The Nature of Self-sacrificial Love (A Love Which Demands a Price and Competes with Being)

The film “In a Year of 13 Moons” is told through the encounters of a man during the last five days of his life and it tries, on the basis of these encounters, to figure out whether this man’s decision, that on the final day, the fifth… is somehow understandable, or perhaps is even acceptable. R.W. Fassbinder

The dead end

Elvira is sadistically rejected by her lover who is “fed up” with her becoming with age less sexually attractive. The fact that Fassbinder makes us see the situation in the mirror adds to “the action” a reflective accent that transforms the scene between the two lovers into an internal, much less resolvable matter – into feelings based on past experiences which continue to haunt us.

Erwin had sacrificed his masculinity for the sake of love (for the sake of being loved) with the same readiness as soldiers sacrifice their life for the sake of “their country”, the best in the world political system and their “Commander-in-Chief” (sometimes Cucumber-in-chief). The end of relationship between Elvira and Christoph is for her an end of the idolatry of heterosexuality and of the contrast between man and woman’s appearance. The unique achievement of Volker Spengler in the role of Erwin/Elvira is not that he masterfully imitates womanly mannerisms and intonations (that is enough only for Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie” and other actors-imitators, not impersonators) but that he is able to personify a human being regardless of gender – a common human denominator of man and woman. This seemingly “androgynous” approach to playing role of the personage of opposite sex is a real breakthrough. While the world is traditionally hooked on the contrast between genders (in order to reinforce man’s domination over woman and to articulate men’s multi-millennial efforts to keep woman in the position of sexual toy, domestic servant and hired womb), Fassbinder and Spengler’s concept of acting Erwin/Elvira as a human soul wandering in between genders is a step towards the inception of a new humanity that refuses to be dichotomized into extremes of being man or woman. The problem with Erwin is that he understands this revolutionary freedom from genders too literally, in a too conformist way and too much in the spirit of modern biotechnology and fashionable cosmetic surgery.

Elvira learned the desperate art of sexual solitude as a psychologically hygienic experience when orgasm is used as a drug of forgetfulness about the reality.

Asking for advice

The idea to consult with a gay-guru of amorous success/happiness (that demands a skillful balancing of love with the readiness to abandon the paradisiacal dream of amorous symbiotic unity) brings Elvira to a universe which is ripped off by the seemingly incompatible elements. This shot reflects the impossible interior of the guru-expert’s place reflecting the condition of his and his client’s psyche (where fragmentary impulses are not harmonized by the psychological wholeness but co-exist in an artificial and schizoid balance between elements split from one another).

Guru-gay (like Erwin-Elvira) was an abandoned child. The composition of this shot communicates his psychological world made of fragments connected with one another by his mental pain (where partial objects inside the psyche scream for their existence).

The roots of the problem

Elvira/Erwin learns the details of her/his abandonment by the mother from Sister Gudrun who supervised the orphanage where Erwin spent his childhood. Look at Sister Gudrun (played by Lilo Pempeit – Fassbinder’s mother who in many of his films impersonates the tormenting combination of conformist rigidity, insensitivity and permanent mental pain as the human price the characters she plays have to pay for living amidst the factual world). Sister Gudrun’s face is not only framed but is locked by her religious clothes. Her face is as if bandaged/isolated from the reality like her psychological posture from existential participation in the social world.

In Sister Gudrun the posture of God’s witness to human suffering prevails over intention to help an orphan child to feel loved in an earthly sense. She unsuccessfully tried to find foster parents for Erwin but an orphanage cannot be a substitute for family. This “spiritual” withdrawal from the earthly evil is characteristic even for compassionate members of clergy who prefer to feel sympathy for the abandoned and to help them with crumbs but cannot intervene into the systemic evil because it’ll be a violation of their role as serving the church, not life. In this shot Fassbinder positions Zora (Ingrid Cavan) in relation to Sister Gudrun, like angels in many paintings are positioned in relation to God (as servants) or to Saint (as an inspiration).

Here we see Sister Gudrun (assisted by Schopenhauer) near the wall of the human lot of being trapped in their social conditions and psychological superstitions and obsessions which cannot be breached by human good will.

