Rainer Werner Fassbinder epitomises the figure of the true auteur. Mythologised as the enfant terrible of the New German Cinema, the legend surrounding Fassbinder – his inhuman prolificness, his tempestuous personal relationships, his often authoritarian approach to directing and his self-destructive behaviour – is so ubiquitous that even now, almost 30 years after his death, his personal life is inseparable from his cinema (1). Interviews with the director would appear to substantiate autobiographical readings of his oeuvre, in which he often described filmmaking as a form of psychotherapy: “I have to deal with everything that I experience in one way or another… in order to have the feeling that I’ve really experienced it” (2). And with a work ethic so obsessive that it consumed his entire existence, it is nearly impossible to separate the public and private man. His art was his life.
Fassbinder’s full-blown status as an auteur is particularly pertinent to In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year With Thirteen Moons). Written in the aftermath of his lover Armin Meier’s suicide, the film features Fassbinder as writer, director, producer, cinematographer, set designer and co-editor. These biographical factors and dominant production credits have prompted many critics to declare it Fassbinder’s “most personal film”. Although many details of protagonist Elvira’s (Volker Spengler) story take their cues from Meier’s life (3), Elvira fits the mould of the long-suffering heroes and heroines that populate Fassbinder’s cinema, much like the titular characters of Die bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972), Martha (1974) and Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and his Friends, 1975) before her. Fassbinder explores themes that he repeatedly returned to before and after Meier’s death: what he termed “the exploitability of feelings” (4); the symbiosis between sadism and masochism; the self-sacrifice of victimhood; the impossibility of love; and the problems of marginalised national, class or sexual identities. In this respect we see the way that biographical elements informed Fassbinder’s filmmaking, as well as the manner in which it became fodder for his overarching project – an often-brutal interrogation of the nature of subjectivity, and the forces that seek to circumscribe it.
After being deserted by her lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt), Elvira embarks upon a search for her origins. This journey can be read as a literalisation or narrativisation of psychotherapy, physically returning to the significant people and places of her past – the slaughterhouse where she worked as a young man, the nun Sister Gudrun (played by Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit) who raised her in the orphanage, and the property developer Anton Saitz (Gottfried John) for whom she underwent her sex change – in the hope of understanding her unbearable present. From the film’s opening scene, however, Fassbinder suggests the source of Elvira’s suffering is the fundamentally split nature of her selfhood. We meet her dressed as a man and attempting to solicit sex in a park at daybreak, yet when the rentboy removes her suit trousers he finds a petticoat and corset beneath. In extreme close-up, the camera follows the man’s hand as he reaches beneath her underwear to demystify her alterity – “You don’t have a dick!” he yells. “You are a broad! This is a cunt!” In medium long shot, we see the man and his friends brutalising her for this apparent transgression, establishing a feeling of helplessness and victimhood that will characterise Elvira’s story. Indeed, Elvira is perhaps Fassbinder’s ultimate outsider, occupying what Thomas Elsaesser described as an “impossible sexual identity” (5) – at once man and woman, but moreover identifying as neither.
Through a Lacanian frame, Elvira highlights the dangers of internalising the desire for the (m)other. Elvira is an orphan who, bereft of the loving and reaffirming gaze of the mother, has spent a lifetime making and remaking herself in the hope that this look will be returned. As a child, Erwin struggles to be each nun’s love object, “discover[ing] that the more he said to each one what she wanted to hear, the better it went for him”. As a young man, he flies to Casablanca and gets a sex change in response to Saitz’s throwaway comment that he may love Erwin if he were a girl, despite not identifying as a woman or even a homosexual. When we encounter Elvira in the present, Christoph forces her to look in the mirror, yet all she sees is “myself, loving you”. Her sense of self has here been totally subsumed by her desire for the other’s gaze. Seelenfrieda (Walter Bockmayer) informs her “we can’t recommend psychoanalysis in your case because you’re an orphan”. But more to the point, Erwin/Elvira undermines the binary logic of sexual difference upon which psychoanalysis is founded. For Elvira, the only recourse is to embrace masochism as a form of martyrdom – as Sister Gudrun suggests, “he learned to thoroughly enjoy the horrors of this hell instead of being destroyed by them”.
In accordance with Fassbinder’s ever-cynical outlook, Elvira encounters only further mystifications and dead-ends in each site to which she returns. At the slaughterhouse, she tries to tell Red Zora (Ingrid Craven) of her marriage to Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar) and her relationship with Saitz. But as she begins to speak, the camera drifts away to film the surrounding scenes of animals being butchered – cows strung up on a production line, one after another, their throats’ slit, bodies disembowelled and carcasses skinned. Elvira seeks cohesion through the act of speaking her past. The audience, however, cannot help but be distracted by these lurid, visceral visions of identity being literally ripped apart. Similarly, when Sister Gudrun tells Elvira of her childhood in the orphanage, the camera leaves Elvira behind, swinging hypnotically between the nun and Red Zora. When it returns, we find she has been left to collapse, alone, on the concrete floor of the monastery. In each of Elvira’s attempts at self-discovery, Fassbinder’s camera always betrays her, much like the rejection that she encounters from the cruel world around her.
