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  In a Year with 13 Moons Gender Confusion
Year: 1978
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Stars: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Eva Mattes, Gunther Kaufman, Lilo Pempeit, Isolde Barth, Karl Scheydt, Walter Bockmayer, Peter Kollek, Bob Dorsay, Gerhard Zwerenz
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: A man approaches one of the city's rent boys and tries to proposition him, but there's a problem: when the prostitute puts his hands between the man's legs, there's nothing there to indicate he is male at all. This is because Elvira (Volker Spengler) is actually a transgender woman and was simply looking for company and a little affection, but she gets the opposite when the young men there surround her and beat her up, leaving her half-stripped and dazed on the nearby railway line. Recognising that could have gone better, she returns to her flat, still in a state of undress, to find her ex-boyfriend, Christoph (Karl Scheydt) has come back.

Unfortunately for love-starved Elvira, he is there to pack his clothes to take away with him, because frankly she disgusts him now... It's important to know a little background to writer and director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's melodrama, since it was made very quickly in response to the suicide of his lover a few weeks before. Though Fassbinder did not have a great track record in treating those around him with the affection they warranted, this was still a shock to him and that confusion is shot through every frame of In a Year with 13 Moons, a twisted tribute to the deceased that some have championed as his greatest work - indie darling Richard Linklater proclaimed himself a big fan.

And not only that, but a fairly early film to deal with transgender themes, except when you watch it you will likely be none the wiser about what it is like to be in that situation as Elvira has no idea herself. It transpires the only reason she had the operation was because of a throwaway comment from someone she had taken a liking to: "It's a pity you're not a girl!" She took this to heart and travelled to Casablanca to change gender, but in a development you can't imagine getting much traction in twenty-first century body positive narratives, it transpires she was never very convinced she wanted to be a woman in the first place: she did it all for wealthy business leader Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), who for some bizarre madness she believed would fall for her if she had breasts and a vagina.

Never mind that Spengler's hulking frame would never have convinced the object of her desire that she was anything but a man with female characteristics (self-imposed, it's revealed). This cruel twist appeared to be wholly deliberate (the actor was gay, but not transgender) because it leaves Elvira all at sea emotionally and even more crucially, as far as her identity is defined. If nobody around her takes her seriously as a woman, then how can she expect to do so for herself? Even her ex-wife and daughters call her "Erwin" (her original name) and "Dad". So really Elvira is a joke of a human being as presented here, and if you think that's a bloody strange way to pay tribute to someone Fassbinder loved but was now dead by his own hand, then you don't know the half of it. Long stretches of dialogue and monologue abounded, all of it obsessed with death and self-destruction as the protagonist is on a path that you can see coming from the opening few scenes.

But in its obsession, there remained uneasy images: the lengthy sequence at her old place of work, an abattoir, where cows get their heads cut off, blood drained and are skinned with cold, dispassionate efficiency while she describes her self-mutilation, or the man she meets in the office block of Saitz who makes light of his impending suicide, explains she can watch if she likes, and proceeds to hang himself in a statement you just know nobody will care about. Yet there were further eccentricities, not least the part where Saitz leads a number of employees in acting out the Martin and Lewis movie on the television they've been watching. There are no easy answers as to how to react to this, it's boring, revolting, tragic, funny in places, and you cannot imagine anyone making it now. Is that a recommendation? To be honest, it's difficult to recommend to anyone other than the dedicated Fassbinder follower, but as a portrait of a lost soul utterly lacking in a crucial personality definition, and therefore someone to love them for themselves (since there's no there there), it was disturbingly vivid.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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