inayearof13moons.jpg  {link: Continuation of my previous post on this dramatic tale : the aftermath of a Personal Catastrophe}….as reviewed by Robert Kolker, the author of A Cinema of Loneliness : Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman.  He captured the essence of this film in a phrase “Controlled Hysteria”, which is both astoundingly a beautiful and brutally a disturbing definition of art.   

There are three directors of the New German Cinema that are best known outside their country : Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Of the three, Fassbinder was certainly the most prolific, probably the most profound, definitely the most political, arguably the most inventive of the group. He used film as an exploratory tool, pushing it to its limits, often pushing his audience to their limits by making films so unrelenting that viewers are asked not to sit back and allow the film to pour over them, but to became actively engaged in its visual and narrative energy.

“In a Year with 13 Moons”, a relatively late film, it is Fassbinder at the peak of his powers combining the melodramatic exaggeration that he picked up from the German born American director, Douglas Sirk, and the political and aesthetic ideas of the German playwright, Bertolt Brecht. Sirk offered Fassbinder a way of creating films of Controlled Hysteria, with great peaks of emotional outburst. Brecht provided the restraint and the politics. Brecht was an anti-melodramatist, who believed that melodrama, when it absorbed the viewer, making him or her believe they were watching a version of the real world, was misleading and a way to create intellectual passivity. He wanted his viewers not to identify with what they saw, but to observe, to understand the mechanics of the dramaturgy and its political underpinnings. He wished his work to create an “alienation effect” that put the audience at a distance and made them think as much, or more, than feel. To all of this Fassbinder adds a touch of surrealism and theater of the absurd.

What a mix! Melodrama and Anti-melodrama; Emotion and Intellect; the Self and the World; Engagement and Distance; the collision of the Profound and the Bizarge ; Cinematic art that confronts history and Politics with subjective experience and makes its audience a part of the meaning-making project. Such is “In a Year with 13 Moons”. This is the most personal of Fassbinder’s films.  

The film emerges from a terrible event, the suicide of Fassbinder’s lover. The immediate result might have been a film of enormous despair. But Fassbinder’s determination to regard his subject distantly, persistently, and with rim humor, to diminish emotional intensity by denying spectator identification with the characters, and to politicize the personal, makes it bearable – more than bearable; endlessly intriguing and deeply satisfying. It is a mark of Fassbinder’s talent that given the personal nature of its origin and creation, the finished work is not a merely subjective lament, and it does not indulge in the mystification sometimes associated with “subjective cinema”. The pain suffered by the filmmaker and expressed in the film is situated objectively, and although the film studies the breakdown and death of a pathetic individual, that process occurs in a way that parallels a larger breakdown in social relations. Like all of Fassbinder’s films, it becomes an analysis of capitalism and the distortion of relationships created on every level.

Elvira (nee Erwin) who is a transsexual is the central character (played evocatively played by Volker Spengler, a frequent actor in Fassbinder’s films),  a figure of such innocence that her/his grotesqueness emerges not from what she has allowed to be done to his body but from the matter-of-factness with which she accepts it and allows it to destroy her. Erwin was married and worked for Anton Saitz, a small racketeer in the meat-packing business and who also runs a whorehouse along totalitarian lines. When Erwin expressed his love, Anton told him it was too bad he was not a woman. Erwin went off to Casablanca and returned as Elvira only to realize that Anton took advantage of his weakness and put him out of his body. If the relationship between Anton and Elvira parallels that of Master and Slave, on another level it parallels that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis : a fraudulent sophisticate and childlike fool – user and abused. Every sequence that Elvira inhabits, confirms her status as passive follower and willing victim, echoes the mutilation and disintegration of herself. The viewer often seeks out the contents of each space, which is mostly dark, only enhanced by available light, discerns it, locates it, and then deals with the emotional terror” it contains, which reflects Elvira’s psyche. Early in the film, after her lover leaves her and she is knocked down by a car, and looked after by Zora, a whore who literally picks her up form the gutter, she visits the slaughter house in which she once worked and where she first knew Anton, “It’s life itself: the steaming blood, and death”, she says in a kind of “fascistic reflection that indicates the state of her confusion and damage”. The slaughterhouse scene is Fassbinder’s metaphor for Fascism.  In the scene, as in so many films, emotional and physical degradation are linked with Germany’s terrible past and the obsession with physicality is given a brutal literalness. Elvira is a construction of everyone she knows – man, woman, husband, father, worker, provider, passive lover, abused lover, chattel, willing surrenderer of identity, of sexuality and of personality. The slaughterhouse becomes an image of the brutalities that made her a metaphor for the fascism of the spirit, many versions of spiritual murder and dismemberment follow, unrelentingly.

This disturbed and disturbing film asks us, above all,  to understand the ‘depths of victimhood”. Elvira is the victim of fascism past and present. For Fassbinder, the past is always present, though perhaps he is recalling Marx’s comment that history does repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. This is a film unlike any you have seen, will move, disturb, and, in a way only a great work of the imagination can, allow you to see clearly, even through its darkness.  

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