Tag Archives: Ingrid Caven

IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS/ in einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1978)

Watching IN A YEAR OF THIREEN MOONS has proven an overwhelming experience, one that’s resulted in trouble keeping within the terms of the exercise  I’ve set for myself, which is to see a Fassbinder film in the evening, and then take no more than half an hour to write about it the morning after, with maybe another hour or so gathering or making the clips and images necessary to illustrate whatever I’ve written. The film is so beautiful and harsh, with a structure that seems episodic and free-floating but that inexorably constructs the pathway to the tragic, with such an extraordinary performance from Voken Spengler as Erwin/ Elvira Weishaupt, the soft-spoken gentle giant who’s given up everything for love only to find himself without it, that my first impulse is to see it again and get a better grip on what I’ve seen. But that will have to wait, otherwise this Fassbinder journey will never end.

The film begins precisely on July 24, 1978. Men are cruising in a park by the river in Frankfurt. Titles tell us that ‘Every seventh year is a moon year. People whose lives are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression in these years. To a lesser degree this is also true of years with 13 moons. When a moon year also has 13 moons, inescapable personal tragedies may occur.’ Needless to say 1978 is a year when that dangerous constellation occurs. And Erwin/ Elvira is its victim. They’ve gone cruising to buy themselves sex, something they find less humiliating dressed as a man than as a woman. They find someone who also finds them attractive but, as they begin to fumble with each other, the trick discovers that Erwin/ Elvira has breasts and lacks a penis. He’s outraged, begins to attack Erwin/Elvira and furthermore calls for all his mates nearby to join him. Thus the tables are turned on that trope of vulnerable gay men attacked by a braying mob of sadistic heterosexuals with fragile masculinities; here they are the attackers and Elvira is their victim. Another extraordinary opening scene from Fassbinder.

Goethe/ abbatoir

Elvira is so gentle, kind and loving, so needy for love, that she’s everybody’s victim. As Erwin, she was a happily married man who loved his wife and daughter. Then he fell in love with Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, who made his fortune organizing whorehouses around techniques he’d learned in the concentration camp, now making an even bigger fortune in property development. Anton told Erwin that he’s heterosexual but would return his love if only Erwin were a woman. Erwin took this careless statement as a mission, went to Casablanca and had the full operation, gave up his whole life — family, work, sexual identity, gender – for love…and then never saw Anton again…. until an incident in the narrative results in Elvira’s searching and finding him.

Tombstones/ A Time to Love

Erwin’s tale is told episodically. He goes to the orphanage he grew up in and a nun there tells him that when he arrived as a baby everyone loved him. Then a couple decided to adopt him but they needed the biological mother’s permission to proceed. She wouldn’t give it because she was married at the time, the father was not her husband, and in fact since the child was born in wedlock the father would have to give permission, something that would reveal the adultery. The nuns feeling guilt and sadness over the child’s fate, started keeping a distance and the child experienced this as a withdrawal of love that he learned to live with. Later, in the extraordinary abattoir scene that for me culminates in the verses from Goethe — ‘..and though a man be silenced by his pain, a God gave me the power to express how much I suffer —  Elvira tells of how she wanted to be a goldsmith but could only find an apprenticeship as a butcher in an abattoir, how as Erwin he married and loved a woman he met there, now a teacher with ‘a life that is worth so much more than my own’.

Fairy Tales and Family Cannibalism

Fassbinder made IN THE YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS after the suicide of his lover Armin Meier. He wrote, directed, edited and was the dop on this project, an attempt to understand Armin, his life, his suicide, the place of love, need and desire in all of this, the price people pay for non-conforming, and perhaps his own guilt around how his own actions might have contributed to Armin’s fate. The story is told episodically: there is documentary footage of Fassbinder himself speaking, fairy tales, poetry, absurdist takes inspired by Martin and Lewis, all of which magically add up to a seamless narrative. Erwin/Elvira’s life ends on August 28th.

