No one falls for the fairy tale that there’s a “real life” in a “real world” and that “real life” is more important than loving. What does it matter? I know we don’t really have a chance, whatever might become of us if we’d had the chance.
—Seelenfrieda, In a Year with Thirteen Moons
Fassbinder made two films for Armin Meier during the course of their four-year relationship, one marking its beginning and the other its sad end. RWF even dedicated the first of these, Fox and His Friends (1975), to Meier (“For Armin and all the others”) and explicitly used him as the model for the character of Franz Biberkopf, aka Fox. As he had done earlier with El Hedi Ben Salem (Fear Eats the Soul) and Gunther Kaufmann (Whity), RWF cast a lover (or in this case, cast himself channeling his lover) as a victim, a type intended to illustrate fundamental injustices of bourgeois society within a melodramatic framework. (Interestingly, El Hedi Ben Salem had a small role in Fox and His Friends—did he know about Armin yet, I wonder?—and Kaufmann a more substantial one in In a Year with Thirteen Moons.) In these movies, the characters inspired and/or played by the lover fulfill a function which I think is essentially polemical and didactic; as such, they tell us more about the artist and his preoccupations than they do the muse.
In a Year with Thirteen Moons (1978) is different. Made quickly in a time of genuine crisis almost single-handedly, it is a profound meditation on love and death and loneliness. And while its implicit indictments of postwar German society are as abundant and as vehement as in any of his previous films, and while the emotions and events it depicts are as tumultuous and tragic as ever, In a Year with Thirteen Moons is not quite like any of RWF’s other films; it is not melodramatic—at least not in the sense that Fox and His Friends or Fear Eats the Soul were—nor is it didactic or polemical in quite the same way that nearly all RWF’s films to this date had been. It is a haunting and beautiful film. I think it is Fassbinder’s greatest achievement.
As with the segment he contributed to Germany in Autumn—begun and completed as events of the so-called “German autumn” were actually unfolding in real time—RWF wrote, directed, and edited In a Year with Thirteen Moons almost overnight, as though in a kind of fever or frenzy following Meier’s suicide on May 31, 1978. (RWF’s birthday, as it happens—the director himself was at Cannes for the premiere of Despair at the time; poor Armin was not invited—was not in fact permitted—to attend.) Fassbinder did almost everything on this film himself; he wrote the script, directed, designed the sets, did his own camera work, edited, and even financed the project (at least initially). An act of existential necessity, this film was a labor of love—a personal film in every sense of the term.
In a Year with Thirteen Moons follows the last few days in the life of Elvira (né Erwin) Weisshaupt, played with heartbreaking delicacy by Volker Spengler. A formerly straight transsexual (think about what that means), Elvira wanders from humiliation to humiliation, slightly bewildered as to how she arrived at this place exactly, unconsciously preparing to meet her inexorable fate. From the time she arrives home in the opening sequence of the film, having just been beaten up by the “associates” of an angry trick who thought he had been picked up by a man, only to be cruelly insulted and abandoned by her boyfriend, Christoph Hacker (Karl Scheydt), whose own career she had made possible by turning tricks herself but who now tells her he finds her disgusting, Elvira revisits the pivotal people and places of her life, accompanied by her all-too-human guardian angel, the prostitute Red Zora (Ingrid Caven). These include the slaughterhouse where Erwin worked before his sex change operation in Casablanca; Sister Gudrun (Lilo Pempeit), the principal nun who raised little Erwin in an orphanage, who tells the story of the long-suppressed trauma of his young life; Irene (Elisabeth Trissanaar), Erwin’s wife, with whom he has a now adult daughter, Marie-Ann (Eva Mattes); and Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), love of Erwin’s life, small-time criminal in the black market meat trade (for whom Erwin served time in prison), raised in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, one-time brothel owner and now a rich and powerful real estate developer, who replied to Erwin’s declaration of love once upon a time that maybe things could have worked out between them if Erwin had been a girl . . .
In a Year with Thirteen Moons does not literally tell the story of Armin Meier’s life, of course, but it incorporates elements of his sad history. Like Erwin, Armin was born at the end of the war and abandoned by his mother to an orphanage; perhaps he too was consigned to a sort of limbo, as Erwin was, needing the permission of his still-living mother in order to be adopted by another family, and so was raised without any hope of ever knowing the love of a mother or father. Like Erwin, Armin was uneducated and unable to obtain an apprenticeship in a desirable trade and so was forced to train as a butcher.
