In Freudian dream analysis, the dream has two contents: the manifest content is the “plot” of the dream, the actions, images and details that sometimes make little sense from a rational standpoint; and the latent content, the real “meaning” of the dream, which analysis excavates by sifting through the manifest content for buried significances. The manifest content only seems to be random; this is only because the sometimes painful truth is hidden from active consciousness (in the dreamer’s mind) to avoid potentially traumatic awareness. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, in In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year with Thirteen Moons, 1978), a film born out of deep personal trauma (the suicide of his lover, Armin Meier), deconstructs “reality” in a way similar to dream analysis, through a complex layering of visual and acoustical elements, which, at first glance, seem to be almost random, but whose intersections and overlapping edges conceal profound “private” meanings. This kind of mise en scène is appropriate, as well, to the film’s investigation of its central character, the transsexual Elvira Weishaupt (Volker Spengler), who has been traumatized by her loveless childhood in an orphanage, and whose entire life has fallen through the cracks, so to speak, and cannot be read as a coherent text but only as a series of broken and reconstituted fragments.
A remarkable example of this layered interplay of elements is the famous sequence where Elvira’s friend, Red Zora (Ingrid Caven), is staying overnight at Elvira’s apartment. Restless and insomniac, Zora turns on the television and begins to switch channels back and forth. This activity, called “surfing”, is the pastime of bored culture-junkies everywhere; but once the presence of TV has been allowed into the room, it takes over and, indeed, the interweaving of snippets or “soundbytes” from several different programs forms much of the remainder of this scene. There’s a French film, Maurice Pialat’s Nous ne vieillirons pas ensemble (We Won’t Be Growing Old Together, 1973), and a documentary about Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet. Fassbinder even inserts himself into this scene, in the form of an interview he did for Peter Jansen’s Life Stories series in 1977. Intriguingly, there are no commercials, perhaps because everything is already a kind of commercial – the documentary is a “commercial for Pinochet”, the Fassbinder interview a “commercial for Fassbinder”, even the film a kind of commercial for what the film is about: everything that passes through the medium of the TV box becomes commercial fodder, whether it begins that way or not. However, this painstakingly simulated broadcast (and real-life TV should only be this interesting) is only tangentially a warning about the rampant dangers of commodification, but rather a little essay on how blocks of information can be manipulated to reveal hidden meanings. It is as building blocks that Fassbinder uses these braided strands of movie, interview and documentary: these soundbytes form a kind of concrete poem, arranged in intersecting shards by Fassbinder to tell a story about his own relationships, specifically with El Hedi ben Salem and Armin Meier.
Its title already an elegy, We Won’t Be Growing Old Together is about an egotistical filmmaker whose abusiveness drives away the women who try to love him. In one clip, he cruelly upbraids a girl: “I tried to get you jobs in the movies, but you’re such a lard-ass! You’ve been clinging to me like a leech for six years.” This language distantly echoes some of the invective Fassbinder had hurled at Armin in Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978). Pinochet now leads the Chilean army in a military parade as the narrator intones that the dictator rose to power in 1973. (1973 was a significant year for Fassbinder and made him the most visible star among the new German directors.) Fassbinder, in the interview, explains that his childhood wasn’t at all normal; he seems to be trying to justify himself for something, somewhat defensively. In the logic of the montage, Fassbinder is linked to the abusive hero of Pialat’s film and to the abusive dictator Pinochet, as another self-centred leader who has caused the destruction of others.
Let me say that, although I do think this is what Fassbinder is getting at in this scene, he is being too harsh on himself. The irrational, however, is stronger than the rational, and this particular sequence, with its overlapping voices, feels like a Freudian analysis. Vulnerable about his real meanings in this scene, Fassbinder went to great lengths to bury its autobiographical elements deep under a deceptive layering: the mantle of television itself, its status as a “book of sand”. And Zora’s reaction seems salutary: the character grows “bored” by the televised messages from her creator and turns away.
