Part melodrama, part infernal parody of 'Candide', 'In a Year of 13 Moons' is one of Fassbinder's most moving films, without once relinquishing his icy formal control or savage cynicism. It achieves a remarkable effect whereby its protagonist's world seems to open up as the film continues - he begins alone, meets people, traverses a lot of places - but actually closes in, imprisons him, simply reinforcing the labyrinthine world of his own private hell, where the only escape is death. When we first meet Elvira, the film's transexual heroine, she is dressed in men's clothing, trying to pick up boys in a dusky park. When her female appurtenances are discovered, she is beaten up by a group of thugs, left limping on a railway track, offering a promise of escape she cannot take up. Fassbinder's alienating method here is typical of the film as a whole. It is very difficult to make out what is going on, the scene is very murky. Fassbinder's editing and composition tend to fragment rather than establish the action, leaving us with a montage of darkness and sinister figures, scored to Mahler in an ironic rejoinder to the passive gay fantasy of Visconti's 'Death in Venice'. To add to our confusion, Fassbinder's intertitles begin explaining the meaning of the title, making it difficult to follow both levels. Just as we've finally made out what's going on, and the film reaches what might be considered a dramatic or emotional crisis, forcing the viewer into the scene, Fassbinder hurls us back, framing it in long shot, and throwing screen-filling credits over it! So, while I suggested the film was moving, it's with no help from the director. Elvira shares a narrative trajectory of decline similar to one of Fassbinder's most famous characters, Fox; indeed, here it is worse, she never begins with wealth and 'love', but is abused from the very start. The opening sequences reveal the extent of Fassbinder's despair. Elvira is beaten up by thugs, in the outside world. When she comes home, she is attacked by her so-called boyfriend, who abandons her, having savagely and interminably insulted her, mocking her alcoholism, her weight problems, suggesting her brain has shrunk - that it would be better for the world if she was crushed like an insect. Fassbinder's vision is not a reassuring one; there is no refuge from a brutal world, the violent poison infects home and outside alike. So Elvira would seem to be a figure deserving of our sympathy. There is worse to follow, including being flung off her lover's speeding bonnet. In true melodrama fashion, her past is revealed onion-like, and her tragic quest to find the entrepeneur Anton Saitz, to apologise for insulting remarks made about him in an interview, inspires devastating revelations, as does a trip to the nunnery orphanage where she was brought up. This mixture of emotional masochism and traumatic incident might suggest a film of overpowering pathos. But Fassbinder never uses the methods that would allow us get close to Elvira's plain, sympathetic music, or the close-up. Indeed, it is very difficult to make out the drama at all. Invoking his mentors, Sirk and Godard, Fassbinder does not foreground the drama; very often what is going on in the narrative is marginalised, squeezed into a tiny doorframe, so that what's privileged on screen is a door, or a wall, or the objects of a room; each scene is very lengthy, theatrical, like a self-contained episode, as, I suggested, in 'Candide', with lots of talk, stylised movements and positioning of character; at other times, you can barely make out characters in the dim lighting, who is actually speaking in a scene (this might be just my inability to differentiate German); even those scenes that seem to concern Elvira crucially, explanations of her past, for instance, have no room for her, characters talking about her as if she wasn't even there. But, like Sirk, the film is shot through visually with Elvira's sensibility, her feelings of confinement, ironically, considering her apparent gender fluidity, a fluidity Fassbinder provocatively refuses to sentimentalise or celebrate. Elvira's vision is truly one of hell, where horrific scenes in a slaughterhouse offer a peaceful refuge to the human world; of confined, indoor spaces, of intrusive decor; or frightening emptiness; one scene, with the suicide, glows with a blazing red light, suggesting infernal fires. This is not a realistically rendered Berlin, but a living nightmare - there can barely be 20 people in this sparse dream landscape, even though Elvira seems to travel the whole city. Naturally, such a bleak Fassbinder film is incongruously funny (the reunion scene is unbelievably flippant), but the humour turns back on the viewer, and we must ask ourselves, when we laugh, are we laughing at Elvira, sharing in her oppression. Is her lethargy, her paralysed will also sharing in her oppression? The film is full of lingering images of destruction (eg the primitive computer games).
In a Year with 13 Moons
In a Year with 13 Moons
A transgender woman tries to salvage something from the wreckage love has made of her life by confronting her anguished past, hoping to find ultimate acceptance among quondam acquaintances and herself.
February 1, 2020