19 September 2009

In Einem Jahr mit 13 Monden

Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Script by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
129 minutes 1978
English title: In a Year with 13 Moons
    Volker Spengler plays Erwin/Elvira Weisshaupt
    Gottfried John plays Anton Saitz
    Ingrid Caven plays Die rote Zora
    Elisabeth Trissenaar plays Irene Weisshaupt
    Eva Mattes plays Marie-Ann Weisshaupt        
    Lilo Pempeit plays Schwester Gudrun
Country of finance: West Germany
Nationality of director: West German
Location of story: Frankfurt
Filming location: Frankfurt   


The Little Mermaid, in Hans Andersen’s 1836 short story of the same name, falls in love with a prince of the land.  Knowing that being a mermaid, with a tail instead of legs, she cannot win his love, she changes her tail for human legs.  However, she is still a foundling, an outsider and a servant.  He still does not love her.

In In a Year with 13 Moons, Erwin Weisshaupt thinks that he is in love with Anton Saitz, not exactly a prince, but as a businessman close enough for Erwin, the butcher’s assistant.  An off-hand comment by Anton: ‘Too bad you’re not a girl', was taken too literally.  Erwin goes to Casablanca, and comes back as Elvira.  However, Anton is still not interested.

In this way, In a Year with 13 Moons is more faithful to Andersen’s story than is the Disney animation that took its name, but altered the ending.


Elvira, in male clothing, tries to buy sex from rent-boys who beat her up when they discover that she is not a man.  At home, Elvira’s lover Christophe, has returned after a long absence.  They argue and he leaves for good.  Elvira chases after his car and is knocked down.  Elvira’s hooker friend Zora sees this and cleans Elvira up.  Elvira takes Zora to the abattoir where Elvira worked when she was a man.  Elvira goes home, attempts to asphyxiate herself but is saved when her ex-wife Irene arrives.  Irene is concerned that a newspaper article about Elvira which mentioned the businessman Anton Saitz might cause trouble.  Elvira promises to go to Saitz and ask for forgiveness.  Zora finds Elvira crying in a video arcade and takes her to see a gay friend who has been eight years in a mental hospital, and has not been outside for months.  Zora then takes Elvira to see Sister Gudrun at the orphanage where Elvira was raised.  Elvira goes to visit Saitz, meeting an ex-accountant who was fired for being ill, and a suicide with an amazingly positive attitude about things.  Saitz at first fails to recognize Elvira, but goes home with her for a chat.  Zora is still in Elvira’s flat, and while Elvira is making coffee, Saitz and Zora start to make out.  Depressed by this, Elvira cuts her hair and dresses in male clothing, and goes to see Irene and their daughter Marie-Ann to ask if she can return to being Erwin.  It is too late.  Elvira goes to see the journalist who had taken the interview, but it is after 11pm.  Elvira goes home and kills herself.  Zora and Anton, still making out, do not notice.

Who is who

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1954 – 1982) was a prodigy of West German cinema, completing 40 films, 2 television series, 24 stage plays, 36 acting roles and more in 15 years before dying of a drug overdose.

Armin Meier (1943-1978), a former butcher, was Fassbinder’s lover 1974-8.  After a break-up he committed suicide on Fassbinder’s birthday.  He was in 7 of Fassbinder’s films.

Ingrid Caven (1938 – ) actress and singer.  She was married to Fassbinder 1970-2.  She has been in over 50 films.  Her current lover French writer Jean-Jacques Schuhl has written a book entitled Ingrid Caven which won the "Prix Goncourt" 2000.

Lilo Pempeit (1922 –1993) is Fassbinder’s mother.  She acted in 23 films, mostly directed by her son.

Volker Spengler (1939 – ) actor.  He was the adulterer Ardalion in Fassbinder’s Despair, 1978, and Hermann Goering in The Ogre, 1996.

Eva Mattes (1954 – ) actress.  Jury’s Special Grand Prix at Cannes 1979.  Best Actress at Bavarian Film Awards 1981.  She acted in three of Fassbinder’s films, and then played Rainer Fassbinder in A Man Called Eva, 1984.  She has a daughter with director Werner Herzog. 