On suicide

The film leaves me with a desire to see it again immediately but also with several questions. Why hasn’t Queer Studies made more of this and indeed more of Fassbinder’s entire output. It seems that in the valorisation of New Queer Cinema and the development of  Queer Theory that arose almost simultaneously there’s a real erasure of post-Stonewall pre-AIDS gay cultures, of which I would rank Fassbinder’s work as the most significant.

It was so hard to conform

The other last question arises with the certitude that this is a great work but one which it would be very difficult to show. Can we screen films that offend or disgust? Should we block things because they make uncomfortable viewing. My view is of course not, we can and must, but ….I can imagine classes walking out en masse at the abattoir scene and perhaps losing them in toto. So the question becomes not only of what to make of IN A YEAR OF THIRTEEN MOONS, how to understand it, but also under which conditions, how can one contextualise it so that it can be screened at all, a fundamental preamble to any further discussion.

José Arroyo




SATANS’S BREW/ SATANSBRATEN (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1976)


Fassbinder continues to surprise, this time with an all-out comedy, a high-pitched farce, dealing with the vulgar, explicit and extreme in a way that’s designed to be offensive and to push as many of the audience’s buttons as possible. How did he get away with it? In the first ten minutes of the film, we get fellatio with gun à la CHANT D’AMOUR, a murder enhanced by poppers during coitus, a dildo-drawer with a gun, a woman slapping down her brother-in-law’s erection in close-up, a prostitute getting her nipples tweaked for a laugh… It’s like a grunge explicit version of boulevardier farce about masochistic power relations, drained of any trace of elegance. I found it discomforting and funny.


The plot revolves around Walter Kranz(Kurt Raab), once the poet of the revolution, now suffering from writer’s block, and in constant need of money. He has a long-suffering wife, several mistresses, a brother who’s not all there (and who seems to be modelled on the fly-eating Renfeld, Dracula’s side-kick). He takes adoration as his due and exploits all his inter-personal relationships, including his long-suffering parents, whom he tricks out of the money they’ve saved for their funeral.

designed to be offensive

After two years when he hasn’t been able to write a word, he finally recites some lines he likes. He’s delighted at the break-through only to be told that the lines are not his but those of Stefan George, the famous symbolist poet. So he decides to become George by performing him, by hiring a coterie of young gay men to worship his poetry readings and by becoming gay himself, something he ends up not being too successful at. Performing identity, performing society’s expectations of identity and finding liberation in madness are key themes in the film.

male full frontal

Like in a good farce, everything is over-turned and comes full-circle in a ‘happy’ ending. Walter, who’s surprised when his brother likes the whipping he gives him, ends up finding his own masochistic side, thereby losing the provincial acolyte he’s been dominating, Andrée (Margit Carstersen) but getting together with Lisa, who previously enjoyed an open marriage with Rolf, who has now gone off with the newly liberated Andrée. He finally ends up writing a novel: NO CELEBRATION FOR THE FÜHRER’S DEAD DOG, a book who’s thesis is that Fascism will triumph, a hit with his publishers.


The film is book-ended by a quote from Antonin Artaud: ‘What differentiates the heathens from us is the great resolve underlying all their forms of belief, not to think in human terms. In this way, they are able to retain the link with the whole of Creation, in other words with the Godhead’, ie thinking from a non-hiuman point of view is a way of maintaining contact with the divine. Fassbinder described the film as a ‘comedy about me if I were what I perhaps am but don’t believe I am” Thomas Elsaesser found the film “a rare attempt at comedy from a filmmaker who, as most commentators have noted, is entirely devoid of humour’. A bit harsh I think, though how funny people find it might depend on how far they are willing to be pushed.

