Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1978
Starring: Volker Spengler, Ingrid Caven, Gottfried John
Elvira, a transsexual prostitute, is beaten when she tries to hire a male prostitute catering to men. Once known as Erwin, Elvira is also distraught over her lover Christoph. Though he is abusive physically and verbally, he’s leaving her because she’s gained weight and become sexually unappealing. Another prostitute, her friend Red Zora, looks over Eivira as she begins a search to find the people and places of her past — including the convent where she was raised as an orphan and the office of an unrequited love, Anton Saitz. He was Erwin’s friend and partner in crime and was responsible for Erwin’s transformation into Elvira.
Not only is this Fassbinder’s most personal film, but it is perhaps his greatest masterpiece, the culmination of all his themes: the trauma of German history, the search for identity, love, and family, and an individual masochistic sacrifice at the hands of a cruel loved one. Erwin/Elvira (played by Volker Spengler in one of the best performances in any Fassbinder film) is a figure that intersects all borders: male and female, past and present, wounded child and absent parents, erotic and repulsive, living and dead. Elvira is Fassbinder’s ultimate sacrificial figure, a being whose martyrdom takes on almost religious connotations. She has no true identity of her own, but merely reflects those around her. In a tableau imagining of Christ or a Catholic saint, these figures gather around her after her death (by suicide).
This martyrdom was foreshadowed in Fassbinder’s earlier works: the martyrdom through masochism that was first suggested in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and further developed Martha, as well as the martyrdom of self-abnegation in The Merchant of the Four Seasons, Fox and His Friends, and Despair. These are combined with the sacrificial victim characters of Berlin Alexanderplatz and I Only Want You to Love Me and brought to their ultimate conclusion in In a Year with 13 Moons. While Fassbinder treats many of his characters poorly, he manages a blend of tragedy and comedy, cruelty and tenderness that is unique to Elvira/Erwin. At the end of the film, she is either betrayed or rejected by every person in her life. The bleak tone of the film and its perhaps inevitable conclusion is somehow hopeful, as if Elvira has successfully managed atonement.
Elvira’s journey into the past to right some unspoken wrong and uncover her identity has a fairytale-like quality. She searches for Anton Saitz’s tower, a place that takes on a dark, surreal tone. Before Elvira meets with Saitz, she spends time with a man preparing to hang himself. They talk and share bread and wine before she quietly watches him die before going to meet with the love of her life. Also like fairytales and myths, there are three women in Elvira’s life: Sister Gudrun, the nun who helped raise young Erwin, Red Zora, the young prostitute who cares for her, and Irene, once Erwin’s wife and the mother of their child together. Sister Gudrun tells Elvira that she does not believe in God and society is the cause for all human evil. Interestingly, Elvira’s search for an absent mother parallels Fassbinder’s own; perhaps fittingly, his own mother (actress Lilo Pempeit) plays Gudrun.
Red Zora, played by Fassbinder’s most enigmatic actress and his one-time wife, Ingrid Caven, both nurtures and betrays Elvira. When Elvira is upset, Zora comforts her and tells her a story while she falls asleep — one about a brother and sister transformed by a witch into a mushroom and a snail. But later, she sleeps with Anton, a betrayal that drives Elvira to suicide. Irene (Elisabeth Trissenaar of Berlin Alexanderplatz and Bolwieser) is Elvira’s wife. She is supportive and apparently understood the sex change, but old hurts prevent her from really accepting Elvira back into her life. Perhaps ironically, Erwin, the boy once abandoned by his mother, becomes Elvira, the woman who abandons her daughter.
This identity dilemma present in all of Fassbinder’s films is part of an increasing dialogue that developed throughout his work and led to themes of the double in Despair and Berlin Alexanderplatz. That also culminates in In a Year With 13 Moons, not only between Erwin and Elvira, but between Erwin/Elvira and Anton Saitz (Gottfried John, also the “double” character in Berlin Alexanderplatz). The first time Saitz is introduced wearing a skimpy tennis outfit and he forced Elvira and his goons — he’s a businessman cum gangster — reenact a scene from a Jerry Lewis musical. Saitz, as a symbol of post-war Germany, sits at the crossroads between the industrial factory, the slaughterhouse, and the concentration camp.. He is a survivor of Bergen Belsen — where he spent his childhood while Erwin was at the convent — but is also a violent gangster who has taken control of much of industrial Frankfort. At one point Fassbinder explains Saitz: S is for Saltz (salt), A is for Auschwitz, I is for Ich (I), T is for Tod (death), and Z is for Zeit (time).
This truly radical film comes with the highest possible recommendation and is thankfully available on DVD, though not in the edition it deserves. This groundbreaking portrayal of a transsexual in film remains controversial because Elvira had reassignment surgery out of love, rather than an innate sense of gender — but this problematic theme speaks to Fassbinder’s larger statements about love and identity. The film — on which he served as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, set designer, and editor — is a love letter to the suicide of his long-time boyfriend Armin Meier, with whom Elvira shares some biographical details. The squeamish should beware — Erwin/Elvira’s time in the slaughterhouse (which was also Meier’s profession) is as disturbingly graphic and tragically poetic as anything in Eyes Without a Face or The Bell from Hell. This incredibly rich, layered film is a triumph of German (and world) cinema.