R.W. Fassbinder’s In A Year With 13 Moons

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1978 offering In A Year With 13 Moons tells the story of a man, Erwin, who becomes a woman, Elvira (Volker Spengler), to win the affections of a man who “can never love anyone”, Anton Saitz (Gottfried John).  The film follows Elvira for five days of her life as she attempts to find meaning without love and justification without reward.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film In A Year With 13 Moons focuses with unflinching precision on the self-sacrifice of love and the conditions that precede suicide.  Fassbinder made the film in reaction to the suicide of his then lover Armin Meier, hoping the film would function as an outlet for all the emotions and questions the suicide had raised in him.  Because of this, In A Year With 13 Moons is perhaps Fassbinder’s most personal film.

The entire film is wrought with illusions to death, expanding beyond the dialogue of the characters into the soundtrack (Suicide’s song Frankie Teardrop), the settings (a slaughterhouse), and the peripheral action (the many empty business offices in Anton Saitz’s building).  The duration of the film, and the number of these illusions make it a difficult viewing experience, unrelenting in its quest to articulate in image and narrative the reasons for suicide.

I am going to focus my analysis of the film to a scene where Fassbinder himself seems to feel responsible for his lover’s self-destruction.  In the scene where Rote Zora (Ingrid Caven) is channel surfing in Elvira’s apartment, she passes by an interview with Fassbinder that is juxtaposed with news reports on General Pinochet in Chile and a soap opera.

The interview is culled from excerpts of Life Stories: A Conversation With Rainer Werner Fassbinder.  The themes and subjects Fassbinder chose to include from his interview directly correlate with Elvira’s quest for understanding.  Fassbinder discusses first his communal childhood upbringing, which parallels Elvira’s youth in an orphanage.  Later, Fassbinder attempts to explain why he drives his sexual partners away with sociopathic games of dominance.  This behavior that Fassbinder tries to clarify is exactly what Elvira projects onto her romantic obsession with Anton Saitz.  After all, it was Saitz’s off handed comment about Erwin becoming a girl, which prompted the sex change, though, that may just be a subconscious foil on Elvira’s part to avoid any admission of self destructive behavior.  In Fassbinder’s final interview excerpt, he reveals that his obsessive mode of film production is derivative of escaping emotional expression with other human beings.  This relates more easily to the character of Saitz.  As it’s explained to Elvira by Smolik (Gunther Kaufman), Saitz’s chauffer, Anton Saitz become so involved with re-building Frankfurt’s poor districts, that it allowed him to escape the moral ramifications of his personal behavior as well as the numerous families he evicted.

By contextualizing himself this way in his own film, Fassbinder provides his audience with a number of signifiers that correlate to produce an intimate portraiture within the film’s narrative as I mentioned above.  But it is his use of juxtapositions in this scene that complicate an otherwise relatively easy way of reading the scene.  At this time (the late 1970s) Fassbinder had completed two controversial films about terrorism in Germany, The Third Generation and Mother Kusters Goes To Heaven.  Due to his radical views, which condemn both the left and right political movements, Fassbinder was labeled a fascist by the German press.  Fassbinder has in every available interview I have read stated his anti-fascist sentiments, however by placing Pinochet’s image alongside his he makes clear the serious mislabeling at work.  In Chile, Pinochet was heading up his own pseudo-fascist political agenda, committing some of the centuries greatest crimes against humanity.  But it is clearly ironic to Fassbinder that the press is more concerned with the perceived fascism in his films than with the fascism in Chile, whose ramifications are much more threatening and immediate.  Secondly, Fassbinder juxtaposes himself as a filmmaker with a low-grade soap opera.  Here it seems Fassbinder wishes the audience to relate the obvious artifice inherent of the soap opera with his own filmography, leveling the plain of critical worth for all media based art.  This juxtaposition is interesting in that it seems Fassbinder is attempting to diminish his own self worth as an artist, trying to excuse his relationship and responsibility for his lover’s suicide in the process.

Moving forward in the film’s narrative, the parallels between Fassbinder and Saitz as well as between Elvira and Meier manifest themselves in the interactions of the two characters.  In his office, Saitz tells Elvira (in words almost exactly the same as those which can be found in Fassbinder’s interview that was featured earlier), that the damaging interview she gave can never concern him because so many people try to damage his reputation regularly.  In this brief exchange, the relationship between Saitz and Elvira becomes painfully similar to that of Meier and Fassbinder.  Of his own admission, in the unabridged form of the featured interview, Fassbinder relates how his former lovers often try to damage him, but that the controversy of his own work over shadows any efforts and grants him a sort of immunity.  By articulating this parallel in this scene, it’s as if Rainer Werner Fassbinder has caught himself simultaneously assuming responsibility and rejecting that responsibility for Meier’s suicide.  So it becomes Fassbinder’s own internal paradox that becomes the driving force behind In A Year With 13 Moons.

-Robert Curry

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