I think it’s Zora’s reaction that has led many critics to pigeonhole this scene as Fassbinder’s warning about the dehumanising effects of mass media and the culture industry. Her attention span is short, she can’t stay with anything and everything bores her, fails to involve her. If she is initially drawn to the TV like a junkie seeking some kind of fix, she ends up shaking with rage and irritation at everything she sees; in a huge close-up of her fixed, staring eyes with a shadow falling across them, she comes to seem more and more unnerved, almost blind with disgust. She seems to experience TV as a kind of rape, a forcible and inhuman penetration over which she has no control (one of the film clips involves a “rape” scene of sorts between a man and a woman, which Zora shudders at, but in exactly the same way she shudders at the Chilean national anthem: both are rapes, then, to be registered as such, then switched past, swept away, ultimately forgotten). As if to underscore her felt lack of control, she gets up at one point and moves across the room, with her back to the TV-set, and the TV begins to switch its own channels, like some poltergeist. However, this magic-realist touch is another clue that these soundbytes are far from random, but pre-selected and edited together by Fassbinder to form an intrinsic commentary, a kind of text for multiple voices, and this is why interpretations of this scene that focus only on the banality of mass-media culture and dehumanisation have missed the point: Fassbinder is controlling what this TV is showing.
Now Jansen asks Fassbinder: “Are you afraid of failing in your personal relationships?” Taken off-guard, Fassbinder chuckles: “Why do you say ‘afraid’?” As he goes on to admit, “I just keep failing all the time”, the camera shows a snapshot – in Zora’s hand – of a younger Volker Spengler (the actor who gives a bravura performance as Elvira), in drag and holding a glass of wine. The TV switches back to Pinochet and, still over the photograph of Spengler, we hear the narrator say: “Less prominent supporters of Allende became the victims of the newly formed secret police […] Often a simple arrest would end in death.” The juxtaposition of Fassbinder’s “failed” relationships with the ruthless tactics of Pinochet’s death squads against his opponent’s “less prominent supporters” (combined, in the montage, with the vulnerable-looking photo of Spengler in drag) becomes a poignant moment in which Fassbinder’s private feelings come leaking out: it’s a veiled reference not only to Armin Meier, who succumbed to depression and suicide, but to El Hedi Ben Salem, Fassbinder’s second significant lover, who, after Fassbinder left him, was arrested for stabbing several people in a bar and later found hanged while under police custody. As a powerful agency who feels that he may have somehow contributed to Salem’s mysterious death, Fassbinder is tarring himself with the same brush as the “death-squad” police – in this case, West German rather than Chilean. One of the darker – and perhaps valid (who can say?) – paranoias which Fassbinder seems to be wrestling with here is that he may have indirectly occasioned the deaths of the “less prominent” and therefore more vulnerable Salem and, later, Armin Meier, by associating them with himself, and thereby exposing them, in a very public way, as homosexuals. Again, by inserting his own TV interview into this mix, Fassbinder reminds the audience of what an enormous celebrity he was at the time in West Germany: his headline-attracting notoriety often engendered controversy.
The soundbytes begin to turn toward the subject of people wanting to change, which is one of the driving mechanisms behind the character of Elvira herself. Here is where the effect of the channels switching back and forth becomes really hallucinatory, like watching television under the influence of certain drugs and sensing that everything one sees is somehow related in a kind of hidden conspiracy of meaning, and also related to oneself. In the Pialat film, a woman hands her lover his key back and tells him it’s over; Fassbinder speaks of wanting to change, but notes that, for him, change comes much more slowly than he would like; another woman says, “I want to be free again, I want to go out on Saturdays and Sundays”; Pinochet, we learn, was engaged in a systematic campaign to change the nation of Chile from top to bottom. In each case, an individual’s relationship to an other or to the world is revealed to be a fundamentally hostile one, in which freedom and love become incompatible, and the individual in question has no choice but to hurt others in order to fulfil himself.
Several of the interwoven programs reach a crisis point, now, one after the next. Pinochet’s plebiscite declares that anyone who did not wholeheartedly support the General with a “yes” vote in all of his policies was to be held guilty of high treason against the state; the woman in the Pialat film exemplifies this idea of “treason” on an interpersonal level as she hysterically berates her lover: “I don’t want to see you anymore, understand? I’m fed up with you and your stupid movies. Get out of my life!” Personal freedom is as hard-fought and hard-won as political freedom, and both are subject to a kind of ideological blindness: in love, as in the machinations of the state, for a “follower” to break from the leader involves nothing short of violent revolution, which most are incapable of waging. In followers, negativity turns inward and becomes internalised as masochism: they implode rather than explode.
