[This is an post for the Queer Film Blogathon, co-hosted by Pussy Goes Grrr and Garbo Laughs.]
As this text rolls, Fassbinder establishes the action in a Frankfurt park in the dim morning light just before sunrise. What appears to be two men meet in the shadows and begin petting each other, until one pulls away roughly and begins angrily speaking as no subtitles appear to explain his frustrations. Suddenly, a group of men appear and bring subtitles with them; the angry man tells the newcomers that the other man claims to be a woman, and everyone then falls upon this member of the initial pair with a vicious beating. As an introduction to Elvira, née Erwin (Volker Spengler), Fassbinder couldn't be much more bleak.
And then the film continues. A limping Elvira stumbles back home to her apartment seeking comfort from her lover Christoph, only to face a fiercer, crueler rebuff. Christoph adds some physical abuse of his own, as well as a verbal onslaught. Christoph mocks Elvira's self-pity, and her notions of womanhood. Christoph holds her to the mirror to see how ridiculous Elvira, with Spengler's hyper-masculine jaw and bulky frame, looks. It's hard to disagree with his assessment, but as Elvira shrinks away in fear from the mirror and Christoph's snide put-downs get ever more inhumane, it's impossible not to feel for the woman who says in her defense, "The only thing I did wrong was yearn for someone to caress me and kiss me."
That could be the motto of nearly every Fassbinder character, but Vogler's composed hysterics fits in with the director's style of removed, icy melodrama like few others. The actor takes the part with such conviction that, through the course of the film, the ungainly sight of this unalterably male physique walking about in a dress morphs into someone one can easily take as a woman. This is all the more impressive because, as one character notes, Elvira did not change her sex because she felt she was born a woman but for a much more pedestrian reason, one so absurd that Fassbinder doesn't even try to hide the black comedy it entails.
As we later learn, Elvira was Erwin until he met a businessman named Anton and fell in love. Muddying the sexual lines further, one of Elvira's friends says that before this, Erwin wasn't even gay. But the man thought he'd found someone in this world who understood him and confessed his love to Anton, who offhandedly remarked, "Too bad you're not a woman." But sarcasm doesn't work on the earnest and lovestruck, and when Erwin went to Casablanca and Elvira returned, she discovered to her horror what a mistake she'd made.
That Elvira's change can be attributed to this grimly ridiculous motivation throws the film into the realm of the surreal and senseless even as it opens up to the director's most piercing view of a person in desperate search for a self. In many movies, all people have in themselves, but the characters in Fassbinder's films aren't even that lucky. In Elvira they have their purest avatar, someone who made a radical change in order to define herself, only to define herself according to someone else. Before the audience learns of the truth of Elvira's sex change, she offers a cryptic defense of all her sins when she tells a gay friend-of-a-friend simply, "I had to exist." Spengler's unapologetic but broken delivery of the line distills Fassbinder's cinema to its essence.
At every turn, the director's camera reflects this despair and longing. His Sirkian use of mirrors combines with a steady use of long and medium shots to visualize both the protagonist's fractured identity and the unsentimental remove with which the rest of the world views Elvira. One striking room features a bathroom wall with a disrupted pattern of tiles and tiny square mirrors, a pre-digital pixel collapse that only compounds the cruel reflections and distortions of Elvira's confused self-image. Fassbinder isolates Elvira with frames within frames, constantly separating the poor woman not only from the world but the mise-en-scène.
