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Filmmaker, libertine, and decadent visionary Rainer Werner Fassbinder went through more doomed romances in the 1970s, the peak of his epic career, than even the most tragic poet could fit into a lifetime. For one, there was his affair with Moroccan actor El Hedi ben Salem, the star of “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul,” a time marked by alcohol and drug abuse, psychological torment by all parties involved, and which ended with Salem going on a stabbing spree and later killing himself. But then there was Armin Meier, an orphaned butcher whom Fassbinder cast in “Chinese Roulette,” “Satan’s Brew,” and “I Only Want You to Love Me.” After their eventual split, Meier downed four bottles of sleeping pills during the week of Fassbinder’s birthday, and died.
That was in 1978, and Fassbinder, who was productive to a self-destructive degree, quickly organized a film that would pay tribute to his dead ex, “In a Year of 13 Moons.” This sad, aching, and rarely hopeful drama, set during a year of a dozen-plus-one new moons that’s said to wreak havoc on human lives from the cosmos, stars Volker Spengler as Elvira, a trans woman who’s been unceremoniously dumped by her older boyfriend, Christoph (Karl Scheydt). Elvira has just come home from trying to pick up sex in the park (while dressed in men’s clothing). This late-night encounter doesn’t go well once Elvira’s potential johns realize her true sexual identity, and Christoph, fed up with late nights and Elvira’s pursuit of oblivion, leaves.
Elvira is sent reeling, and chasing Christoph into the street, throwing herself on the hood of his car as he fires off hateful words and speeds off, leaving her collapsed in the street. When she returns home to their Frankfurt flat — a beautiful piece of set design that exemplifies Fassbinder’s way of using a garish external world to channel his characters’ kaleidoscopic inner lives — Elvira comes psychologically undone. For a moment, she doesn’t seem to know where she is, pattering against the walls of the apartment and pacing the halls, losing all sense of direction. She proceeds through a masturbation session with a belt wrapped around her neck, and passes out.
Given Fassbinder’s checkered romantic past, it’s easy to see the autobiographical intent of “In a Year of 13 Moons,” which shows the shattering, undoing power of a breakup, where one’s psyche and physical carriage become displaced and rearranged. It is like a death. The event sends Elvira digging into her past, as an orphan child who grew up near a slaughterhouse and was raised by nuns. The scene set in the slaughterhouse is a mini-documentary unto itself, and enough to turn even the most hardy viewer into a vegetarian.
But the scene takes on another disturbing, problematic dimension. It’s revealed by Elvira’s friend Zora (played by actress Ingrid Caven, another of Fassbinder’s paramours, as he married women but dated men) that Elvira performed her own sex change operation, cutting her penis off almost as a lark, and not because she was “gay,” as Zora says. Watching cows get their heads sliced off, as Elvira recounts the revelations of her gender dysphoria, it’s hard not to think of castration as the link between these two currents, which makes this a troubling viewing experience by today’s standards — and potentially dangerous in 1978. (Transgender rights didn’t come into view legally in Germany until two years later, in 1980.)
Elvira, who’s so stricken with grief she can barely stand up and has taken to day-drinking, eventually pulls herself out of the hole to visit Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), a capitalist criminal and the former lover who, it turns out, impelled her to get a sex change in the first place because, he said, he would love her if she was a woman. For Fassbinder to suggest that someone can be willed into transgenderism by the power of suggestion is an unnerving connection to draw, even if it’s in service of sketching a character who wants so desperately to be with, or to become, anybody else but herself that she’ll do just about anything to get there.
Still, the compassion Fassbinder has for Elvira is unmatched by most contemporary representations of trans characters today, whose place on the margins of society often lead to a bitter end at the hands of others. She is the master of her own fate, even as the film makes its way toward an awful inevitability that becomes increasingly apparent if you know the story of Armin Meier.
Fassbinder, like directors such as Douglas Sirk, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Josef von Sternberg, or even Alfred Hitchcock, was a filmmaker at his best working out his own issues and fetishes with a female surrogate, which may explain why he chose Elvira for his lead. But even when he was directing men or women, Fassbinder’s characters never quite conformed to one gender or another, whether they were the emasculated men of “The Merchant of Four Seasons” or “Fox and His Friends,” the dissolute lesbians of “The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,” or the flamboyant queens of “Querelle.” Elvira embodies all these types in one, which makes her the most complete distillation of Fassbinder’s work. But she’s also a very real person, undone by desire and longing, and Fassbinder doesn’t let you forget it.
“In a Year of 13 Moons” is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.