“What drives you to make so many pictures?”, Jansen asks, thereby reinforcing Fassbinder’s stature as the most prolific and prominent director of the New German Cinema, its unofficial leader. Fassbinder responds self-deprecatingly: “It must be a unique kind of mental illness.” The will to power is the mark of an unhealthy, damaged psyche; but so is the will or impulse to be dominated, controlled, led. The channel switches; Pialat’s hero says: “Life seemed dreadful but I still found myself interesting. Now it’s the other way around. I know that life is wonderful but that I am excluded from it.” We see that the pole position can give way at any time, to reveal the would-be leader as stranded, awash in his own damage, just another helpless sheep.
Fassbinder then tells the interviewer that he hopes his personal life will change soon, “but if it doesn’t, if I don’t meet someone tonight or tomorrow or the day after, everything will go on as it is. I won’t force myself to change it, nor would I force myself to keep it the same.” He was referring here (the interview was conducted in 1977) to the strains in his relationship with Armin, who was, of course, still alive then. Now, Fassbinder zeroes in on this comment – that he would like a change, would like to meet someone new – as a guilty post-mortem for Armin. It recalls the opening of Germany in Autumn, where, in order to placate a sulky, clinging Armin, Fassbinder belatedly and desperately phones an interviewer, asking him to strike certain remarks Fassbinder had made about the frustrations of married life; when he finds that it is too late for retractions and the interview will be aired (or published) as is, Fassbinder slams the phone down in rage. But was Armin really that sensitive to words? Or was Fassbinder projecting his own hypersensitivity about the meanings and intentions of language onto his life-mate, who, by all accounts, was not half as articulate as Fassbinder? “The General missed no opportunity to express his contempt”, we hear next, “for parliamentary democracy.” Again linking himself (a little surrealistically) to Pinochet, Fassbinder flagellates himself for having unkindly vented contempt for Armin in his interviews with the news media.
Something similarly “metaphoric” is at work in the visual and acoustical components of the famous slaughterhouse scene, surely the ne plus ultra of cinematic nihilism. This sequence is composed of several discrete elements – footage of cows being slaughtered, a long monologue by Elvira that at one point quotes Goethe’s play about Tasso, and Handel organ music – that seem to comment on each other, and become recontextualised, through their interaction in the mise en scène.
The images of cows being butchered are filmed flatly by Fassbinder, in documentary style; the point is that this is a real place of industry, where this kind of mass slaughter is performed routinely. In a society deformed by advanced capitalism, consumers rarely bear witness to the mode of production itself. A schizophrenic disconnect sets in: especially when the mode of production involves the slitting of living throats, we pretend not to realize the element of inhumanity behind the smooth processing and packaging of everyday food stuffs. Fassbinder takes us behind the scenes to show us what we repress to maintain our clear consciences; he reveals the grisly details of this systematic transformation of living matter into dead matter, a process which extends metaphorically to all the operations of advanced-industrial capitalism, a totalising system that transforms its living workers (of which Elvira, we am reminded, used to be one: this slaughterhouse is, in fact, where she once worked) into controlled, mechanical, essentially “dead” functionaries. Fassbinder’s insistence on showing the reality of the death that’s exploited – the rending and flaying knives, the spurts of blood, the tissue cut away – valorises the life that has been sacrificed, literally bled away to lubricate the wheels of the machine.
Though I am tempted to regard Elvira’s braving of this mess as a sign of her inner health, because she is willing to see with her own eyes the destructive energies that others repress from conscious thought, I also see that she is quickly co-opted by these destructive energies. On an irrational level, this abattoir is the locus of Elvira’s death wish. It’s in this scene of “murder” and death that she really comes alive; we hear her talk uninterruptedly for nearly the only time in the whole film (until the very end, when her voice, on a tape recorder, is heard playing after she is already dead). She, a victim of the same systemic mass-production that has classed her as a second-rate citizen and subjected her to a different kind of butchery (the sex change), is at home here, in her element: sadly, this is what “gives life its meaning”, as she says. Serenely, as if meditating, she surveys the killing of the cows and is, as it were, restored by it.
