Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rainer Werner Fassbinder | In einen Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons)

by Douglas Messerli

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (writer and director) In einen Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with 13 Moons) / 1978

I found Fassbinder's In a Year with 13 Moons such an overwhelmingly rich film that it is hard to know where to begin. Perhaps the somewhat occult explanation at the beginning of the film, despite the fact that Fassbinder seems to negate it throughout, will help to explain the contradictory realities the film presents:

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.

This claim, based on a conversation Fassbinder had with an astrologer shortly after the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier, in 1978, the same year of the movie and a lunar year with 13 moons—an event which occasioned the making of this remarkable picture—prepares us for the series of events which happen to Erwin/Elvira Weishaupt (stunningly performed by Volker Spengler).

As a young child, Erwin was given up by his mother to a Catholic orphanage, so we find out later in the film when he/she and his prostitute begin their quest to understand Elvira's problems; as a young boy the nuns were delighted with the shy and handsome Erwin and, ultimately, through the encouragement of the head nun, Sister Gudrun (played by Fassbiner's mother, Lilo Pempeit), a couple became interested in adopting him. But upon seeking legal permission from his mother, Sister Gudrun perceived that the mother had been legally married at the time of the adoption, and gave up the child without consulting her husband. Now the mother is terrified that her husband may find out about her actions—he is, evidently also a violent man—and will not agree to making it known. Accordingly, despite the love Erwin feels for his potential parents and they for him, the church cannot go forward with adoption, and the loving couple disappear from his life. The charming young boy turns into a lying, stealing teenager, unable to understand why he has been rejected.

Fassbinder's telling of this history, in which the family, state, and religion have unintentionally conspired to refuse him love, is not a thorough explanation of Erwin's condition, indeed, does not even psychologically explain most of Erwin/Elvira's later actions. His presentation of this information is less like a revelation, accordingly, than a kind of staged confession, in which the nun who tells the tale, moves back and forth across the garden as Erwin, now a female, Elvira, and her friend Die rote Zora (the Red Zora) stand in the foreground; and, even before the tale is completed, Elvira is seen to have collapsed. But it does help us to imagine the hero's strange confusion and desperation to be loved.

Indeed, throughout the quest through which Elvira journeys in this film, people reveal equally strange stories, myths, tales, and absurd fragments of information that when layered upon each other recreate the distressed and conflicted being at the film's core.

In the very first scene, we witness Erwin in an early-morning park, dressed not as Elvira, but as a man, so lonely, that he tries to pick up another man. As the love-making begins, however, the younger man discovers that Erwin is not a male "John," as he expected, but a woman, a being without a penis; disgusted, he shouts to his fellow workers to join him in punishment.

The bloodied Erwin staggers home only to discover his long-time lover, Christoph, has returned, this time to leave forever. But before he goes, Christoph also takes time out to verbally and physically abuse Erwin/Elvira, insisting that she/he look at herself in the mirror to see the fat, ugly human which he must daily face. In short, Fassbinder's hero is an outsider even to outsiders like men in the park and the homosexual Christoph. As Zora later declares, the strange thing about Elvira is that she/he is not even gay!

In fact, the young Erwin underwent a convenient marriage, finding in Irene a woman, not only willing to accept him later for his "changes," but a person who remains his life-long friend. His daughter from that marriage still calls him "daddy." It is apparent, however, that the love between man and woman was not enough. So desperate for love was Erwin that he befriended a small-time crook, Anton Saitz, going so far (so we discover in Fassbinder's written story upon which the film was based) as being willing to go to jail for him. However, Saitz, who as a young boy survived the horrors of the Belsen-Bergen concentration camp, is purely heterosexual, and cannot return Erwin's interest. A passing statement that he might be able to love him if only he were a woman sends Erwin on a insane trip to Casablanca, where he undergoes an operation, removing all signs of his masculinity. Now dressing as a woman, he returns to Anton, who still rejects him, spinning the new Elvira into the series of events about to be uncovered.

Irene also visits her ex-husband on this crucial day, adding her vitriol in response to an interview that Erwin/Elvira has recently given about those long ago days, and which has just been published in a magazine. Irene is terrified that the now wealthy gangster-businessman Anton may attempt to get even for the interview by somehow harming their daughter.

It is this third attack upon her being that sends Elvira and her prostitute friend on the quest to discover the past and, ultimately, to apologize to Saitz for revealing it.

Bit by bit, we begin to piece together a chaotic string of events, no parts of which seem to belong together, symbolically involving not only the entire city of Frankfurt but the whole of post-World War II Germany. Fassbinder brilliantly exposes this discordant world through cramped images of beings caught up in a society of brutal noise and radically shifting realities. Erwin describes his first job, where he worked as a butcher simultaneously with Fassbinder's presentation of hideous images of the slaughtering of cattle, the draining of their blood, and the removal of their hides—all accompanied by a Handel organ concerto while our heroine speaks calmly of the peacefulness of killing and quotes Goethe.

