence on his work (in both theatre and film): Brecht revealed the importance of creating distance between a dramatic work and the audience, to give them the freedom to contemplate its political implications. Brecht's bisexuality will certainly be written about with increasing frequency). (Here is a list of GLBT dramatists.)
- Film: Murnau (in the Saitz Tower the Expressionist shadows going down the narrow stairwell seem specific quotations from the scene in Nosferatu (1922) wheein the vampiric title character approaches the heroine's bedroom; also Expressionistic is the writer's building); Cocteau (the simultaneously realistic and dreamlike approach is reminiscent of The Testament of Orpheus (1959)); Pasolini (his philosophical/political, vérité-style yet hallucinatory 'journey film' The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) makes a fascinating comparison with this picture, although Fassbinder's is a much greater achievement as Pasolini would have been the first, or second, to admit; he was also one of Fassbinder's favorite directors). Let me tentatively add Fellini, since some of his biographers imply that he was bisexual (and I consider the wildly homoerotic Fellini Satyricon (1969) the single greatest GLBT-themed film); if so, then the connections between the title character in the deeply moving Nights of Cabiria (1957) and Elvira take on yet more resonance and it's certainly no coincidence that Fassbinder plays Nino Rota's jaunty yet rueful theme music from that Fellini film under many of Elvira's scenes. (Here is a list of GLBT cinema.)
There are certainly more GLBT-related arts references in this film which I've missed. But with the range and extraordinary quality of the diverse artistic works, in all forms, which Fassbinder references and hence indirectly draws our attention to he reminds us that not only is the GLBT artistic tradition synonymous with the broader Western artistic tradition, but that he is also a part of it. Only a filmmaker of Fassbinder's genius, especially in a film which draws so fearlessly on his own rawest emotions (and not just on artistic predecessors), can make such comparisons without seeming self-inflated. And whether these links to the GLBT arts tradition are conscious or coincidental, Fassbinder's achievement deserves to be considered in their enduring company.
And of course, this is just one more of so many brilliantly, resonantly powerful layers in this unique film a work so profoundly personal and self-exploratory that it reaches universal heights.
We know that In a Year With 13 Moons succeeded in turning Fassbinder from blackest despair to the artistic triumphs which lie ahead, but we can never know if it allowed him to feel a new, deeper connection to the dead young man who inspired it. Fassbinder has here created a story of disconnection, loss and pain told from the point of view of the most unlikely possible 'Everyman,' or better 'Everyone' and shown us not only incisive criticism of our society but the depths of our individual, and collective, ability to feel. And through that feeling, it helps us understand ourselves, heal ourselves and maybe even some others too.
This is a work of stunning power and beauty, of radical compassion. Visceral grace.
Fantoma, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a DVD with outstanding image and sound quality, doing full justice to one of Fassbinder's most visually arresting films and the only one which he shot himself. The supplemental features are all of great interest, and bring several different perspectives to this enigmatic masterpiece.
- New digital transfer anamorphic widescreen
- Presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1
- Dolby Digital Mono
- German with optional English subtitles
- Introduction by filmmaker Richard Linklater
- Commentary by Juliane Lorenz, editor of this and all of Fassbinder's late films
- Interview with Fassbinder's lifelong friend, filmmaker Werner Schroeter
- Text and Photo Galleries
- Liner notes by Robert Kolker, author of The Altering Eye and A Cinema of Loneliness
Reviewed June 10, 2004 (22nd anniversary of Fassbinder's death)
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