Again, these brutal, disturbing images are recontextualised by their “forced” interaction with Elvira’s monologue. We hear her begin to speak just as she and Zora enter the slaughterhouse, but there’s an odd disconnect to Elvira’s speech in this scene: it’s completely disembodied. I know that Elvira is addressing Zora in this monologue, but, when the camera shows Elvira, she’s never talking; Elvira’s voice is heard only when the camera is showing the grisly work of the butchers, the machinery of the slaughterhouse, the assembly line of animal death and the butchered cows. Is Fassbinder saying that this butchery is what “gives voice” to the otherwise inchoate Elvira? Is she speaking for the silenced bodies of the slaughtered cows, or are their bodies actually “speaking” for her, when she talks and talks but does not express what she needs to express the most: her pain of having been sacrificed?
A third element of this sequence is the use of a Handel organ concerto on the soundtrack: the High Baroque music gives an almost gothic air to these proceedings, suggesting both a cathedral funeral and an ecstatic, candle-lit transport of the spirit. It is to a more ancient world that this organ music properly belongs – just as, I imagine, in some earlier age, the bloodshed itself, and even Elvira’s “hermaphroditism” would have had a better chance of being, or at least seeming to be, a natural part of the world. Even Elvira’s obsessive, romanticised love for Anton Saitz (Gottfried John), the man for whom she had the sex change, belongs to a more archaic era.
The words of Elvira’s monologue are edited to match the visuals brilliantly. When she and Zora enter the slaughterhouse, we hear Elvira talk about how, as Erwin (before her sex change), she apprenticed to a butcher (not, it turns out, her original choice of careers: she’d wanted to be a goldsmith, but that cost too much money), then she met and married Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar),
the butcher’s daughter. Over a shot of cows standing in a pen, helplessly waiting, Elvira says, “Her dad treated us like his property”: employee and daughter are both alienated labour, and find their common ground in this condition – not love so much as a shared experience of exploitation united Erwin and Irene. When Elvira talks about Irene being a teacher and says, “Her life is more valuable than mine”, Fassbinder brutally cuts to a row of cows hanging upside-down; one by one their throats are slashed with a big knife, and their life’s blood gushes out. The hierarchisation of more-valuable and less-valuable lives, a normally unspoken commonplace in the social order, is shown to have an immediate consequence: the stronger kill the weaker. Later, when Elvira talks about the anxiety of her ex-lover Christoph (Karl Scheydt) that his penis was too small, how he pumped her for information about her clients’ penises when she worked the streets (“as if the size of a cock was a problem for him”), we see an entire cow being skinned. It hangs upside down, a giant phallic symbol, with its skinny tail sticking uselessly up into the air, while a machine peels its “foreskin” away and lifts the entire flap up to the rafters of the ceiling: this repugnant image seems to dramatize Christoph’s “penis envy” and obvious castration anxiety.
The heart of Elvira’s monologue is a lengthy recitation from Goethe’s verse play, Torquato Tasso. This becomes yet a fourth element of the mise en scène in this sequence and it recontextualises the butchery in a slightly new way. Elvira is remembering how she used to rehearse plays with Christoph when he was a struggling actor, but the lines she brings up from her memory, delivered in a mounting pitch of trembling hysteria, take on a life of their own. It’s the speech from the last act, where the poet Tasso, now a raving lunatic about to be confined to an asylum, is venting the full gale of his paranoia about having been “betrayed” by his aristocratic patrons, the ones for whom he wrote his epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered. Goethe has Tasso say:
That’s why they crowned me,
so I could be led with garlands to the sacrificial altar! …
He stole my work, the only thing I owned.
My only property is now in your hands,
which would have been my passport to the world,
the only thing between me and starvation …
So that my work would never be completed,
so that my name would never become famous,
so that my critics would batten on my weaknesses
with envious tongues, and let me be forgotten …
I feel that these particular lines were chosen significantly by Fassbinder; the embattled filmmaker is speaking through Goethe (and through Elvira) about his own sense of being misunderstood as a creative artist. The slaughtered cows suddenly come to represent, before our eyes, vital, living works of art delivered up to the marketplace and to the hands of an uncomprehending public, to be massacred. This final element elevates the slaughterhouse scene to the level of a personal testament, rather than a schematic (if bloody) essay on the deformations of capitalism: in a strange urgent relay, the modern poet (Fassbinder) seems to be crying out for help to the classical poet (Goethe), who, in turn, had sought identification with the “ancient” poet (Tasso). As Volker Spengler’s voice trails off into moans and panting, I feel that an entirely different kind of “acting” is being presented at this moment: not only Elvira trying to out-perform her memory of Christoph (and thereby fulfil his castration anxiety, perhaps), but a connection to the catharsis and emphatic statement of ancient tragedy. The extended quote from Goethe ends with these lines:
O, give me only for a moment the present back!