Elvira/Erwin looking for her idealized beloved Anton Seitz (hare, according to Russian phonetic association) is lost in his high-rise real estate building as in royal castle built by technological modernity. Feverish industrial development and not less feverish people’s need for cheap entertainment serve as an isolation from feeling of existing, as Sister Gudrun is isolated from life by the walls of her impeccable piety.

Two kinds of psychological buffoonery: when you try to avoid genuine existential action, or, conversely, when you try to act genuinely, but without listening to the voice of philosophical (disinterested) reason

In this and the following shot Fassbinder registers Elvira-Erwin’s existential (inside the realm of life) buffoonery. In this shot we see the iconic representation of love as a “total surrender” to the person we love (unconditional surrender that many people take as synonymous for real love). Pay attention to the ironic juxtaposition of Elvira’s lips and chin with the man’s chin and mustache (part of the face of the character played by Gunter Kaufmann who stands behind Elvira) – Fassbinder underlines here the morbidity and mechanistic violent nature of sex change operation Erwin put himself through for the sake of his love.

Here Fassbinder provides us with iconic representation of love as the readiness “for everything” – for self-sacrifice (self-sacrificial love). To the right we see bag with a long loaf of bread sticking out of it (which Elvira brings with herself while looking for Anton – a hyperbolic absurdity from the film’s plot’s point of view). The reader is invited to decipher what is symbolized by the bag and what by the bread, and to answer the question – why Elvira’s right arm is behind her head – is it just to keep her hat in its proper position or from falling off or is there something more to it than that? Is this Elvira’s gesture symbolic and even rhetorical or is it just instrumental?

The kind of buffoonery Anton is prone to is of a different kind than Erwin’s. It is buffoonery instead of living, preventing and helping to avoid living. Here Anton admired by his bodyguards imitates Jerry Lewis (another buffoon of the same kind in his screen persona) in famous Hollywood film. The fact that Anton is surrounded by bodyguards instead of (independent) friends is Fassbinder’s metaphor of not being free to have human relationships (based on meeting the otherness in other person), of being addicted to people without otherness (people who for the sake of salary put their humanity on hold). In artificial buffoonery Fassbinder sees existential cowardice and ontological self-betrayal. Life of every person dedicated to building a personal empire made of profit and for the sake of farther profit has some similarity with Anton’s life moving from a childhood trauma to a psychological defense against it.

Following Jerry Lewis antics, Anton is acting (acting out) an oversensitive and a capricious boy yearning for sterile happiness (it is the experience of being a child in the Nazi concentration camp that transformed him into this eternally scared boy).

His act of buffoonery ends with innocent self-glorification (the psychological background of his success in business dealings).

After helping himself emotionally with acts of comic affectation, Anton can return to “serious” matters but only to become again free from remembering that he has a soul, while Elvira stays trapped in her exaggeratedly (comically) feminine garment.

Scene from Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin’s film which is Anton’s favorite because it shows him how to avoid life through self-parody (how to parody what is alive in us), how to clown about our own emotions (where our real desires are coded) instead of having the courage of understanding them.


Elvira/Erwin is beaten up by male prostitutes upon the discovery that their client is a woman – they, like everybody else, have their megalomaniacal pride (misogyny as a psychological defense – they are implying that they are homosexuals not because they are “effeminate” but conversely, because they are somehow “above” women).

Elvira/Erwin is left alone with his personal problems. This shot marginalizes him as a part of nature but also puts him on the opposite side from the sky (suggesting that there is not much place left for her/him in this universe).

He tries to appeal to his family but his previous wife cannot agree “to start all over from the beginning”) – to change his gender once again (or even only to pretend of changing it out of despair). For him to return from being female back to being a male seems to her even more absurd and even more insulting than the first transformation (all these transformations are revolving around him while she is always on the receiving end of his decisions).

His daughter is with Erwin emotionally, but not existentially. He feels abandoned once again. He contemplates his life. Was his sex operation an egoistic act (egoistic in its conformism in front of another person’s desire)? May be, in his life he was too occupied with how to please others instead of being himself in his dedication to life with others? To serve others can be as egoistic as to serve ourselves.