The greatest display of Fassbinder's direction in this film, and maybe his entire career, comes with a tour Elvira takes with a friend through the slaughterhouse where young Erwin used to work. As Elvira lays out some of her sad story from Erwin's marriage and fatherhood before falling for a man and having the operation that turned her into Elvira. It's a monologue that depressingly lays out the pathetic forces weighing down on humanity and the way that connections can sometimes be as loneliness as solitude. But what makes Spengler's impassioned delivery even more terrifying and repulsive is how Fassbinder marries Elvira's autobiographical monologue to scenes of abattoir activity. Workers casually hoist up cows and slit their throats, sending showers of blood pouring out onto the floor as the heads are sawed further until connected to the torso by only the thinnest sliver of meat and skin in a manner not unlike the beheading technique of seppuku. As Elvira's tale of the miserable grind of life builds to a fever pitch (Vengler comes magnificently unglued quoting Goethe), the mise-en-scène steadily watches the cows bleed out and flop limply, then carved up by the butchers who flay the skin from muscle. As if to taunt Elvira at this moment of raw self-admission, Fassbinder even includes a shot that hones in on a pile of severed steer penises. Set to a Handel concerto, this bravura, nihilistic sequence pushes the fear and loathing of Fassbinder's cinema to its most abstract, but also its most emotionally direct.
The more blunt scenes lose none of their impact, either. In Elvira's wild despair, she returns to the Catholic orphanage where he was abandoned as a baby, trying to find her lost identity by tracing back all the steps of her life. A nun remembers Elvira as a young boy and recounts a story as devastating for her calm recounting of Erwin's adolescence as Elvira's fevered reminiscence of the life she left behind was in the slaughterhouse. One shot of Elvira's friend standing with her eyes sleepily closed but filled with tears speaks to the simultaneous effect of boredom and devastation in the nun's delivery. The camera moves with the nun as she orbits around a garden, talking of how Erwin's mother gave him up for adoption after World War II and how the nuns took such a shine to him that, as the toddler felt lonely without parents, the chaste virgins got out the yearning of their biological clocks by vying for his doting affection. And when Erwin finally had his shot at adoption by a loving, well-off family, the mother's fear of her husband's retribution for secretly giving away his legitimate child while he was away prevents the act that might have changed everything.
This scene, among others, traces Elvira's issues of self and solitude to factors beyond sex, and in its revelation of the nuns' own longing for vicarious mother-son relationships opens up one of the film's most aching suggestions, that not only may there be value in accepting the affections of imperfect people who offer it but that this may be the only way to make a mutual connection in the world. Neither the nuns nor Elvira's wife and daughter could truly fill the void in her life, but as rending and relatable as Elvira's loneliness is, it's apparent that the biggest obstacle to her finding a place in the world is her.
When Elvira finally reunites with Anton (Gottfried John), his own rejection of her love reveals the flip side of her narcissistic despair. Elvira's sexual identity reflects her confused, impulsive reaches for any kind of love, but Anton's business dealings speak to an embrace of solipsism. Anton makes his millions buying up buildings, bulldozing them and flipping the property for a profit. His own isolation is the proud endpoint of capitalism, an every-man-for-himself individualism that actively manipulates those who would attempt to pull him into any kind of collective, even one simply of emotional connection. In one of the film's odder scenes, Anton has his lackeys and Elvira reenact a scene of a Martin and Lewis movie, replicating the choreography as Anton plays both the star and the director. It's a goody interlude in its own right, but also one that shows how casually Anton plays on the affections of others to enjoy their total devotion.
In terms of density of ideas, richness of tragedy and excess of style, In a Year of 13 Moons feels like a summation of Fassbinder's skill, a distillation of his politics, grim humanism, even his controversy-baiting. This two-hour tour through contemporary Germany is quite possibly more harrowing than the director's 16-hour overview of a Weimar Germany on the brink of fascism. I admit I was unsure about Fassbinder's use of transgender as an extreme example of the usual visualization of sexual ambiguity in movies, as a means of communicating not a genuine self-identity but a host of other problems, and to say that it deals with more universal feelings of self and belonging may not wholly excuse its use of the theme. Yet as a means of coming to terms with a lover's suicide and of perhaps getting out Fassbinder's own pansexual uncertainty, In a Year of 13 Moons infuses its savage tragedy and black humor with honesty. Nowhere is the film's essence of simultaneous searching for and fear of self-realization than in a scrawled note in an apartment that forebodingly reads, "But my greatest fear is that, one day, I'll find words to express my feelings. For when I do..."