Oct 28, 2012

In a Year of 13 Moons

Typically regarded as singularly prolific Neuer Deutscher Film auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most intimate and lugubrious film, In a Year of 13 Moons (1978) aka In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden – a foreboding work that centers around the last couple days of a suicidal transvestite – also happens to be one of the tragic filmmaker’s greatest and most ambitious works. Dedicated to Fassbinder’s lover of four years, Armin Meier (Satan’s Brew, Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven), who committed suicide after the gay filmmaker broke up with him during a trip to New York in May 1978, In a Year of 13 Moons is hardly the biographical portrayal it pays posthumous tribute to. Apparently accused of belittling and torturing Meier, Fassbinder was attacked in the German tabloids and even received anonymous death threats for what many perceived as provoking the young man’s self-slaughter. After considering being a farmer in Paraguay or a social recluse, Fassbinder finally opted to deal with the heated heartbreak of Meier’s death by getting to work on In a Year of 13 Moons, a film he went on to explain, “What is important for me is that I managed to make a film which does not simply translate my emotions about the suicide. That is my pain and mourning about the fact that I may have failed in some respects in this relationship, but that I made a film…which goes far beyond this; which tells a lot more than I could have told about Armin. And for me this was a decision for life.” As a product of the Lebensborn program – a National Socialist SS breeding project which allowed SS officers to sire children with random racially Nordic women – Meier is similar to the protagonist of In a Year of 13 Moons in that he spent his early childhood years as an orphan and never knew who his biological parents were, but the literal biographical similarities between Fassbinder’s ill-fated beau and the fictional character essentially end there. As an average-sized mensch with a striking resemblance to James Dean as depicted in his passive yet potent performance in Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters' Trip to Heaven (1975), Meier does not even vaguely physically resemble the towering Nordic transvestite played by Volker Spengler in In a Year of 13 Moons, nor did he have his penis cut off in Casablanca because a Jewish holocaust survivor treated him with romantic disdain like the character in the film. Of course, being the starkest of the filmmaker’s always distressing and oftentimes nihilistic melodramas, one is better off forgetting the facts that inspired In a Year of 13 Moons and instead embrace the emotions that sparked film as Fassbinder did not title his feature-length work Love is Colder than Death (1969) for nothing. Needless to say, In a Year of 13 Moons proved to be one of the most agonizing and afflicting films I have ever seen, and I mean that in the most positive way, as no other film has provoked in me the ability to empathize with the all-consuming misery of a dick-less and suicidal tranny. 

 From its emotionally bombarding beginning to its harrowing yet inescapable end, In a Year of 13 Moons is an emotionally excruciating cinematic excursion that takes no prisoners in terms of its propensity to inflict shame and misery onto the viewer. Beginning with the superbly superstitious claim that, “Every seventh year is a Year of the Moon. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depressions in these years. To a lesser degree, this is also true of years with 13 new moons. When a Moon Year also has 13 new moons inescapable personal tragedies may occur. In the 20th century, this dangerous constellation occurs six times. One of these is 1978….,” In a Year of 13 Moons shifts gears and reveals our humble and humiliated protagonist Erwin / Elvira Weishaupt (Volker Spengler) who is beaten by a gang of Slavic homosexuals after one of them is repulsed to find that the tall transvestite is no female but a neutered nullo nutjob. As a married man with a grownup daughter and a butcher by trade, Erwin does not seem like the sort of individual that would fall hopelessly in love with fancy rich fellows, let alone have himself castrated for the most trivial of reasons. Erwin’s hooker friend ‘Red Zora’ (Ingrid Caven), a ‘tart with a heart,’ states that her full-time drag-queen friend was not even gay until relatively recently and his decision to undergo a sex change was for seemingly no reason. Of course, as you watch In a Year of 13 Moons, you learn that Erwin went through the excessive procedure in the totally delusional hope that a man he loved, Anton Saitz (played by real-life orphan Gottfried John) – a holocaust survivor turned black marketer turned prestigious property speculator – would accept him as a serious lover if he were a pseudo-woman of sorts.  As an ex-butcher who had no problem mutilating live animals, an act he said gave meaning to their lives, Erwin must have seen castration as only a minor sacrifice in the conquest of true and eternal love, but unfortunately things don't go as planned and the genitally-deprived he-woman is left with nothing to show for his unspeakable suffering, including his mangled manhood. In In a Year of 13 Moons, the viewer follows the particularly perturbed protagonist as he makes a desperate attempt to pick up the broken pieces of his past, but on his fateful personal odyssey, Erwin is only met with cold rejection and disdain from those individuals that are supposed to love him the most. Erwin even revisits the Catholic convent he spent his youth in, discombobulating the nun who helped raise him, Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit), with his absurd gentle giant drag queen appearance. Describing the child she knew as a ‘good boy,’ the now grown up Erwin reflects on the fact that it was in his youthful days in the convent that he learned to lie to others because by engaging in deceptive behavior he was rewarded, thereupon sparking the quasi-schizophrenic dichotomy between his true internal self and the role he would play until falling in love with the holocaust survivor of his dreams. As can be expected, Erwin is never able to reconcile the transformation of his former male self and his ‘Elvira’ persona, thus resulting in the most lamentable yet inevitable of consequences. 

 In a Year of 13 Moons is an interesting and undoubtedly controversial work in that it contradicts Hollywood history, portraying a good, Aryan German of notably Nordic features as the victim of a cold, calculating and glaringly ugly Jew, who laughs at the man who purports to love him when he realizes he become a eunuch for him. In a sense, Fassbinder – who arguably tormented his boyfriend to the point that he committed suicide – is symbolic of Jew jerk Saitz in both repellant appearance and character and Meier – a lonely Lebensborn boy who was originally spawned to be one of Germany’s greatest sons – is Erwin, a man that is ultimately destroyed by a life of misfortune and heartbreak. Fassbinder may have had a reputation for abusing women and drugs, but one must admit there was a certain uncompromising honesty, albeit cryptic, in his cinematic art, with In a Year of 13 Moons being one of his most striking, sensitive and artistically merited examples. German auteur Christoph Schlingensief would pay sardonic tribute to Fassbinder and his masterpiece of melodramatic misery In a Year of 13 Moons with his work The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997); a work also starring Volker Spengler and other Fassbinder survivors.  Ultimately, Fassbinder himself would reach an end as tragic, if not more pathetic, than his lover Meier; but this is what one might come to expect for an individual who fucked virtually every cast member of his films, had a menagerie of exotic brown men at his beck and call and ultimately died alone of a cocaine overdose with his last script in hand.

-Ty E

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