And though a man be silenced by his pain,
a God gave me the power to say how much I suffer.
In his demoralized state, the only thing left for Fassbinder – his “existential need”, as he described it – was to “retreat” into his art and to make this film, which, if it doesn’t cure despair, at least articulates it fully and clearly. But the inevitable unfairness that even such a powerful personal testament as this would have to be offered to the public and the critics, to be judged like any other film, was clearly not lost on Fassbinder.
The fulfilment of all of this nihilistic speech, this seemingly arbitrary “playing with language”, is a real death: Elvira’s. But even the traumatic latent content of her “death scene”, the fact of her blatant sacrifice, gets complicated – or “cathected”, in psychoanalytic terms – by a manifest content that is woven from, again, seemingly arbitrary details, a nexus of mediated representations of reality. In this dramatic final sequence of In a Year with Thirteen Moons, a tape-recording of Elvira’s interview with a journalist plays over the images of her loved ones converging on her apartment and finding her there, already dead. This motif of the tape-recorded voice transcending the speaker’s literal death seems to be a homage to the ending of Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, Les Séquestrés d’Altona (The Condemned of Altona, 1959), one of the first works of art to explore the toxic legacy of Nazism on the next generation of German society. Sartre’s anti-hero, the son of a wealthy German industrialist and a Nazi war criminal who has lived as an insane recluse in a room of his father’s house since the war, is like Elvira, in that he is a kind of scapegoat of history: sensitive and highly strung, he lives in unbearable memories of the past, a past which the rest of his family has eagerly repressed. Elvira’s “torch” for Anton, in In a Year with Thirteen Moons, is emblematic of not only melodramatic individual suffering, but this kind of Sartrean “suffering for history”. Elvira’s decision to confront the past, to remember it, and to discover who she “really” is destroys her in the end, as it also destroys the son in The Condemned of Altona. They must each deliver their own eulogies (via the tape recordings) because no one else around them can bear to deal with the past in any respect, no one else can make sense of their tortured and tortuous identities.
In fact, Elvira’s “real”, natural voice – her personality, one could say – is voiced only after she has died, when talks over her own death as if it were a matter of no great consequence. This nattering denial of death is the final dark absurdity of Elvira’s life, yet her chattering, self-deprecating comments lend deep poignancy to the fact that she has not been able to survive among the various people now standing around her. In language that is surprisingly savvy about Freudian psychology, she talks about masochism, disavowing it in herself; she says that her psychosomatic pains are not a deliberate attempt to make herself suffer and feel pain, but a way of “getting a clearer picture” of herself. Tellingly, at one point she talks about Christoph, revealing that she was trying to “give so much” to him “so he’d have something left to give back to me”, a succinct definition of Fassbinder’s emotional economy, where even love is a commodity ripe for exploitation.
A plaintive soprano aria begins to play softly under Elvira’s monologue. The journalist Burghard Hauer (Gerhard Zwerenz) and his girlfriend Sybille (Isolde Barth) rush up the steps to the landing outside Elvira’s apartment, where they are stopped at the door by Smolik (Günther Kaufmann), Saitz’s chauffeur and right-hand man, standing sentry-duty for his boss (who is inside having sex with Zora). As more and more of Elvira’s intimates converge outside her locked door, the aria switches almost imperceptibly into a kind of grinding acid-rock, fuzzy and low-register; again it’s very quiet, almost subliminal, as though someone in a different apartment were fiddling the knobs of a radio.
Elvira is saying, “People call Anton a capitalist pig … And it’s true that he never wrote back to me, but no pig ever learned to write.” This unlikely insult suggests that Elvira does see Saitz’s ruthless side; there’s also an association made between the economic policies of “capitalist swine” and destructive libidinal energy, similar to the link which Antonin Artaud makes in his poem “Here Lies”:
rocking to the stinking boss
this arrogant capitalist
swimming toward the stickisome trinity
of fathermother with kiddy sex
to empty the body whole,
wholly of its vitality
and put in its place. . .who?
he who was made by Being and Nothing-
the way one puts a baby to make peepee.
