Of the 40 feature films Germany’s prolific bad boy helmed in his 13 year career, 4 present notably queer protagonists. In Part 1 I covered “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” and “Fox and his Friends”, declaring that if I were to be stranded on a desert island with only one filmmaker’s work to keep me company, I’d choose the filmography of Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
To lead the way into the next two films, a fitting quote from the director:
“It isn’t easy to accept that suffering can also be beautiful… it’s difficult. It’s something you can only understand if you dig deep into yourself.”
IN A YEAR OF 13 MOONS (1978)
The film opens with a title card informing the audience that every seven years there is a year with 13 moons. These periods of time are said to be filled with darkness and catastrophe, and this year, 1978, is one of them.
Elvira (Volker Spengler) has dressed up as a man to sell sex at a park. A group of male hustlers, upon discovering she’s not exactly who she says she is, savagely beat her. A complete wreck, Elvira returns home to find her lover packing his things. She cries and pleads for him to stay, to no avail. As he stomps out the door he utters: “Somebody should step on you. You’re like a bug.” The film’s following scenes are as much of a pleasure to watch as these opening two are, which is to say, they’re the furthest thing from it.
On Fassbinder’s birthday in 1978 his boyfriend Armin Meier killed himself. Instead of going into isolated grieving, the filmmaker immediately wrote and began production on “In a Year of 13 Moons”. Fassbinder:
“I felt the necessity to do something. There were basically three possibilities. One was to go to Paraguay and become a farmer. I don’t know why Paraguay; it just came to me. It might sound like coquetry now but at the time it wasn’t that at all; it was real to me. Another possibility was to stop being interested in what was happening around me. That would have been like a mental illness. The third possibility was to make a film — certainly the easiest for me. It’s perfectly logical that that’s what I did.”
The writer-director also appointed himself production designer and cameraman, taking the film into his own hands in a way he’d never done before.
Elvira Weisshaupt was once Erwin Weisshaupt. The businessman he long sought after once said, offhandedly, “If only you were a woman.” Erwin erroneously let this joke guide him to Casablanca where he underwent an irreparable transformation into Elvira. All of this has taken place before the film begins, and we meet up with Elvira as she makes her final efforts to make sense of a life regretted. Along with her prostitute friend Zora (Ingrid Caven, an ex-wife of Fassbinder’s), Elvira visits a slaughterhouse she once worked at, the nunnery where she was raised as an orphan, and finally the office of Anton, her longtime love who cruelly suggested the operation in the first place.
“In a Year of 13 Moons” jumps between grief and high absurdity. At Anton’s office workers instantaneously break into a dance routine juxtaposed with the Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin film “You’re Never Too Young”. Moments earlier, Elvira had come across a man on the threshold of suicide, explaining rationally that he is going to kill himself in order to “stop perceiving.”
As is foretold in the opening prophecy, the planets have aligned and tragedy occurs. In “In a Year of 13 Moons” the noose may be salvation, but even at its bleakest it is top-tier Fassbinder.
Undoubtedly Fassbinder’s gayest picture, “Querelle” is based on Jean Genet’s “Querelle de Brest”, which tells the story of devious sailor Georges Querelle and the many lovers he becomes entangled with while his ship is in port in Brest. The harbour-town haven for men married solely to the sea is infamous for a brothel run by Lysiane (Jeanne Moreau), whom upon arrival Querelle learns is sleeping with his brother Robert. Their brotherly love is a little more homoerotic than most, and this new woman in Robert’s life upsets Querelle. In order to sleep with Lysiane one must first roll dice with her husband Nono, and if fate has them lose, must be fucked by him instead. Querelle loses on purpose and tries his best to feign anything but arousal at his first real homosexual encounter.
In the midst of an opium deal, Querelle quarrels with his accomplice Vic over the merits of gay sex, and letting passion get the best of him, murders him and flees. This brings him into contact with Gil, a construction worker also wanted for murder and hiding out in an abandoned Brest prison. Gil is believed to be the killer of Vic and strongly resembles Querelle’s handsome brother. Our protagonist is in violent denial of queer sensibilities, but irresistible desire runs its course.
It is a film that wears its homo ass-pects on its sailor uniform sleeve. For one, it draws from two of the most recognizable gay writers of modern times: Oscar Wilde’s lamenting “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” forms the lyrics for Jeanne Moreau’s jaunty go-to tune at the bar (it was nominated for Worst Original Song at that year’s Razzies) — and of course it all stems from the Jean Genet novel, although Genet himself claimed he never got around to seeing the flick because “you can’t smoke at the movies.” Otherwise, it is the quintessential cinematic fetishization of the sailor, much in the same vein as the bikers in Kenneth Anger’s “Scorpio Rising”. There’s also no shortage of leather by way of cop uniforms, and the set is decorated by cock-shaped columns. Despite this blatant sea of homoeroticism and boy-on-boy sex, it was a surprise box office success, selling more than 100,000 tickets in the first 3 weeks of its release.
Sadly, Fassbinder wasn’t alive to see “Querelle” make its way to the cinema. He died months earlier in June 1982. The film was dedicated to El Hedi ben Salem: another of the filmmaker’s boyfriends to commit suicide in a tragically short timespan.
Even disregarding these factors, a communion of sex and death possess the film. And like these inextricably linked inevitabilities of the human flesh, what appears onscreen in “Querelle” can feel all body, no soul. Each set is obviously constructed, the lighting has the characters stuck in an artificial forever-dusk, and it’s the film of his repertoire that makes most clear actors are delivering lines. In its dis-ease it hits on a level outside of social commentary, but that’s not to say Fassbinder isn’t saying a whole lot in this dark, sweaty spectacle.
Rethinking it, examining these films has caused my mind to change. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s work, while deeply varied, might not do me any good on a desert island… for it is so of this world. Its stronghold is there without escapism or uplift. If his art is an antidote for existing side-by-side with other humans in a world that is essentially flawed, in isolation I would hardly benefit. Fassbinder so powerfully portrays the pain of living in society, day after day. And while I’m here, and not stuck alone on a beach, his movies can be my company.