There are probably other aspects of Armin’s history in Ermin/Elvira’s, but we may never know what they are. There aren’t that many people left who might remember, and his life story does not appear to have been written. (Nobody has bothered to create a Wikipedia page for poor Armin Meier, for example, as they have for El Hedi Ben Salem.) But it doesn’t really matter; connecting the dots with biographical factoids is not really the point here. What the character of Elvira (né Erwin) Weisshaupt captures—and the actor, Volker Spengler, so beautifully conveys—is the simplicity, the quiet sadness, the slightly bewildered loneliness, the desperate need to be loved—which, perversely, seems to preclude the possibility of being truly loved—of a human being whom society deemed unworthy from birth, and who offers up his own life as a kind of unwanted sacrifice to love, his suicide almost a foregone conclusion.
When we meet Elvira Weisshaupt, the major dramatic events of her life have already taken place. This is one of the aspects of the film that distinguishes it from RWF’s melodramas (or anyone else’s, for that matter), a hallmark of which, as you may recall, is “the predominance of plot and physical action over characterization” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th). A movie like Fox and His Friends or Martha or Fear Eats the Soul (or Written on the Wind or All That Heaven Allows) takes the viewer along for the ride on the narrative roller coaster with its characters, making us experience each twist and turn and humiliation as it occurs in the story. This is where melodrama derives its power. In a Year with Thirteen Moons, on the other hand, derives its power from someplace else: we don’t actually get on the roller coaster with Elvira, but rather sit with her, dizzy and sick, in those quiet moments after the ride has already ended, while she decides whether to get back on for one more go-round or just give it up. (If that isn’t too tortured a metaphor? I couldn’t resist the implicit reference to Martha, in which we really are forced to ride an actual roller coaster with Margit Carstensen . . .)
RWF doesn’t resort to the usual melodramatic tricks or tropes here because he really wants you to think about Elvira’s condition soberly and seriously, without manipulated or artificially cued sentiment. For example, in the opening sequence when Elvira, dressed as a man, goes down to the river in search of a few transactional moments’ intimacy (not surprisingly, she says she is less ashamed when she pays for sex dressed as a man), only to be beaten up instead, heavy scrolling text explains the meaning of the film’s title and actually obscures much of the action. At the same time, the choice of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on the soundtrack (the most achingly beautiful piece of music ever written?), actually undercuts the unbearable heaviness of the scene, overloaded as it is with other cinematic associations, most famously, Visconti’s Death in Venice. (Interestingly, RWF later uses another easily recognizable piece of music, Nino Rota’s theme from Fellini’s Amarcord.) The overt associations with another film have the effect of undercutting any facile emotional identification you might forge in this one; you’re one step removed, as it were. That is really important because RWF is deadly serious here: he wants you to really think about life and death in earnest. To do that, he can’t have you tearing up at the first musical cue.
RWF had always been interested in multiple forms of narration as distancing devices (written titles, voiceover, etc., perhaps most effectively put to use in Effi Briest). The long, sad story of Erwin’s childhood, for example, is narrated by Sister Gudrun (played by RWF’s own mother) in uninterrupted voiceover, giving the story an epic quality, as the camera pans across the empty cloister where Elvira has already fainted. At the very end of the film, the tape of an interview Elvira had given with a journalist (Gerhard Zwerenz), in which she disclosed the true story of her past relationship with the now rich and powerful Anton Saitz, quietly plays as, first the journalist and his wife, then Irene and Marie-Ann, all converge at Elvira’s apartment, only to find her dead in the same room as the sleeping Saitz and Zora, who are strangely oblivious to Elvira’s presence. These segments, powerfully emotional—tragic, really—hit you all the harder for being so carefully mediated.
In the notorious slaughterhouse scene early in the film, where Elvira brings Zora to explain the trade she used to practice as a man, RWF shows us images of cattle being killed and bled and butchered, hung upside down on enormous meat hooks, as Elvira narrates the story of her time living with Christoph, reciting the grandiose lines from Goethe’s Torquato Tasso she used to help him rehearse when he was a struggling unknown actor, imitating his bizarre, screeching, self-important delivery. The horror of these images is tempered by Elvira’s narration, and for good reason; I don’t believe the slaughterhouse was meant to simply induce shock or disgust (although, of course it does), nor do I believe it was intended to illustrate violence or cruelty as such. I don’t even think it’s a metaphor, exactly (although in certain moments, come to think of it, there is something distinctly bovine about Elvira; something about her calm, impassive dignity, her physical presence, her big sad slow eyes, that makes you think of the proverbial heifer to the slaughter . . .).
The slaughterhouse is a perfect representation of the inevitability and the necessity of death in life. This is why Elvira must take Zora to see it. This is what Elvira is attempting to come to terms with herself.
ZORA: It’s against life.
