Sunday Editor’s Pick: In A Year of 13 Moons (1978)

by on August 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thu Sept 1 at 7:00 & Sun Sept 4 at 6:00 at Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]


Every seventh year is a lunar year. Those people whose lives are essentially dominated by their emotions suffer particularly strongly from depressions in these lunar years. The same is also true of years with 13 new moons, albeit not quite so strongly. And if a lunar year also happens to be a year with 13 new moons, the result is often a personal catastrophe.

– Opening title card, In a Year with 13 Moons


A spurned lover undergoes a sex-change operation in the hope of winning the object of his affections. Like most things in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it ends badly.


Per Vincent Canby, “The movie is grotesque, arbitrary, sentimental and cold as ice. Its only redeeming feature is genius.”



Ed Howard at Only The Cinema:

Nearly all of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s many films revolve around the human need for love, affection, respect, and acceptance, but perhaps none of his films treat this subject with the intense focus of In a Year With 13 Moons. It is arguably one of Fassbinder’s most personal films, a direct response to the suicide of his lover Armin Meier, and Fassbinder not only wrote and directed it but handled the cinematography on one of his own films for the first time (the only other film he shot himself was The Third Generation). The result is one of the director’s most visually sumptuous films, as well as his most harrowing melodrama, rigidly structured as a series of set pieces in which the transsexual Erwin/Elvira (Volker Spengler) tries to make sense of his/her shattered life.


Dave Kehr in The Chicago Reader:

Elvira (seamlessly played by Volker Spengler) is irreducibly, ineluctably him/herself, and her problems are not social, political, or moral, but exclusively those of her grotesque condition—the unloved lover. The subject invites easy compassion and pity, but Fassbinder’s icy camera style keeps us at arm’s length, calling up a much more complex response.



Ed Gonzalez in Slant:

You can see Fassbinder sorting through the guilt and grief he suffered after Meier’s death throughout the film, which makes Elvira’s humiliations and bizarre rituals of atonement that much more difficult to watch. Fassbinder wasn’t a religious man, but In a Year of 13 Moons feels not unlike a series of Biblical encounters between the Christ-like Elvira and the film’s other cripples as she spirals knowingly to her inevitable doom. Humiliated by her lover, Elvira befriends a prostitute named Zora (Ingrid Caven) and together they go to a slaughterhouse where Elvira (then Erwin) used to work as a butcher. There, Elvira discusses her crippling loss of self, but rather than linger on Spengler’s face, Fassbinder shockingly and cynically subverts her castration anxiety by showing a group of cows being cut open, decapitated, and subsequently skinned.


More from Vincent Canby in The New York Times:

The 32-year-old film maker has now made more than 30 feature films, most of them in the last 10 years. He has made so many, so quickly, that it’s difficult to separate them, as we easily do with the work of lesser talents. Each Fassbinder film is another explosion in what appears to be a single, continuing eruption of talent that shows no signs of subsiding.


Fassbinder’s editor, ex, and Foundation head Juliane Lorenz on his late-period working style:



Joe Ruffell in Senses of Cinema:

The character of the recently wealthy ‘capitalist bloodsucker’ Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), who Elvira had the operation in hope of love from, is unseen for more than half the film’s length, making it all the more powerful when he is revealed in tennis shorts and shirt impersonating Jerry Lewis on television. The strange lighting effects and often fragmented and dark compositions place this among Fassbinder’s most experimental films and one of his most harsh and sincere investigations of minority urban life.


Mark Zhuravsky on The Playlist at IndieWire:

Fassbinder must have loved Armin Meier dearly, because few directors would dare make a film that boils down to personal exorcism. A year with 13 moons spells trouble for protagonist Elvira (Volker Spengler), road tripping to reunite with Anton Saitz (Gottfried John). Anton funded Elvira’s sex change (she was once a butcher named Erwin, an intentional callback to Meier’s profession), but doesn’t want to accept the newly christened woman as anything other than Erwin. In a Year of 13 Moons is an endurance test, with several standout sequences, one set in a slaughterhouse and another an out-of-left-field dance sequence. Spengler is also compelling, expressing Elvira’s personal purgatory in which she is accepted by none of the people she desires and finds no peace from her struggles, just strife and hate.