In a Year with Thirteen Moons also touches upon issues of German identity in the post-war Federal Republic. In Fassbinder’s treatment for the film, he notes that Elvira is in fact the product of a Nazi selective breeding experiment to produce the ultimate Aryan race (as Meier was rumoured to be too) (6). Here the insider of prewar German ideology becomes the ultimate outsider. Saitz, however, is a victim who has learnt to adopt the techniques of his oppressors. Born in the concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, Saitz adopts this authoritarianism as a business model in his whorehouse and later property development practices. This internalisation of power structures was a recurrent theme for Fassbinder, in an attempt to “show… minorities the way society has made them, with all their twisted behaviour” (7). Yet the image we are given of Saitz is also an impotent one. In the industrialised Frankfurt, he lives on the 16th floor of an empty office block, forcing his bodyguards to act out musical comedy sequences from Jerry Lewis films. Indeed, he offers no more insight into Elvira’s life than any of the others.
It is through the tropes of melodrama that Fassbinder expresses what Elvira must repress, articulating her suffering via the excesses of the mise en scène. Elvira’s world is one of muted colours, overbearing décor and claustrophobic spaces; she is shot through endless doorways, oblique angles or mirrors that fragment and distort her image. This suffocating aesthetic exemplifies what Elsaesser terms melodrama’s “vicious circles”, which “carefully trace… how tightly bolted all the exits are by which the characters attempt to escape their fate” (8) – a sense of entrapment most directly figured by the lampshade in the hallway of Elvira’s apartment, which casts spider-web shadows across all those who enter. Fassbinder’s filmic world thus reveals what Elvira herself cannot yet bear to comprehend – the impossibility of her search and the fait accompli of her tragic end.
Mirroring the film’s beginning, Elvira dons men’s clothes in the final scenes in a last ditch attempt for love. She returns to her ex-wife Irene and daughter Mary-Ann (Eva Mattes), but here too encounters only derisive laughter. Even Hauer (Gerhard Zwerenz), the interviewer who allowed her to tell her story, turns her away. Unable to understand her life, Elvira embraces the masochist’s ultimate act of self-sacrifice – like Fox, the only escape offered to her is suicide. Ironically, Fassbinder allows Elvira to narrate the events of her life after her death. Her conversation with Hauer plays over the concluding scene, finally articulating her feelings about her relationships with Saitz, with Christoph and with Irene. The characters of her past reconvene around her lifeless body and are organised around her apartment in a strange tableaux, their dialogue struggling to be heard over Elvira’s disembodied voice.
Fassbinder’s cinema may be characterised by pessimism and despair, but in In a Year With Thirteen Moons we encounter perhaps his bleakest vision. Elvira is shown to be the product of an uncaring society, her suicide the consequence of internalising its image. But as the opening text suggests, there is something cyclical in this narrative – the chaotic “year of thirteen moons” will again recur in 1992, suggesting that Elvira’s death is not the end of this cautionary tale. Fassbinder claimed that his cinema was not devoid of hope; that he aimed to show his audience “how things can go wrong… warn them that that’s the way things will go if they don’t change their lives” (9). The hope he offers thus lies beyond the film’s frame, placing the onus upon the spectator to effect personal change. But if our world is anything like that of Fassbinder’s characters, it seems the universe will remain indifferent.
- Jane Shattuc charts the way this “star text” has been constructed by Germany’s popular and critical press, and by Fassbinder himself, going so far as to argue that any analysis of Fassbinder’s work which disregards the biographical will be a “naïve reading”. See Jane Shattuc, “R.W. Fassbinder as Popular Auteur: The Making of an Authorial Legend”, Journal of Film and Video vol. 45, no. 1, 1993, p. 40.
- Fassbinder quoted in Wallace Watson, “The Bitter Tears of Rainer Werner Fassbinder”, Sight and Sound vol. 2, no. 3, March 1992, p. 24.
- Fassbinder met Meier when the latter was working as a bartender in a restaurant that Fassbinder frequented. Meier, like Elvira, was rumoured to be the product of a Nazi breeding experiment to produce a perfect Aryan race, was raised in an orphanage, and later worked in a slaughterhouse. Their relationship was highly fraught, as shown in Fassbinder’s segment of the documentary Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978), and was plagued by their intellectual differences and often-extreme arguments. After Fassbinder broke it off, Meier returned to their apartment and committed suicide, his body discovered by Fassbinder’s mother ten days later. For a more detailed discussion of Fassbinder and Meier’s relationship see Al LaValley, “The Gay Liberation of Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Male Subjectivity, Male Bodies, Male Lovers”, New German Critique no. 63, 1994, pp. 108-137.
- Rainer Werner Fassbinder, The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes, ed. Michael Töteberg and Leo Lensing, trans. Krishna Winston, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1992, p. 28.
- Thomas Elsaesser, Fassbinder’s Germany: History, Identity, Subject, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 1996, p. 202.
- See Fassbinder, “In a Year With Thirteen Moons”, The Anarchy of the Imagination, pp. 177-195.
- Fassbinder, p. 19.
- Elsaesser, p. 199.
- Fassbinder quoted in Wallace Watson, Understanding Rainer Werner Fassbinder: Film as Private and Public Art, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1996, p. 160.
In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden/In a Year with Thirteen Moons (1980 West Germany 124 mins)
Prod Co: Filmverlag der Autoren/Pro-ject Filmproduktion/Tango Film Prod, Dir, Scr, Phot: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Ed: Juliane Lorenz, Rainer Werner Fassbinder Prod Des: Franz Vacek Mus: Peer Raben
Cast: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Eva Mattes, Günther Kaufmann, Walter Bockmayer