I have never had any doubt as to which is my favourite scene in In a Year of 13 Moons; it is Ingrid Caven telling Volker Spengler a fairy tale – the high point of that being the way that she says ‘snail’ – Schnecke. Ingrid Caven, repeating the word Schnecke – it’s all I ask for.
Of all the characters in In a Year of 13 Moons, Rote Zora, played by Ingrid Caven, is the strongest, the most composed, the sanest, and the one who survives. It’s not impossible to find a Fassbinder film in which there isn’t a single sympathetic sane or pleasant character, but normally there is one, and in In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden it is Ingrid Caven’s character.
We first see Ingrid Caven saying good-bye to one of her johns – then swinging her handbag – a giveaway that a character is a prostitute, if ever there was one. Is the tart with a heart cliché applicable to this role? The answer is probably yes; think of Fassbinder’s talent for melodrama and I think the shoe fits.
Rota takes Elvira to a bar where she realigns his shoulder as if she’s done it a thousand times, and cleans Elvira up in what must be the perfect Fassbinder shooting location – a toilet decorated with mirrors. Fassbinder didn’t like shooting with mirrors for purely artistic or technical reasons. Film audiences can justifiably squirm in their seats when a mirror comes into shot we — because they know they are generally about to be bored by a bit of arty narcissistic themed direction or acting, or camera-technical excellence; but not with RWF. First of all it’s the mirrors that allow him to expand the camera’s power, while also allowing him to introduce theatrical acting styles to the screen.
‘They looked at my boobs and they kicked me out.’ Why is Elvira’s closest friend a prostitute? Does it suggest that a person like this will be thrown to the fringes, criminal and sexual? Elvira’s Frankfurt is a real nightmare, of skyscrapers and arcades, and the harsh despair of almost every scene , but it is still beautiful, with the city’s gay strip highlighted by Mahler, Christmas music and rock. Although this is an exceptional story, the facts are really quite contemporary: in this society, personal relationships are either reduced to business or broken entirely.
After Elvira and Rota have done their makeup in the mirrors, it is off to the slaughterhouse, for some high period Fassbinder at his provoking best; and from thence to a nunnery. Something funny happens to Ingrid Caven when she goes to the nunnery; we’ve already seen her strikingly beautiful in the café and the arcade, and mellowed to her at Soul Freida’s pad and even the abbatoir, where her stunning fur coatlet is really not what you are looking at, as it is a strange reminder of the animals that are being killed; but at the nunnery, Caven becomes iconic. Just like that. The actress and director have struck a sculpture, and it will stick. Iconic as could be.
The fairy tale that Ingrid Caven tells In a Year of 13 Moons is all about herself and her character; notice how much she skips in the film, never walking; like a fairy tale character or teller. And set dressers take note of the remarkable similarity between Caven’s iconic jacket and Elvira’s own bedcovers. Eventually, telly is too much for Caven’s character, and to really relax she needs to take some of Elvira’s pills – TV and pills – one in the same.
It is one of Ingrid Caven’s most moving and best roles; I wonder what it was that Elvira brought out in her. For all the restrictions Elvira faces, and brings upon herself, she is in a way a liberating influence on our lives. And yet no one can help her, not because they are bad, but because they are too self-occupied or are destroyed themselves — it’s terribly common these days, though it is a hard moral point to bear.