The courage to reconsider our life even if it is too late to change anything

The Erwin/Elvira/Erwin’s final act is similar with the finale of Hermann/Hermann’s delirious existential project in “Despair” (1977). In both cases the truth wins but by the price that smashes Erwin’s life but which Hermann-Hermann can sustain.


The majority of people instinctively try to avoid making tough existential decisions – to act not typically (to take responsibility for their actions and to make unique mark on the very canvass of their lives). They just choose between whatever society puts in front of them – one of the typical ways of behavior. But some strange individuals or quite ordinary people in exceptional psychological circumstances are capable of making not typical decisions and in doing so – to step onto the path that is full not only of immediate and obvious dangers but the dangers ahead which not necessarily can be of external nature but of inner, psychological and even spiritual order. We admire these rare people for being able to do what is unique. But this exceptional ability cannot provide any guarantee that the unusual decision was right, it still can be a mistake, and then even more courage is needed to live through consequences of your mistake.

The main protagonist of the film Erwin/Elvira is a person, who dared to do the exceptional thing which in years after appeared to him as not too exceptional and even trivial and sign of weakness, but when he eventually understood this it was too much for him – to eliminate existential mistakes is not easy – it is not as to correct a theoretical or technical mistake (like in math, chemistry or even philosophy, or to eliminate marriage with a divorce, or change one loyalty for another). Existential mistake involves deeply rooted emotions and hopes and the experience of self-realization – and all of this is a part of human identity. It has not only existential but ontological value. It is the living human personality that cannot be easily discarded.

Because of a number of psychological traumas during childhood (Fassbinder’s story about the main protagonist’s emotional torments is expertly multilayered) Erwin/Elvira got the dizzying ability to put his whole life on the card of personal love. This decision is, simultaneously, admirable and too self-sacrificial (he needed so much to be loved after being abandoned by his mother that he was ready to do everything to deserve it). When, eventually, he/she/he understood that it was wrong to make personal love as the ultimate frame of reference, the abyss between his too real past and his unknown future swallowed him without any remnant. It was nothing left of his soul to live by.

Erwin/Elvira is an existential, not an intellectual hero – he is not psychologically distant from the essence of life as love (that is an additional reason to admire him), but he reduces love to its infantile prototype – a sentimental personal love, and this is exactly what makes his life wasted (abstracted from the spine of spiritual vitality) and leads those connected with him (his wife and daughter) to a silent disapproving indifference. The hero of Erwin/Elvira’s heart Anton Seitz is his opposite – he is afraid of love like a rabbit afraid of danger. If Erwin/Elvira is a Knight of personal love, Anton tries to escape from love into business and financial dealings while unconsciously, under the shell of his prosperity and power, he is dreaming about a careful and monitorable romance. If something in Erwin/Elvira is similar to Hans in “Merchant of Four Seasons” (1971) and even to Franz Biberkopf in “Berlin Alexander Platz” (1980), something in Anton is similar with Reinhold in “Berlin Alexander Platz”. Anton tries to detour love with the same intensity as Erwin/Elvira dives into it (only to hit the fatal chance of becoming disappointed in love as a need, with fatal consequences). So, we bow before Erwin although we disagree with him, but we cannot respect Anton.

Avoidance of love means avoidance of existence. Anton uses business and power to feel well without love, like Sister Gudrun uses Christ to be separated from human life by the sublime and impeccable love of God. The child Erwin, abandoned by his mother and later betrayed by her the second time, needed earthly love, not super-human (Godly) one. But Sister Gudrun’s love was consoling, patronizing, other-worldly, not a real one. The pantomimic metaphor of clerical love (of Christian love according to organized religion) is Fassbinder’s incredible image of how Sister Gudrun, while narrating Erwin/Elvira’s story is walking around the truth she expresses about the deficit of love in human life on Earth, and her realistically impossible (pure semantics) appearance at the end of the film “walking around” the events leading to Erwin’s suicide. God’s love is so connected with the other world that Sister Gudrun cannot intervene – she can only be God’s witness (she can only provide crumbs of kindness).