José Arroyo




MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN/ Mutter Küsters’ Fahrt zum Himmel (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, West Germany, 1975)

A film that incited laughter, tears, and, towards the end a palpable sense of sustained dread – ‘please don’t let that happen’. Indeed, there is an alternate ending –gentle and utopian –that was filmed but shown only in the US, where it doesn’t.  As I watch Fassbinder’s work, mainly in chronological order, some films detach themselves from the rest as more beautiful, more meaningful, better; films I want to revisit again: THE MERCHANT OF THE FOUR SEASONS, THE TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT, FEAR EATS THE SOUL. And to that I would now add MOTHER KÜSTERS GOES TO HEAVEN.

The film is set in Frankfurt, then the financial capital of West Germany, and already a site of terrorist actions. What we’re shown first is a close-up of plugs being assembled. Frau Küsters (Brigitte Mira) is a working-class housewife, making extra money by doing piece work from home. Her son Ernst (Armin Meier) is helping out as her daughter-in-law, Helene (Irm Hermann) makes a salad. She’s got a stew in the oven, one that needs more sausages, the way her husband likes it, and she’s multi-tasking with the plugs and the stew and conversation with her children about their upcoming vacation in Finland, the danger of preservatives in meat, the pros and cons and salads, when they overhear a report that some man in a factory got into an argument with a personnel supervisor and killed him before committing suicide himself. That man is Frau Küsters’ husband.

Soon the press descend. Her daughter, Corinna (Ingrid Caven), a cabaret singer returns home to support her mother but also to get press for her career. The whole family is interviewed. Her daughter Corinna starts an affair with the news reporter she trusts the most (Gottfried John) but even he twists all their words and her husband, who she sees as a nice, even-tempered man who never complained, fair and reliable, is headlined as a monster in the press.

The Spectre of Marlene still hovers (see above)

Is it significant that all of Mother Küster’s children are played by Fassbinder’s former or current lovers? Mother Küster loves all her children unconditionally. She accepts everything from them. And they love her also. But they’ve got their own lives. The first third of the film reminded me a little bit of Ozu’s TOKYO STORY. Everyone has their reasons. They do love each other and it’s nobody’s fault. But her son and daughter-in-law end up going on their vacation to Finland and missing their father’s funeral. The daughter exploits her father’s tragedy and moves out of her mother’s house and in with the journalist. At the funeral she vows to restore her husband’s name. But how? She’s all alone.

She’s befriended by a couple played by Margit Cartensen and Karlheinz Böhm , journalists, members of the Communist Party, and the wealthiest most bourgeois couple in the film. They offer her warmth and understanding and they’re the only ones who seem interested in clearing her husband’s name. The husband will be turned into a working class martyr murdered on the altar of capital.  Of course they’re using her, her daughter tells her. ‘Everybody’s out for something,’ she replies, ‘once you realise that, things get simpler’. Mother Küster’s simple, unaffected and naïve oration at the Communist Party meeting moved me to tears, partly because it contrasts so strongly with the film’s ironising of power relations, social, institutional and interpersonal.

It’s worth pointing out that all the film’s possibilities for exciting action (the revolt at the beginning, the shoot-out at the end) are left off-screen(see below).

 That’s not what Fassbinder’s interested in. Instead, we get Brigitte Mira’s sensitive, common-sensical and accepting everywoman, so emotionally transparent and so moving. Ingrid Caven as a low grade diva playing cheap dives and making the most of her moment in the spotlight with sub Marlene Dietrich, sub Brecht-Weill cynical chansons; a queerness that seeps through into laughter with the fat man dragged up as a ballerina, shaggy dark chest hair jutting out of his tutu, pirouetting for his life in the nightclub scene; and then that incredible last scene of the occupation of the magazine offices, where Mother Küster thinks she’s just participating in a sit-in to clear her husband’s name but, to her surprise, a gun appears and the whole action descends into tragedy.

Mother Küsters speaks to the Communist Party (above)

A critique of labour relations, of how the press distorts and manipulates, and an interrogation of whether left-wing parties and action groups are really interested in improving the life of a the proletariat. A moving portrait of complex family relations in the process of dissolution. A truly great film.


José Arroyo