In a Year With 13 Moons isn’t my favorite Fassbinder (I suppose that would be, somewhat stereotypically, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), but it’s clearly a personal project for the director who would die four years later…yet somehow still had six films and a massive miniseries in him. Unbelievably prolific.
13 Moons is slightly autobiographical, and features a cast of Fassbinder regulars including Gottfried John as the elusive Anton Saitz, Volker Spengler as Erwin/Elvira, the protagonist transvestite whose suffering and despair we track throughout the narrative, and Ingrid Caven, his former wife, as Zora, Elvira’s prostitute friend.
The film is basically made up of only a handful of very long scenes, including a very brutal, difficult to watch slaughterhouse scene that reaches the histrionic. Each scene feature many Fassbinder trademarks, especially pronounced once he entered his later, more “Hollywood” period. There’s the wide-shot with several characters and multiple points of light:
Note how theatrically placed many of these are. They’re all facing camera, save for the one, hardly visible, static character behind the ladder. He stays still the entire time unless he’s doing curls.
All characters stare motionlessly at Elvira in Fassbinder’s rendering of the tableau, something he favors quite frequently.
As in the above image, there are the black on smooth white colors that really remind me of some scenes from World on a Wire and the idea of the faceless, absurd corporation:
That absurdity continues in another room in the same building as the one above, though it now looks entirely different:
Again, the wooden slats, forming a sort of proscenium, are rather stage-like, as is the surreal episode that takes place here, where Elvira encounters a suicide case and doesn’t think much of it. Long sections of dialogue here, coupled with the two somewhat despondent and/or maniacal characters, alongside the dark, empty setting reminds me of my favorite scene from Mike Leigh’s Naked: David Thewliss’ apocalyptic monologue.
I think another Fassbinder trademark is, as alluded to above, the ability to fit multiple “types” of locations into one film. There’s a gorgeously framed sequence in a casino that plays some visual tricks. These look like the exact same frame, but they’re not. Look at the top right, above Elvira’s head. As she cries, two men try to comfort her. But look what happens in the second frame when they lean forward. Their heads sort of disappear. It’s a tricky frame with a lot of mirrors.
The sound of this above sequence, and all of the film in fact, is really notable. There’s a constant soundtrack. Whether it be actual music, the whirring of the slot machines, Elvira’s recorded voice that takes us into the end, voices that seem to blend between voiceover and diegetic, or a TV-
-there’s always something more going on that sometimes covers the dialogue. The scene here with Zora watching TV is interesting. It’s a long scene, where Elvira is asleep next to her. Zora keeps switching the TV between an interview with Fassbinder and a news segment on Pinochet. It goes on for awhile. What’s he saying? Is he comparing himself to the dictator?
Probably my favorite scene is a long conversation between Elvira, Zora, and a nun, as the latter recounts Elvira’s history. I love this scene because of how Fassbinder blocks it. Fassbinder’s Sirk-ian narratives are not only melodramatic because of the events, but also because of the aforementioned tableau, and the way in which he moves his actors. Here’s an example. The camera dollies behind the nun and Zora in a wide-shot, and then, as the nun turns the corner out of frame, Fassbinder continues to push in on Zora:
At this point the nun has disappeared but we still hear her voice at the same volume. How close is she to us? Is this voiceover, or is she actually talking? Fassbinder finds Zora against a window, and then the nun appears behind her, still talking. Fassbinder pulls focus to the nun-
-and then starts tracking with the nun as she continues her soliloquy and trek:
Eventually – and this is all the same shot – the camera pans off of the nun, to find Elvira standing there:
The long take, finding all three characters in various states of distress, in fairly theatrical poses (Elvira is standing still, just waiting for the camera to take her, as it were), adds to the sense of melodrama. That this is all pre-planned, somewhat wooden even. When later in this same scene the camera returns again to Elvira at the end of another long take and finds her flat on the ground we completely elide the moment when she actually falls.
Fassbinder’s film, while harsh, is also funny. At the dramatic conclusion, all parties return to Elvira’s apartment. Elvira is prone on the bed – a possible suicide. Undercutting the emotion are Zora and Anton rising from the side of the bed post-coitus:
Did they not realize she was there the whole time? Not care? Similarly humorous is Anton’s bodyguard (another Fassbinder regular, Gunther Kauffman), who frisks everyone coming into the apartment, including the nun who inexplicably resurfaces at this moment, as though she’s never stopped walking from the convent scene: