While both films in this set, In A Year With 13 Moons and Martha, were previously made available as single disc releases, Fantoma have packaged them together in a small boxed set that features the same transfers, the same extras and the same liners notes bundled under some new cover art and released them at a more attractive price point as The Fassbinder Collection II. This makes it an affordable way for the curious who didn't pick up the single disc editions to add some of the late director's best films to their collection.
In A Year Of 13 Moons (1978):
An opening text scrawl tells us that the title of the film is taken from a phase of the moon that results in bad things happening all around, we meet Elvira (Volker Spengler), a transgendered woman currently getting the snot kicked out of her by a group of young thugs in a park somewhere in Frankfurt, Germany. From there we learn that Elvira used to be known as Erwin before he made the switch to she so in order to be with Anton (Gottfried John), the man she truly loves who happens to be straight. A quick trip to Casablanca and a short surgery later and the transformation is more or less complete.
Unfortunately for Erwin, now Elvira, not everyone is as comfortable with the decision she's made as she is, his former wife in particular. She starts hanging out with a hooker named Zora (Ingrid Caven) and eventually, as Elvira takes Zora to the slaughterhouse that she used to work at in her former life, we learn her life's story up to this point in time and from there Fassbinder brings it all back full circle to Anton, the reason that she's gone through all of this in the first place, where we see him in a truly memorable and completely odd dance sequence before we're beat over the head by the tragedy that we knew was coming all along.
A sparse film to the point where it's almost an exercise in minimalism, this is a grim film indeed that was likely affected by issues in his personal life at the time that it was being made. Though Fassbinder had made dark films before this one and would make some after it was well, here more so than a lot of his work we're slapped with a healthy dose of pure pessimism and disdain (it's even heavier than in Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?. Bringing all of this home is the central performances from Volker Spengler, Gottfried John and Ingrid Caven, with Spengler really and truly stealing the show more so than the other two. His performance is at times almost too genuine, and there are spots where it doesn't feel so much like he's acting as he is simply living what Fassbinder has written for the character he plays.
All of this angst and sadness and tragedy is wrapped up in a fantastic looking package that makes use of some very clever and well thought out cinematography that the director himself handled. The use of mirrors throughout the movie brings up the obvious metaphor of reflection for both the characters and the audience and additionally provides for some genuinely cool looking shot setups at the same time. The colors aren't ultra vibrant or over the top but there was obviously some thought put into the look of the film in that regard as there are patterns here and there that just plain fit, at times cold, other times warm. While a little too downbeat to really make for a good starting point for newcomers to Fassbinder's admirable body of work, for those who know what they're getting into In A Year Of 13 Moons makes for exceptionally compelling viewing.
This made for German TV movie is definitely lighter fare than the film contained on the first disc, working as equal parts twisted comedy and tense thriller. Margit Carstensen plays the titular Martha, who, when we first meet her, is in Rome on vacation with her cranky old father. He's verbally and emotionally abusive to her, seeming to get off on putting her down and teasing her about the fact that at forty years old she's never been with a man and at this point probably never will be. Imagine her surprise when a middle eastern man is sent to her room as a gift from the hotel owner, but being worried that her father will find out and come down on her for it, she declines his advances immediately.
Shortly after that awkward moment, her father drops dead, likely of a heart attack. To make matters worse, the middle eastern man from earlier runs off with her purse forcing her to head to the German embassy for help. While she's there, she meets Helmet (Karlheinz Bolm), a man who has his own construction business. By sheer coincidence, once Martha arrives back in Germany and runs into Helmet again while out at a high society dinner party with her mother. While at the party her mother passes out from a few too many pills and Helmet manages to pull Martha in under his spell using tactics not all that far removed from those her father used to belittle her for her entire life.