ELVIRA: No, it’s not. It’s life itself. The streaming blood and death. That’s what gives an animal’s life meaning. And the smell when they know they’re going to die and know that it’s beautiful and wait for it. Solitary and beautiful . . . When I was young I felt the same disgust as you. Today I understand the world better. Come on, I’ll show you, Zora. You’ll smell it, see them die, hear their cries, cries for deliverance.
This, of course, is what RWF is trying to come to grips with in this film, too: the inevitable necessity of death in life. That’s why he needed imagery that would shock us out of our complacency. And that’s why melodrama wouldn’t work here, because what melodrama does is enable us to project our deepest anxieties elsewhere (onto fictional surrogates) and thereby experience catharsis while preserving our own denial intact. But denial is not an option here.
There is a pivotal moment in the film when Elvira goes to Saitz’s headquarters in a highrise he owns (a favorite symbol of capitalist excess for RWF). Wishing to avoid Saitz and his cadre of close associates/bodyguards (led by Gunther Kaufmann) as they make their way down the building stairs, Elvira ducks into a vacant floor and falls asleep. She awakens in the dark, empty office to the sight of a strange man quietly and methodically assembling a noose over an exposed pipe or hook (echoes of the meat hook?), preparing, he matter-of-factly explains, to kill himself. After helping Elvira open the bottle of wine she brought, the man (played by Bob Dorsay, Volker Spengler’s real-life partner) eloquently explains his philosophy of suicide:
If you want to know the moral failing of humanity, as a whole and in general, just look at their fate, as a whole and in general. There is an eternal justice, and were they not so worthless, in general, their fate, in general, would not be so sad. We can therefore say the world itself is the Day of Judgment. But it would be a great mistake to see that as a negation of the will to live, to see suicide as an act of negation. Far from it: the negation of the will to exist is a bold affirmation of the will since negation means renouncing not life’s sufferings but its joys. The suicide wants life and simply rejects the conditions under which he experiences it. The suicide does not renounce the will to live; he renounces life by destroying the manifestation of his own life.
To which Elvira quietly replies, “I think you’d better do it now.” The suicide decided upon—the conditions of his own life rejected—what else is there to say? It is just death, solitary and beautiful, which comes when it comes.
This is a pretty sober and coherent assessment of suicide; I think it’s safe to say it’s RWF’s own. He follows it soon after with a representation of life, in the form of Anton Saitz in his dazzlingly empty white office, dancing along with a Jerry Lewis video on TV, while his men (plus Elvira, in black floppy hat and veil and hobble skirt and gold lamé ankle-wrap pumps) sing and follow along in the chorus (Gunther Kaufmann has a lovely voice, by the way). As haunting an image, in its own way, as Bob Dorsay hanging from a rope tied to the ceiling. And so the story moves toward its end, life and death hopelessly intertwined as they always are. Saitz returns to Elvira’s place with her to find Zora, asleep, with whom Saitz becomes immediately and fully occupied. Elvira puts on a man’s suit one last time and begins her final rounds, first to ask Irene and Marie-Ann to take her/him back, next to see the journalist to whom she gave the fateful interview, in a last effort to find some peace and understanding and a sense of an identity.
It’s impossible not to wonder whether, by making Elvira’s plight so impossibly dire and her acceptance of death so stoic, RWF was attempting to justify Armin’s suicide in some way, to diminish his own responsibility. On some level, I think that’s likely. At the same time, though, I think he clearly and honestly exposes his own moral culpability in the character of Christoph Hacker—a man not ashamed to prostitute his girlfriend, after all, who let her prop him up to the point where he could feel like just enough of a man again to be disgusted by the reflection of his own weakness he must have seen in her. I’ve got a strong hunch those hateful words Christoph hurls at Elvira before he leaves her for good were things RWF actually said to Armin at one time or other as their relationship steadily deteriorated. They just sound too familiar and too cruel. (If you’ve seen Germany in Autumn, you’ll know what I mean. RWF depicts behavior toward Armin in that segment that is really pretty contemptible.)
In showing the injustice of Elvira’s treatment, then, RWF implicates himself as much as he does postwar German ordinances regarding the handling of orphans, for example, or the unthinking cruelty of rent boys, or the inhumanity of a concentration camp survivor who learned everything he needed to know about how to run a successful business from the camps. Everyone is guilty because everyone is a victim, strange as that may sound. This is the hell that humans have created for themselves on earth. Of course this is also the reality Fassbinder had been trying to show us all along, in different milieus and using different tools; from the early gangster films to the domestic melodramas, in literary costume dramas and political satires, the goal, I think, has always been the same. Sadly, it took a cataclysmic event that shook him to the very foundation of his being to enable him to express his vision so clearly and so well.