In the violent, freewheeling imagery of this poem, the capitalist’s power to manipulate and control the economic market translates into a concomitant power over human bodies, to unmake them, to turn them into sexual objects, to “use and abuse” them. Of course, Artaud was one of Fassbinder’s favourite writers. I quote this passage to show that the bohemian discourse of the “capitalist pig” as malevolent sexual destroyer, though not as fully developed by the modest Elvira, suggests a lurking radicalism struggling to break out of the unquestioning role of blind follower which she has (masochistically) staked out for her life.
Out of nowhere, in another magic-realist touch, Sister Gudrun (Lieselotte Pempeit), the Mother Superior from the orphanage where Elvira grew up, is seen quietly climbing the stairs to Elvira’s apartment, drawn as if by some mystical premonition. As Sister Gudrun enters the apartment, the music changes dramatically to a scratchy bit of 1960s girl-group rock and roll, “Schoner Fremder Mann” (“Handsome Stranger”), Connie Francis singing in German over a Motown beat. Elvira is still audible; she shares the soundtrack with this classic female-diva song. The fact that Fassbinder is using this brassy love song as an elegy for Elvira is the film’s final, devastating irony: heartbreaking and somehow strangely apropos, it’s as if someone asked for The Supremes to be played at his funeral. Such a choice says something about the deceased that “Ave Maria” probably wouldn’t.
Elvira is saying that if she did have a death-wish it “must have come from the subconscious”. Again, we note that her fluency in the language of Freudian psychoanalysis is a little startling and suggests depths that were previously untapped. This is reminiscent of Franz Walsch’s dying words – an obscure quote from Johann Eckermann’s Gespräche mit Goethe (Conversations with Goethe: “Cobbler, stick to your last!” – in Götter der Pest (Gods of the Plague, 1969), again suggesting depths beneath the character of the disaffected, passive young gangster that had been overlooked. Death and illness often perform this function, in Fassbinder’s films, of explicitly revealing the full humanity of a character to those around him who had been heedless of that humanity: Effi Briest (Hanna Schygulla), Hans Epp (Hans Hirschmüller) in Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), Ali (El Hedi ben Salem) are all “revealed” by illness as human beings in need of love and understanding. However, the revelation never lasts, never leads to a concrete utopia, even when the character ends up dying. Elvira is one of these Fassbinder protagonists, rendered human to the others, for a flashing instant, by her death. She says that she wanted to experience a life where she could find out for herself what words like “comfort” and “tenderness” really meant. Tragically, Elvira had only an empty, undefined language all her life, a language whose words for emotions meant little to her. A fulfilled life eluded her, or was denied to her. Like the seemingly random, overlapping elements of the mise en scène (which I have tried to show are far from random), her life was broken up into a series of disparate narratival threads, manipulated, shuffled around and “rewritten” by the society around her.
The Mother Superior flatly leaves everyone behind. Fassbinder’s camera follows her out the door; as she disappears down the stairs, the frame freezes on the now-empty stairwell, drab and grainy. Suddenly, “Schoner Fremder Mann” becomes much louder, cutting off Elvira’s voice and “speaking” for her, here at the end. The lyrics can now be heard distinctly, as Connie Francis sings in German:
there will come a day
when all my dreams at last
will be reality …
Pop songs often sing hymns of praise to the glorious day that will come, when the singer will find her happiness and love. The expectation is that this longed-for day will come reasonably soon, at least within the singer’s (and listener’s) lifetime. Because Elvira has died, and because In a Year with Thirteen Moons has already staked out some fairly serious philosophical ground, it’s clear that, in this case, the singer’s boast has here been recontextualised as the howl of someone left behind by history: it’s the cry of someone looking toward the far-distant future for vindication, someone who has had to wait her whole life and will get nothing in the end because she was born in a century where true freedom and tolerance were not yet available. In other words, the diva (Connie Francis) is being dressed up in Elvira’s fatalistic-femme drag.