Maggie Nelson, from her book The Art of Cruelty:

The cruelty is unrelenting, but it is feathered by a number of formal factors: principally, the cinematography, which showcases hallways and foyers in astonishingly crafted lighting set-ups, rather than the kind of point-of-view and reactions shots that would normally suggest or deliver psychological identification. (Indeed, throughout the movie, at Elvira’s most humiliated or despairing moments, her suffering face or body id lodged in a corner or cul-de-sac of the screen, her sobs only a fraction of a complex soundscape that includes the noise pollution of whatever television, music, or video game happens to be nearby.) When Christoph finally exits the apartment in the initial scene, we feel some relief, in that the terrible berating has finally come to an end. But Elvira is not relieved—like any good addict, she is alarmed, and runs after him into the street, begging him not to leave her. She ends up throwing herself onto the windshield of his car, after which he hits the gas, leaving her sprawled on the street. The movie has truly begun.


Richard Brody, in The New Yorker (Sep. 5, 2011):

This riot of pain, from 1978, may be Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most radical effort in primal satire. He summons his full complement of theatrical extravagance and cinematic style to tell the story of Elvira, né Erwin, a former butcher who, after a sex-change operation, lives as a married woman and regrets it all. The litany of Elvira’s woes… is distilled into a universal anguish–the search for love. Fassbinder has Elvira/Erwin revisit the stages of his life with raucus humor and hysterical melodrama, and Volker Spengler throws himself into the role with heartbreaking abandon. The identity conflict at the film’s center is also Germany’s own: in Fassbinder’s portrait of the gleamingly rebuilt Frankfurt as an emotionally devastated wasteland, Fascism–the need of some to dominate and of others to endure–comes off as a woeful constant of the heart.


Embedding is disabled, but there’s video of a roundtable discussion on 13 Moons with panelists Thomas Elsaesser, Wayne Koestenbaum, Leo Lensing, Edward Nersessian, and Brigitte Peucker.

  • cinebug

    Fassbinder’s “In a Year of 13 Moons”                                                                      
    is dedicated to the analysis of the
    psychological nature of self-sacrificial love that is personified by the main
    character Erwin whose childhood was mutilated by the fact that he was abandoned
    by his mother and later on as a boy met with other situations that resonated
    with the primal rejection. Fassbinder scrupulously describes how Erwin’s
    childhood influences his behavior as an adult (including his decision to make a
    sex change operation to please the person he was in love with).                                                                                In
    US today, sex change operations have become more widespread than before and
    even a popular topic of TV talk shows. For this reason for us, Americans of 21st
    century, it’s especially important to learn what Fassbinder thought about the
    readiness to maim the body so as to be in tune with the conventional morals or
    fashion. Erwin was not able to respect his homosexual desire and in a
    conformist way blamed his biology for not corresponding to “his true nature”. His
    sex change operation is a result of his inability to take responsibility for
    his unconventional sexual desire.                                                                                                                    The wider concerns of the film are the human
    ability to make genuine existential decisions instead of “choosing” between conventional
    ones and even more difficult the capacity to judge one’s decisions
    retrospectively as wrong. This film about Erwin/ Elvira‘s unique destiny can
    help us to contemplate about human life in general and our personal scripts
    inside it.                                                                                                                      Volker
    Spengler playing Erwin/Elvira impersonates the human soul wandering in between
    genders, as common denominator of a man and woman. It is an important step
    towards a new kind of humanity that refuses to be dichotomized into machos and pussycats.                                                                                                                        As
    always, in this film Fassbinder manages to make individual problem into a
    universal issue, and generously uses visual symbolism to make the points about
    human psyche, life, society and psychology of morality, amorality and
    immorality.                                                                                                                            Please,
    visit: to
    read about “In a Year of 13 Moons” and other Fassbinder’s films (with analysis
    of the shots), and also essays about films by Godard, Resnais, Bergman, Bunuel,
    Bresson, Kurosawa, Pasolini, Antonioni, Cavani, Alain Tanner, Anne-Marie
    Mieville, Bertolucci, Maurice Pialat, Herzog, Wenders, Ken Russell, Ozu, Rossellini,
    Jerzy Skolimowski, Moshe Mizrahi and Ronald Neame.

    By Victor Enyutin

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