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.
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.
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.