Tag Archives: Volker Spengler

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





A dazzling work of mise-en-scène. Fassbinder and Michael Ballhaus deploy a gliding camera, shifts in focus, compositions that group alliances or fractures, social and internal, with beauty and precision. Has anyone made more expressive use of a glass drinks cabinet? Doublings, decompositions, reflections, often filmed through glass or on mirrors. Nothing is as it seems in this movie and the process of discovery is brutal: ‘eavesdroppers often hear false truths’.

mirrors and reflections;


The setting is the real life Ballhaus family Schloss, but empty and with echoes of recent occupying army ransackings. The film has been compared to an Agatha Christie country house murder narrative such as AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. But there are limits to such a comparison: there are gun shots but no one is killed in this movie; and the wounding, psychic as it is, is also deep, primal and savage, going into areas Christie wouldn’t dream of.


The plot revolves around a couple, significantly named Ariane (Margit Carstensen) and Gerhard Christ (Alexander Allerson). He’s ostensibly going on a trip to Oslo; she to Milan. But in fact both have arranged assignations with their lovers; he with his long-time mistress, Irene (the divine Anna Karina); she with Gerhard’s assistant Kolbe (Ulli Lommel, then Anna Karina’s partner). The problem is that their assignations are to take place in the family schloss, so they end up discovering each other’s adultery. All are sophisticated people of the world and try to behave elegantly. But things become more somber and delicate with the realisation that this has all been organised by the Christ’s daughter Angela (Andrea Schroeber).

Symphonic Opening Scene

Angela believes that her parents blame her for ruining their lives; that her father first took on a lover when she was diagnosed with a crippling disease that hampered the use of her legs; and that her mother took on a lover when Angela’s disability was pronounced incurable. In fact Angela thinks her mother wishes her dead, and the whole weekend has been designed by Angela, with the same precision that she enacts the role play of the dolls that surround her, to drive her mother to murder her. In fact games, strategy, enactments, role-play, through dolls, cards, chess, are running motifs in the film, culminating in Chinese Roulette, played viciously and with murderous intent. In the process the victim will become the victimiser, the Bad Seed,  or as John Mercer more colloquially puts it, The Exorcist’s Linda Blair on crutches.


The two couples are in tension with another set of four: Mrs. Kast (Brigitte Mira) who has some kind of underground or criminal relationship with Mr. Christ – ‘Ali Ben Basset has been murdered in Paris. We are the only two left,’ he tells her, a sort of McGuffin as this remains external to the main narrative but adds clouds of narrative possibilities that overhang but are never brought into focus. Just like Mrs. Kast’s son Gabriel (Volker Spengler), boot-boy and plagiarist, at the beginning of the film when he asks the petrol station attendant. ‘Have you ever been to hell?’ ‘Yes’.


The other two of that outside four are Angela herself and her nanny, Traunitz (Macha Méril). Traunitz has the kind of easy relationship with her charge that Angela wishes she had with her mother. They listen to techno – Kraftwerk: fun, rhythmic, partial —  instead of symphonies (Mahler’s Symphony No.8)  aiming for the totalising and divine. Traunitz herself is conducting a sexual relationship with Gabriel, who reciprocates though he seems himself as more androgynous, sexually more anarchic; and that includes a sexual tension depicted with Angela, who discovered he was a plagiarist years before and has the upper hand.


Fassbinder turns the tables here and explores the cruelty and harshness of the small and the weak to show the power and ruthlessness of the victim. That is basically the function of the character of the daughter. The mother is as is usual with Carstensen’s characters for Fassbinder, the target and recipient of much of the film’s sadism.

rhyming shot and another kind of discovery

When the game of Chinese Roulette begins, the verbal rapiers begin to wound, culminating in the question, ‘What Would This Person Have Been in The Third Reich?’ The film ends mysteriously with the sound of a gunshot, a night-time procession and a quotation from Christian wedding vows; a somewhat reductive ending as the film seems to have been about so much more than that.


According to wiki, Andrew Sarris devoted a whole university course to CHINESE ROULETTE.  I can understand why.


José Arroyo