If things weren't odd enough by this point, Helmet brings Martha to an amusement park for a date where he brings her on the rollercoaster. They get off, she vomits, and he proposes marriage to her. She accepts and when they tell her mother she gulps down a bottle of sleeping bills and as she's lying there dying, Helmet rapes Martha right beside her. He finishes, calls an ambulance, and she makes it through the ordeal and Martha and Helmet are married. Once the ring is on her finger Helmet makes her live at his mansion where she's not allowed to smoke her beloved cigarettes and shortly after that, he forces her to quit her job without even telling her that he's sent in a letter for her instructing her employers to terminate her. Helmet's attitudes get more distasteful and his behavior increasingly strange to the point here Martha starts to wonder if he intends to murder her…
As twisted as they come without ever going as far as you sometimes think it has, Martha is a sick film from start to finish. Feel good material this is not but there's such a wicked streak of black humor underneath the depravity that you can't help but laugh at the scenarios played out on the screen. With the two leads hamming it up in spots it's obvious that the entire thing is a put on, but it works and it works well thanks to some clever nods to older films and some slick camerawork that really give the movie a polished and professional feel almost like the older Hollywood productions that it pays homage to. It's almost, at times, as if Fassbinder was subverting and twisting the Hollywood ideal with this effort, taking the melodrama and over the top performances that a lot of the older films are guilty of passing off as serious cinema and taking them to an extreme.
In A Year Of 13 Moons is presented in an anamorphic 1.78.1 widescreen transfer with Martha given a 1.33.1 fullframe transfer – both films are presented in what appears to be the proper aspect ratio as the compositions look just fine in this set. There's some grain present, as you'd likely expect to see from a pair of older films, but print damage is kept firmly in place the picture is quite strong. In A Year Of 13 Moons isn't a particularly colorful film but the print used looks as bright as it needs to and the transfer does justice to the intentionally drab color schemes and cinematography designed for the movie. Martha, on the other hand, is quite colorful indeed and the transfer and encoding on this release definitely do the picture justice. All in all, both movies look very good here.
The German language Dolby Digital Mono tracks for both films come with optional English subtitles. The audio on these discs is just fine, without any problems in relation to hiss or distortion audible in the mix. As far as older Mono mixes go, these sounds about as good as one can expect. There's obviously no channel separation but the dialogue is clean and easy to understand and the fantastic musical score composed for both of the films sound lively enough to enhance the movies but is never so powerful as to overshadow the dialogue.
Not surprisingly, the extra features in this set are spread across the two separate discs that are contained in the double-width keepcase that they are housed in. Here's what you'll find:
In A Year Of 13 Moons:
The main supplements on this disc are the interview and full length commentary track with Julianne Lorenz who served as Fassbinder's editor on many films including this one (which he co-edited with Fassbinder himself) and was also a friend and confidant of the late director. Lorenz has obviously got an intimate knowledge of this movie and it shows in both discussions as he tells us the history of the project in addition to what it was like working with the director at this point in his career. Apparently Fassbinder considered this quite a personal project and as such was more involved with all facets of the production than he was on some of his other movies, so this leads to some interesting stories and anecdotes about the way that he handled certain things. There's a little bit of repetition between the interview and the commentary but not so much as the render one or the other insignificant – both are quite informative and quite interesting.
Some very detailed liner notes from Robert Kolk which explain where the movie fits in with the rest of Fassbinder's work, and a brief video introduction from director Richard Linklater round out the package nicely.
There is only one supplement accompanying the movie on this disc but it's quite a good one. Fassbinder In Hollywood is an almost hour long documentary made in 2002 that does a great job of tracing the careers of many of the people who worked with Fassbinder who would later go on to successful careers in Hollywood. Interviewed here are Hanna Schygulla, Uli Lommel, Michael Ballhaus, and Wim Wenders. While the shot on video production leaves a little to be desired in terms of the visuals, it is an amusing look at how Fassbinder's influence sort of trickled down through a lot of these people. There are a lot of great stories in here about time spent on set with the man, in addition to how many of the participants first met him and became involved with his filmmaking career.
A set of liner notes from Jonathon Rosenbaum, the author of Midnight Movies rounds out the supplements.
An interesting pairing of two of Fassbinder's most interesting efforts, The Fassbinder Collection II looks great, sounds great, and contains some interesting extra features that really do a great job of complimenting and allowing us to further understand and appreciate the two films they accompany. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.