With all the difference between Erwin and Anton, something in their psychology is very similar. What in Anton is fear of love, in Erwin is the particular aspect of his love for Anton that is close to Anton’s phobia of love. It is the fear of being abandoned by the person he loves. In spite of his heroic ability to jump into love as into the river of fire, Erwin is surprisingly timid in his love. In Anton’s case the fear of love is fear of losing control over the situation (intimacy has democratic overtones), to let another person to co-decide your life. In this sense Anton’s fear of love is of the same nature as American global financiers’ and entrepreneurs’ (especially in the beginning of 21st century) fear of real free market which demands from the economic players the ability to allow for a honest competition to decide their success or failure; they prefer to dominate the market (i.e. to take away freedom from it). In comparison with Anton’s preference for avoiding intimacy of love because of fear to lose dominant position, Erwin is afraid to take responsibility for his love for Anton – for his homosexual desire. Because Erwin was afraid to be in the eyes of conventional judgment a person who is in love with another man, he decided to make sex-operation in Casablanca (Fassbinder’s ironic comment about Rick, the main character in “Casablanca” by Michael Curtis [1942] who sacrifices the bodily aspect of love for his girlfriend to his self-image as a super-person, in a situation of ontological rivalry with Victor Laslo, the hero-antifascist). What in “Casablanca’ was a sacrifice of physical love for personal greatness (and triumph over Laslo), in Fassbinder’s film became the sacrifice of body – readiness to maim the body for the sake of proper love. And what in “Casablanca” was reference to the times of war, in Fassbinder’s film became an indirect reference to fascist position towards the human body. Erwin prefers to act in accordance with moralistic cliché that only woman has the right to touch a man (and another way around) instead of challenging dogmatic (abstract) moralism with the autonomy of his desire.

Erwin’s problem resonates with widespread situation in US when some young people with a conformist soul choose to make sex-change operation (following the advertisement of medical industry) to avoid taking responsibility for their love. Like Fassbinder’s Erwin they prefer masochistic solution (to undergo physical operation and hormonal “treatment”) rather than be their own agency and respect their love. Like Erwin they were too deprived of a nurturing/supporting love of their parents during their childhood to grow confident in themselves, in their love and their erotic desire. Fassbinder took some screen time to explain to the viewers the psychological roots of Erwin’s seemingly “heroic” but in reality a cowardly torment of his body and biology: why Erwin didn’t have enough courage to face the reality of his love for Anton. He depicts in detail his abandonment, his being in a religious orphanage, his suffering from the impossibility to get (to deserve) foster parents because of his real mother’s moral slavery in front of the pious public opinion. But in essence, American sex-operation conformists-enthusiasts are not less deprived of positive identification with their parents as models of confident adulthood, than Erwin.

The character of Zora is mysterious, but it is necessary completion of the psychological duo of Erwin and Anton. She is angelically girlish by being existentially and ontologically underdeveloped. In this sense she is unexpectedly like Erwin and like Anton. She is “harlot” by being beyond sex, like Anton is a businessman without love and like Erwin is a romantic lover without erotic desire. She tries to help Erwin – a human being on path to self-realization (in this sense he is like Hermann-Hermann in Fassbinder’s “Despair” – 1977), but she herself is as if beyond humanity in general. And only by Erwin’s self-sacrificial dedication to love Zora got her chance for the lucky meeting with Anton. Erwin/Elvira’s love for Anton and his friendship with Zora become existential energy resource of coming relationship between Zora and Anton.

The important aspect of the film’s semantics is that while describing Erwin’s destiny, Fassbinder indirectly comments about people who are too dependent on personal love to be capable of living (including El Hedi ben Salem and Armin Meier), people with a lack of ontological confidence and independence from the circumstances. Fassbinder’s life was much more difficult than theirs. The people with a lack of independence in their personalities are the same who need symbiotic fusing with other people, groups, consumed things and appropriated success and fame. In US after several post-2ww decades, when we were artificially pampered by degraded entertainment and forgot about the necessity to search for truth inside life, we have, following Fassbinder, to confront the fact that real life is much more tragic than we thought and that the truth of life is more important for living than superficial pleasures, petty distractions, predatory careerism and megalomaniacal obsessions of wealth and power.

Sep, 7 2014 –   “In a Year of 13 Moons” (1978) By R.W. Fassbinder by Acting-Out Politics