Another scene in which Elvira is entrapped in the dark confines of a bar filled with ringing pinball machines, as she encounters the man who attacked her that same morning. It ends with Zora arriving to take her sobbing friend into another, even stranger, location: the apartment of a man living with a silent muscle builder. Within in his dark room, filled with lighted candles, he, dressed only in undershorts, sarcastically refers to his horrors of the past and his fears of going out of the house, ending the encounter by breaking down into tears himself.

When, after the encounter with Sister Gudrun, Elvira tries to sleep, Zora tells her a story similar to a Grimm Brothers' fairy-tale, but ending with a Fassbinder-like twist. An evil old witch has lured two children into the forest, transforming the boy into a mushroom and his sister into a snail. When the snail grows hungry, the brother encourages her to eat of him, the mushroom, as the girl readily bites off first his ear and then his leg.

After Elvira falls asleep, Zora turns on personal tapes of Elvira and her former lover, and flips television channels between a talk show of Fassbinder's description of his own troubled youth, a soap opera, and the news of Chilean dictator Pinochet's "great achievements." At other times American pop-singer Connie Francis, singing in German, alternates with pieces of Nino Rota's music for Juliet of the Spirits and other Fellini films, the parallels between Fellini's suffering housewife and Fassbinder's confused lover becoming apparent.

When Elvira finally visits the tower in which her wished-for lover resides, she encounters in the ground-floor bar a man, dying of cancer, who after being fired by Anton Saitz, has spent months staring out the window at Saitz's office. As she climbs the stairs—in a reversal of the Rumpelstiltskin story—to reach her lover, she encounters a series of empty rooms, where she briefly falls asleep once more, to be awakened by a man come to hang himself who invites her to watch.

Everywhere she travels, there are people suffering as badly as she, individuals who unable to find love or, as Elvira describes it from a dream she has had, have had simply too brief of friendships, symbolized to herself as graves marked by short dates.

She reports the stranger's suicide to a cleaning woman whose major activity seems to be looking through a key-hole, laughing loudly at whatever she is witnessing. The woman shrugs her shoulders and returns to her voyuerism.

After passing through what seems like an interminable series of empty rooms, itself a nighmare-like image of the Frankfurt economic "miracle," Elvira is met by Saitz's chauffeur, who, in imitation Cerberus, guards the entry to Saitz's little hell. But even here the director turns the dramatic situation into an absurdly comic event.

At first it appears that, without one of the codes, Elvira will be refused entry. Yet she finally does make a guess, horrible reminder that it is: Bergen-Belsen, the A-pass. And she enters. When she is shown into a room with several men within, she turns to ask the now-genial chauffeur, which one is Saitz. The irony is earth-shattering; after changing his-her entire being and life for the man, she cannot now even recognize him.

When told that he is the thin man in tight tennis shorts, she is forced to watch an even more grotesquely comic manifestation of power. While a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin movie, You're Never Too Young, plays upon a television, Anton forces his male staff to reenact parts of the tennis court scene, a piece filled, in the original, with a chorus of marching cheerleaders led by the singing duo. Elvira joins in. Their performance is hilarious, but also mad. There is not even evil here. Reality is too strange for that.

Elvira reveals his former name, Erwin, which, at first, seems to mean nothing to Saitz. But after she presents him with a photograph of the young Erwin, he does realize who this woman is, but seemingly remembers only that she could make coffee as good as his mother, suggesting they make a trek to Elvira's apartment so that she can serve it up. At the apartment, Zora is sleeping upon Elvira's bed. While Elvira moves off to the kitchen, Anton moves in on Zora, who readily accepts him in an embrace. Elvira returns to witness them in the sexual act.

Cutting her hair, redressing as a man, Erwin returns to his wife and daughter, hoping that he might possibly begin over. It is, quite clearly, too late for that. The girl will soon be off to college, and his former wife, although still a friend, cannot now accept his as a man.

The author who had interviewed Elvira, finds Erwin waiting on the staircase of his apartment. But when asked if they might have a talk, he gently sends him away. It is too late an hour.

Having moved through life so impulsively and full of passionate need, all is now too late for the man without any remaining identity. He is not really a woman, not really a man, not even, quite, a transsexual or a transgendered being. Erwin/Elvira is no one—and yet is everyone who has ever needed love. One by one the people who might have offered him this gift, gather at this door, now guarded by the Cerberus-like chauffeur. Inside is Anton and Zora, evidently locked in when this hero returned to slit his/her wrists. No one in particular is guilty; yet everyone is obviously guilty for the death of the shell they now witness.

Los Angeles, August 18, 2010
Copyright (c) 2010 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli

1 comment:

  1. What an excellent review of this wonderful film. Thank you for your insight.