“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 has been abandoned by his mother and later on as a boy met with other situations that resonated with that primal rejection. Fassbinder scrupulously describes how Erwin’s childhood influences his behavior as an adult (including his decision to have a sex change operation to please the person he was in love with).

In US today, sex change operations have become much more widespread than before and even a popular topic of TV talk shows. For this reason for us, Americans of the 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 conventional morals, fashion and tastes. 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 the 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 man and woman. The film is an important step towards a new kind of humanity that refuses to be dichotomized into machos and pussycats.

As always, in this film also Fassbinder manages to make the individual problem into a universal issue, and he generously uses visual symbolism to make points about human psyche, life, society and psychology of morality, amorality and immorality.
As a person of the second half of the 20th century Erwin/Elvira is locked between the two types of socio-ideological authority that defines contours of human destiny – the traditional one represented by religious authorities (personified by Schwester Gudrun played by Lilo Pempeit, Fassbinder’s mother), and the “brave new one” represented by the real-estate business magnate Anton Saitz (personified by Gottfried John). Religious power patronizes and punishes, while money power manipulates through seduction and indifference. Trying psychologically survive/maneuver between these two powers as we all do, Erwin/Elvira ends in a suicidal despair because of anguished realization that no one in the whole world is really interested in his/her humanity, in him/her as a human being dreaming to be accepted. The suicide that follows is a result of the main protagonist’s final feeling that something is deeply wrong in his innocent desire to be accepted (when the subject gives too much power to the external world to decide who he is and how he has to live and when to be loved is more important than to love).

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Elvira, in a process of being abandoned by her husband, is going through his physical abuse of her…

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… and his verbal assaults and insults. She hopes that by continuing to appeal to him she’ll be able to keep him longer. She wasn’t like this in all the years they were together. Elvira is afraid of being alone again, and “she is not getting any younger”, etc.

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All made up and dressed in pitifully caricaturist and ludicrously absurd cloth Erwin/Elvira decided to visit the person for whom many years ago he made a sexual operation, with no results he dreamed about (to settle with Anton).

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Pay attention to the impossible presence of the baguette in Elvira’s grocery bag, as if, she plans to suggest to Anton some kind of a domestic mini-event. The bread here is, of course, Fassbinder’s reference to castration (think about the symbolic meaning of the grocery bag) Ervin underwent years ago in exchange for Anton’s love (Erwin wanted to believe that if he will become a she then Anton will want and love her).

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The prostitute, Elvira met by chance (Ingrid Caven), agreed to stay in Elvira’s place to help her to overcome the trauma of being an abandoned wife. In this still we see Zora, near the sleeping Elvira, watching on TV an interview with Fassbinder about, among other things, the rise of general Pinochet in Chile. Is there some association in meaning between painful story of Erwin/Elvira and conservative coup d’etat? Fassbinder suggests that it is and encourages us to understand it.

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Elvira remembers those lucky days of hope for happiness and happiness of hope when she was still Erwin and worked with Anton in the slaughter house. In Fassbinder’s representation this documentarily stylized scene is complicated by Elvira’s memories (in the form of her voice-over) about her life with her husband Christoph when their sincere attempts at mutuality were blended with the currents of veiled emotional animosity (amidst tough – competitive, social environment) in a semi-conscious depth of their quite ordinary relationship.

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After the attempt to buy male prostitute (around separation with Christoph) Elvira (dressed in men’s clothing), was severely beaten (upon discovery that she is a woman proud males on the bottom of maleness felt cheated – insulted and infuriated).

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That’s how Erwin looked before changing her sex for the sake of being loved.

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Erwin’s daughter (Eva Mattes) with the corpse of her father (yes, Ervin was married once).

Posted on Oct 27, 2011 –   Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “In a Year of 13 Moons” (1978) – When Life Decisions Are Retrospectively Judged as Existential Mistakes by Acting-Out Politics