The forward social-evolutionary leap that is implied belongs more to science-fiction, then, with its spanning of millennia, than it does to human-sized drama or melodrama: indeed, it may take centuries for this promise of a coming day to come true, centuries for a life like Elvira’s to be able to be fulfilled – too late for Elvira, Fassbinder is saying, and too late for us. Thomas Elsaesser has already noted the uncanny similarity between In a Year with Thirteen Moons and the genre of science-fiction in general, particularly “the time-travel film”, in that Elvira’s life – paraded in front of her as a series of revisited scenes – seems to be rewinding and undoing itself. But I would even go farther than Elsaesser does. In science fiction, as in the experience of life under a fascist dictatorship (and, one should not forget, the experience of homosexuals in straight society), the idea that the world is really a simulacrum under “enemy control” – what would otherwise be dismissed as a paranoid idée fixe, a delusion – becomes “plausible” and “real”, the stuff of the everyday, so to speak. But where In a Year with Thirteen Moons most resembles sci-fi is in its insistence that human development, the destiny of the species, is itself somehow “controlled”; that we are creatures of the time and place where we find ourselves, and can only get as far as we are allowed to. Like the far-flung mapping of evolution in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Fassbinder presents human evolution (sexual, social, emotional, psychological) in extreme long shot, as an ongoing process, of which Elvira’s strange misbegotten life is a kind of allegorised way-station – out of time, in both senses of that phrase, belonging to the future rather than the present, and also running out, unrenewable.
This desire to see a better future – so fundamental to all dreams of utopia – is, in itself, a melancholy one: individual mortality will ensure that we only get so far. The idea of situating oneself within an infinitely “regressive” or “progressive” historical continuum is also in itself uniquely German. Goethe expressed the ambitions of the Enlightenment to weave all of western culture into a single, totalising, system-building philosophy when he wrote: “Anyone who cannot give to himself an adequate account of the past three thousand years remains in darkness, without history, living from day to day.” This rather extreme concept of needing an almost personal accountability for “the past three thousand years” finds its echo, one hundred and fifty years later, and perverted by the will to power, in Hitler’s boast that the Third Reich would “stand for a thousand years”. In both statements the present moment is discounted as being “not-enough”, paling before the inscrutable achievements held out by the past for our interpretation, and the achievements promised by an infinitely expanding future. In both, an effort to remake the world in one’s own image involves the appropriation of distant lives who have either passed away already or who are not yet born. In a 1945 speech, Goebbels exhorted the foundering remnants of the Reich, already collapsing a long way off from its millennial goal: “Every one of you has the opportunity today to choose the person he wishes to be in a hundred years. […] Don’t give up!” The vanity of wanting to leave one’s mark of influence on the far-distant future – put simply, to change history itself – lies at the heart of the Nazi phenomenon. In Fassbinder’s own utopian projection of the future there could be, it must be admitted, a similar will to power, except that here we see the infinitely receding vanishing-point of the future from the standpoint of those who have been definitively left behind, those who have lost any hope of influencing anything. Unlike Goebbels and the Nazis, Elvira is content to simply “go down” in the face of catastrophic loss, heartbreak and disillusionment. Elvira got as far as she could, which wasn’t very far; some day, someone exactly like her might be able to get a little farther. Each generation may get a little farther, but, in terms of seeing real change, the time-span needed won’t be measurable in one lifetime.
The other meaning of the Connie Francis song – the way its loud brassiness consumes Elvira’s voice at the end – is denial, repression. Indeed, the reactions of the survivors in Elvira’s apartment are largely impassive, unemotional; the song, a prefabricated mass-entertainment, expresses their feelings for them, but in second-hand terms. Mass-media and popular culture are often invoked, in Fassbinder’s films, as a false form of healing or interpersonal connecting: from the surly characters of Katzelmacher (1969), who preen like movie stars and spout empty platitudes, to the pop songs that serve as vows, foils and weapons in both Die Bitteren Tränen der Petra von Kant (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, 1972) and Angst essen Seele auf (Fear Eats the Soul, 1974), to the delirious reduction of the entire Third Reich to an endlessly repeated, monotonous “theme song” in Lili Marleen (1981). The emotions of “Schoner Fremder Mann” are rendered ironic by this second-handedness, and by the obvious fact that it, too, even with its manic energy, its euphoria, has failed to save Elvira in the end. The song plays on blindly until it’s literally derailed, train-wrecked: on the word “wirklichkeit” (“reality”), the record begins to skip, a return to Elvira’s defective obsessional thinking and a kind of farewell relic from a broken world. “Reality” repeats several times, then the music dies with a sound like a door slamming shut, and all that’s left is silence and the static shot of the stairwell blocked, dead-ended, by the freeze-framing. Any way one looks at it, in this story of ruined attempts at utopia, reality has the last word.