When asked her address, the spinster heroine of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's little-seen 1974 gem Martha replies "21 Douglas Sirk Street," a nod to the German émigré whose fever-pitched '50s melodramas (All That Heaven Allows, Written On The Wind, and Imitation Of Life, among others) were a clear inspiration to Fassbinder. In his generous introduction to 1978's In A Year With 13 Moons, the better-known of two superb new Fassbinder DVD reissues, director Richard Linklater cites the Sirk influence on Fassbinder's fertile "second period" in the early to mid-'70s, when the director's fusion of dark comedy, high emotion, and sociopolitical critique reached its apex. To watch these seemingly contradictory films, with their arrhythmic tonal swings and slippery point of view, is to experience a state of thrilling imbalance, of never knowing precisely how to feel.
The insightful liner notes for Martha, penned by Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, include an exchange between Fassbinder and lead actress Margit Carstensen that epitomizes the wildly varied responses his work tends to inspire. Where Carstensen views the marriage between her submissive, brutalized character and her supremely abusive husband as a form of tragic resignation, Fassbinder sees a happy ending—or, as Rosenbaum puts it, "a match made in heaven between a masochist and a sadist." It's possible to laugh all the way through the film, just as it's possible to rank Carstensen among the suffering matrons of Sirk's oeuvre. Either way, it's a shame the film's baroque audacity never got its due in America until now.
In a casting coup, Karlheinz Böhm, who starred as the voyeuristic filmmaker-turned-killer in Michael Powell's infamous Peeping Tom, plays Carstensen's husband with the same chilling inscrutability, revealing nothing behind his placid features. Swooping in after Carstensen (a virginal 31-year-old librarian) loses her father to a heart attack, Böhm subjects her to constant physical and psychological tortures. On their honeymoon, he allows his pale bride to fall asleep in the sun, then violently ravages her badly burned body. Once home, he terrorizes her into memorizing passages from a civil-engineering textbook, makes her quit a job she loves, and confines her to a form of house arrest. Like Sirk, Fassbinder holds up this marriage as a grim assessment of bourgeois repression, though he doesn't share Sirk's warm regard for his heroine, who contributes to the situation as much as she's victimized by it.
Fassbinder extends a bit more sympathy toward Volker Spengler, the transvestite martyr in the deeply personal 13 Moons, but he doesn't underplay the pathetic nature of Spengler's fractured identity. Another story about the crazy things people do for love, In A Year With 13 Moons details the lonely street life of a Frankfurt drifter who had a sex-change operation in Casablanca years earlier, inspired by the offhand comment ("too bad you're not a girl") of a cruelly remote object of desire. Convincing neither as a man nor as a woman, to others or to herself, Spengler seeks out her well-heeled crush (Gottfried John) atop a towering building, where he rules the business world like a concentration camp. (The password to his office is "Bergen-Belsen.") But with its innovative design, the film is really a journey into Spengler's past, as she revisits old haunts, trying to construct the person she's become.
Shot mere weeks after Fassbinder's lover committed suicide, In A Year With 13 Moons exists as a repository of ideas that had accumulated in his career to that date, which may be why it appeals so much to Linklater, whose philosophical treatises Slacker and Waking Life serve a similar function. Structurally radical and emotionally operatic, the film links several bravura setpieces, including a monologue on self-mutilation set on the killing floor of a slaughterhouse, a long take of a nun recalling Spengler's harrowing childhood at an orphanage, and an absurd boardroom song-and-dance sequence inspired by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. At once melodramatic and coolly distant, wrenching and clinical, Fassbinder's character study never telegraphs the "right" way to respond to it, which leaves viewers with plenty to sort out afterwards.