'In A Year Of Thirteen Moons' was the film that saved Fassbinder's life. At least temporarily. Devastated after the suicide of his lover Armin Meier, who'd appeared in a few of his previous films, Fassbinder threw his energy into this hugely cathartic and personal project. It's been suggested that had he not made the film, it's highly likely he also would have committed suicide, yet Fassbinder was able to positively use his volatile emotional state to create an incredibly moving and sympathetic account of the last days in the life of a character on the edge.
The film starts with an extended set of titles on the screen, a prologue so to speak to account for the actions and behaviour of the main protagonist. Every seventh year is a Moon year and those who are strongly influenced by their emotions suffer more intensely from depression during these years. This is also the case in a year with thirteen Moons, where inescapable personal tragedies may occur. This was the case of Elvira, formerly Erwin (Volker Spengler), a woman who recently had a sex change operation in Casablanca, whose torrid romantic life is her downfall. Initially beaten by a man during a cruising incident for not having a penis, she is then mistreated and abandoned by her cruel lover, who offers the parting shots that she's fat and repulsive. Elvira is over-emotional and hysterical, but we realise that this isn't the first incident of the couple splitting up. Their rocky relationship seems to have ended before, but whilst he can walk away, Elvira cannot cope with rejection.
The reasons for Elvira's sex change become apparent. It was not for the benefit of her present lover, but for a co-worker at her previous place of work - a slaughterhouse. Fassbinder then reveals an incredibly bloody and brutal scene showing the slaughterhouse in great detail, which requires a strong stomach to endure. Elvira when as Erwin once declared his love for Anton (Gottfried John), who remarked "it's a shame you're not a woman", a throwaway remark which Erwin then took to heart, and hence Erwin became Elvira. Believing than Anton would now want her, Elvira now seeks to find Anton, who is now a powerful businessman on the back of apparently dubious business practices (another indictment of the West German economic miracle?). However, life and love in Fassbinder's universe is cruel and so it must be that Elvira is humiliated once more by a man who no longer remembers Erwin from before, and what's more seduces Elvira's prostitute friend more or less in her presence. As fate has determined, this film does not have a happy ending for Elvira, with the cruelty and humiliation of those she loves/loved finally shattering her resolve.
Featuring a dynamite lead performance by Volker Spengler (who was the sexually ambiguous son of the housekeeper in 'Chinese Roulette'), Elvira is one of Fassbinder's greatest characters. It's a performance full of compassion and sympathy, and never pity. It transcends the film by some distance, which is often a bit erratic and struggles with certain elements midway through the film, but because of the personal angle and the fact that Fassbinder simply had to make the film for his own sanity, it's still more than worthwhile. It truly is heartbreaking too; not just the emotionally tiring scenes of Elvira rejected by lovers, but also Elvira rejecting her recent femininity after Anton humiliates her - she cuts her hair and wears a man's suit to reclaim her former masculinity, as if she's asserting that life was better or less difficult as a man. The sole reason for her changing her gender doesn't want to know after all. There's also a taped monologue which overlaps scenes in which her body is found, improvised by Spengler, which are just devastating. Typically for Fassbinder, he reveals love to be nothing more self-deception and a tool for others to manipulate. Whilst it's a theme much used by him previously, it never feels like repetition. 4/5