1978 had 13 new moons.

In addition to script and direction, Fassbinder designed the sets, edited and did the camera work.  He did this in no other.   He also expanded Erwin/Elvira’s biography as a short story.

The speech at the end of the slaughterhouse sequence is the closing monologue from Goethe’s Torquato Tasso, 1790,  where the poet in painful awareness of the arbitrariness of his existence switches between self-torture and self-confidence.

Two quotations from Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation on suicide as an affirmation of the will.

A clip from Claude Chabrol’s Le Boucher, 1970 (about a butcher who is sex-murderer).  Armin Meier had been a butcher.

The ‘I Like to Hike’ scene from Jerry Lewis’ You’re Never Too Young, 1955, a gender switch version of The Major and the Minor, 1942 (both films are about passing as children).

The opening scene, along the bank of the Main River at dawn is accompanied by Mahler’s adagio movement from his Fifth symphony which is also used in the opening, also dawn, sequence of Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice, 1971.

While Elvira is asleep, Zora watches on television a news program about Pinochet’s Chile, and then there is a cameo by Fassbinder in the program.

The anecdote is told by the friend released from the mental hospital about a cemetery apparently of young children until it is explained that the dates are not of the person’s lifespan, but of the time during  his life when he had a friend.  This anecdote is of course also told in Orson Well’s Mr Arkadin, 1955.


The film is very bleak, and all the more so as it was Fassbinder’s follow-up to the commercially successful The Marriage of Maria Braun.  It follows the last two days of Elvira’s life.  She meets or visits most of the significant persons in her life, and from the dialogue we find out her biography.  That Erwin was born illegitimately during to war, and given up to an orphanage.  He was almost adopted, until the birth mother would not sign the papers because she was not able to admit the existence of the child to her husband.  Erwin worked in an abattoir and married Irene, the manager’s daughter.  He developed a crush on Anton, with whom he was involved in a shady deal with meat.  Anton said: “Too bad you’re not a girl”.  Erwin went to Casablanca and returned as a woman, Elvira, but was still rejected by Anton.  Part of the irony is, as Saitz’s bodyguard says, “nobody loves Anton Saitz”.  He has no wife or girlfriend.  He appears to be the type of man who takes a woman, and then tires of her and moves on.  Had Elvira been a female from birth, she still could not have made Anton love her.  It is part of Elvira’s naivety that she does not understand this.

The genre of male-to-female transsexual narratives is small.  However In a Year with 13 Moons does not seem to be of the type.  These films deal with the difficulties of changing gender, of operations and hormones, of building a new life and seeking acceptance.  In A Year with 13 Moons this is suggested rather than detailed - indeed of hormones there is no mention at all.  The film is about a person, the gender hardly matters, who is failed by all those who know him, and who gives up.  In this it is like other Fassbinder films, especially Fox and his Friends, 1974.

Most of the books on Fassbinder describe this film as his most personal.  In addition to directing and writing the script, he expanded Erwin/Elvira’s biography as a short story, he designed the sets, edited and did the camera work.  He did this in no other.  He also cast his mother as Sister Gudrun.  This of course does not mean that it is autobiographical - at least not in a straightforward way.  Fassbinder was not transgendered.  He was more of what the modern gay scene would call a bear, and he usually had a beard.  Unlike some other German directors, Lothar Lambert and Rosa von Praunheim, he never put on a frock to appear in front of the camera, and very few of his films contain transgendered characters (although it is said that there are undeclared drag cameos in several of them).  However Laurens Straub has argued that the film is indeed autobiographical: “He could feel like a woman more than a man .... his quickness, his sense for intrigue ... and maybe he was longing to be a woman”.  Straub is the writer of A Man Like Eva made five years later, when Fassbinder was also dead, in which Eva Mattes (who plays Elvira’s daughter, Marie-Ann, in In a Year with 13 Moons) played Fassbinder himself, a rather unattractive portrait.

Fassbinder made this film immediately after his lover Armin Meier committed suicide after one of their frequent rows over Fassbinder’s affairs with others or drugs or politics, a normal part of their dramatic relationship.  The immediate cause was that Fassbinder was taking a different lover to the Cannes film festival.  Meier took an overdose of pills on Fassbinder’s birthday.  His body was not discovered until five days later when Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s mother, who had a key, came to investigate because the neighbours were complaining of a bad smell.  Fassbinder did not attend the funeral.   Meier, like Erwin had been a butcher.  Erwin’s sex-change is an attempt to buy love, a cry of loneliness, which Fassbinder identified with Meier.  At the same time there is much of Fassbinder himself in Elvira, especially the anomic experience of urban life, which is not the way that Meier experienced it.  However, the extreme passiveness of Elvira, and the simple-mindedness is such that one is doubtful that this is a portrait of Meier - surely Fassbinder is either insulting his dead lover, or is playing intellectual games.  And while Fassbinder is part of Elvira, surely Fassbinder is part of Saitz also, in particular the manager of people who takes multiple lovers and then casts them aside.

Fassbinder had dedicated his 1974 film Fox and His Friends, which is about a working-class gay man exploited by his middle-class lover, to Meier and played the title-role himself.  In 1977 he contributed a segment to Germany in Autumn which mainly consists of Fassbinder losing his temper as Meier voices working-class reactionary clichés about terrorism and authority.  While Fassbinder grieved in his own way at Meier’s death, when he locked himself in Volker Spengler’s flat in Frankfurt for several days, the cynics who knew him were predicting that he was turning his lover’s death into a new film.

Fassbinder is not the first filmmaker to dramatize his dead lover with a gender switch.   The playwright and screenplay writer Terence Rattigan had an affair with Kenneth Morgan which ended with Kenneth’s suicide.  In the play, later film, The Deep Blue Sea, 1952 and 1955, Kenneth has become Hester who twice attempts suicide as details of her affair with an ex-RAF pilot become known.  Her husband William is based on Rattigan himself.

Let us return to Hans Andersen.  Andersen, a closeted gay man who never married, had a lifelong friendship with Edvard Collin, of whom he wrote “he was the antagonist to my almost girlish nature”.  When Collin announced that he would marry, Andersen wrote The Little Mermaid.  He later confessed that nothing in his writing had ever moved him more.  Even his first biographer, who is otherwise coy, wrote: “the little mermaid was himself ... She lost the prince, saw him wed another”.

The film contains several past-tense narratives: Elvira’s story of her life with Christoph told to Zora at the slaughterhouse; Sister Gudrun’s story of Erwin’s childhood; the cancer victim’s story of Saitz.  This is a technique from pre-cinematic drama when flashbacks could not be done.  Gudrun’s tale of how Erwin was born illegitimately to Anna Weisshaupt while her husband was a prisoner of war, and how her inability to admit this prevented Erwin from being properly adopted was written by Fassbinder as a short story - only parts of it are narrated in the film.

Volker Spengler, the actor who plays Elvira, does not specialize in feminine roles.  He plays Elvira more with bravery than conviction.  And when he switches to male clothing at the end, he looks natural as a man - very unlike Dil in The Crying Game , 1992, who looks like a woman in men’s clothing.

Zora, Erwin's friend says: ‘She just did it.  And she didn't have a good  reason, like, because of her soul, or something.  I don't think she was even gay.  Isn't that right,  baby?  You weren't even gay when you went to Casablanca.'   This set Elvira apart from almost all transsexuals, most of whom have felt since childhood that they should really be the other gender.  This is a dismissal of the opinions re the transgendered experience.  It is not social constructionist, nor is it essentialist; it is neither nature nor nurture which lead Erwin to become Elvira.  It is rather an existentialism of terrifying arbitrariness - a decision based on happenstance rather than pattern.  There is one other film that features a transsexual - much better adjusted than Elvira - whose change was based equally on a whim, and whose story is also told in a past-tense narrative.  This other is Tina in Pedro Almodovar's Law of Desire, 1987, who had had the change as a teenager as part of an affair with her father.  Like Elvira, Tina became a woman because she conformed to the whims of others.

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