In 2016, there will be 13 moons. On May 21st, the 13th moon will rise for the year and it won’t be until 2019 that there will be another one. Also known as a “blue moon,” a title card of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons explains that this unlucky moon disproportionately affects those prone to depression. But unlike the tide, rising sadness doesn’t naturally retreat. Elvira (Volker Spengler), formerly known as Erwin, had a sex change operation (vaginoplasty and breast implants) years before in order to win over the love of Anton (Gottfried John). After he rejected her, Elvira was left to pick up the pieces. Set over the course of a few days, she becomes struck with a gender crisis and has a chance to win over Anton’s love again.
A light, shaped like a moon and decorated like a spiderweb, hangs in Elvira’s apartment, casting webs over all those within it. Her longtime boyfriend has decided to leave her, as he screams that she’s gotten fat and her head has become “full of jam!” The webs crawl over him as he scolds Elvira, and spiderwebs hold onto her, keeping her rooted to this space. Elvira feels entrapped: by her body, her state of mind and her loneliness.
With almost wall to wall dialogue, little is said within Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons. Many of the stories regaled are about youth, Elvira’s childhood (in an orphanage where sadness set into her life) or else the tale of a child transformed into a mushroom and slowly consumed by his sister. Characters don’t listen or don’t seem to listen. Set adrift, it seems like the world has given into the mood and its most horrific influences. The sadness of the 13 Moons gives way to the madness inspired by a full moon, and the endless cycle of days becomes haunting. Elvira, like many of those sensitive to the moon’s powers, becomes sick with its influence and loses track of herself.
Fassbinder injects surrealism, creating a reality that heightens and exaggerates what we find familiar. Passageways, doorways and concealed realities control the paranoid atmosphere of the movie. Even an establishing shot renders discomfort, like when a camera drifting over the rooftop of the old, “thick walled” orphanage reveals high rises and skyscrapers peeking out overhead, this spatial discomfort clearly meant to mirror Elvira’s conflicted gender identity. Her body becomes an uncomfortable playground for metaphors, as her “whim” to change sexes seems reductionary through a 2016 gaze. Yet, Elvira’s gender crisis has more to do with internalized hatred from the abuse she has suffered rather than doubt over her womanhood. She doesn’t seem to enjoy “playing” as a boy and does so only reluctantly to avert uncomfortable leering or to attempt to regain social privileges of living (according to society’s expectations).
Spengler’s performance stresses the exhaustive weight of expectations that Elvira feels. He injects the air of a person on the brink of collapse who does everything they can to hide their impending crash. Elvira wants to be loved, and she worries that if people see her crack-up, she will lose her friendships and relationships. When she cuts off her hair and dresses up as a man in the final chapter, her loved ones no longer recognize her. Crawling in the skin of a three-piece suit, Elvira tries to fake her way into manhood, but this last plea fails because Erwin no longer (or maybe never) existed.
The overwhelming sadness of Elvira’s journey might be among the most tragic in Fassbinder’s work because she means no one any harm. While many of the director’s protagonists are brutal and callous and yearn for power and control, Elvira wants kindness and love. The world, however, leads the gentle to the slaughterhouse, and as Elvira sees it, that might be an act of mercy.
Special thanks to Willow Maclay for additional edits and insight. Follow her on Twitter
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.