Criterion Prediction #245: In a Year with 13 Moons, by Alexander Miller
Title: In a Year with 13 Moons
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Volker Spengler, Gottfried John, Ingrid Caven, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Eva Mattes
Synopsis: A melancholic Elvira (Spengler) was once a butcher named Erwin; as she and her friend Zora retrace her early life we learn that the cause of her woes stems from an unrequited love affair that also sheds light on her sex change.
Critique: The sensitive and beautiful sadness of Rainer Werner Fassbinder has never been more affecting than it is here, which is saying something since that deafening emotional tone hits in so many of his great movies. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Berlin Alexanderplatz, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Fox and His Friends. And In a Year with 13 Moons is roiling with his sympathetic characters, his beautifully woozy style is at the forefront, as is his honed sense of time and place. But there’s something bare, almost naked in his expression; In a Year with 13 Moons feels shorn of something but it’s not slight. At this point Fassbinder has already realized himself to his fullest visual potential, this time our experience is in on its character Elvira, we’re introduced to her while sex workers are kicking her around for being trans, and that’s just the start of her abuse.
This isn’t the lush and tragic Berlin setting we’re accustomed to or the sumptuous romanticism one would anticipate. This movie establishes an element emblematic of the director, a character who is yearning for love, trying to find it despite the destructive and corrosive effects it might have. It almost feels as if embellishment would be a disservice in the exploration of Elvira. As we see her current lover’s departure and subsequent venture to uncover or rediscover her past, we linger at a slaughterhouse, a former place of employment when she was Erwin. Then the orphanage where she was raised, and we hang alongside in a matter of presentation that feels like real-time. There’s a deliberate rejection of climactic punctuation; it’s as if the themes of displacement and longing are ingrained to the point where we almost lose hope. The aesthetic tonal commitment seems odd, but this bold decision by Fassbinder comes to a head with an impactful reveal, and this scared-but-compassionate study emanates with personal resolve. In a Year with 13 Moons is a devastating portrait that has also aged with poignance in terms of representation. It’s a story about an individual and not a proclamation of tolerance that arose from the suicide of Armin Meier. A familiar face in Fassbinder’s company and a former lover of the director, it’s speculated that Meier took his own life after feeling rejected at not being invited to his thirty-third birthday party.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: Many staple Fassbinder films were simply destined (or expected) to get a spine number – The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant or Berlin Alexanderplatz. But the cadre of titles end up released through Fantoma releasing – Whity, Martha, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? – and In a Year of 13 Moons seemed divorced from the herd of Fassbinder’s work. Despite showing a stellar catalog (hosting a variety of work from the films of Japanese auteur Yasuzo Masamura, to Kenneth Anger) and presenting a solid array of Fassbinder films, the Fantoma DVD’s are dwindling in availability. With a director like Fassbinder, whose films are predominantly featured in The Criterion Collection, it seems like these titles are queued up to get a spine number.