To revisit Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends in 2017, some forty years after its 1975 release, is to realize how unnervingly astute the prolific and infamous filmmaker managed to convey the troubling classist ideals which continue to plague the queer community in the same fashion across cultures today. If Bunuel hadn’t utilized it first, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) could have been as equally a bitchy cherry on the cake for Fassbinder’s glance at the malevolent machinations of a manipulative entrepreneur who bleeds his working class boyfriend dry. Depictions of racial stereotyping and equally problematic in-house gender roles emphasized in the queer community commingle to make this one of the most satisfyingly resolute entries within Fassbinder’s staggering filmography.
Fassbinder stars as Fox, a working class stud who is one of the mainstays at a local carnival run by his boyfriend Klaus (Karl Scheydt). But when Klaus is arrested, the destitute Fox attempts to scrounge money off his sister (Christine Maybach) so he can buy a lottery ticket. Along the way to purchase the ticket, he’s picked up by a suave art collector (Karlheinz Bohm), who introduces the simpleminded Fox to his highfalutin friends after learning the lotto ticket secured the jobless man a small fortune. Initially disgusted by Fox, the young entrepreneur Eugen (Peter Chatel), who has an interest in saving his father’s (Adrian Hoven) failing printing business, convinces Fox he loves him and proceeds to swindle him out of all his assets.
Fox and His Friends was one of four narrative features Fassbinder debuted in 1975 alone, alongside television projects Fear of Fear, Like a Bird on a Wire (a TV personality special for Brigitte Mira), and Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, yet another title outfitted for Mira, who had recently starred in Fassbinder’s most notable masterpiece, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Although he often made cameos in his films, Fassbinder had never cast himself as the lead protagonist, which enhances some of the autobiographical shades here. Married to actress Ingrid Caven (who appears in the credits here as Ingrid Carven and shows up late in the game as a chanteuse at the local gay dive bar), Fassbinder casts actress Barbara Valentin as the wife of the homosexual Uncle Max in the same kind of position Caven would hold in his own life.
Having lost a drastic amount of weight in preparation for several nude scenes, the film’s tragic ending seems foreboding in retrospect, considering Fassbinder’s demise at the age of 37 in 1982 (one need only compare how he looks in Fox to his last acting performance in Wolf Gremm’s zany sci-fi thriller Kamikaze 89, which was recently re-released on Blu-ray, to note the extreme decline of his health). And the entire film is dripping with a tragic sense of irony, as indicated by the title, utilizing his character’s nickname, a double edged sword born from his ridiculous circus act wherein he stars as a floating head (never shown on screen) until his beau is arrested, and a moniker which would imply a certain level of masculine beauty. Instead, his bejeweled jacket prominently displaying the nickname is merely a sterling motif indicating his level of obliviousness to the world around him and how others view him, something two queer American G.I.’s drive home cruelly in English as they mull his sex appeal. Fox’s identity is eventually subsumed when he becomes lassoed into the toxic relationship with Eugen, a man we’re made clear to believe is out of his league, and here he is forced to assume his actual identity as Franz Biberkopf—strangely enough, the name of the equally hopeless and naive protagonist from Alfred Doblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which Fassbinder would famously adapt for a fifteen hour television series five years later.
Fassbinder’s various female personalities take a considerable back seat this time around, though Brigitte Mira and Irm Hermann glance across the screen briefly. More prominent is Christine Maybach as Fox’s alcoholic sister, who is featured in Mariah Carey mode mooning around her apartment with smudged make-up and skimpy negligee. Other recurring cast members have their moments, like Kurt Raab, while El Hedi ben Salem shows up as a potential trick for the white Germans on an ill-advised vacation to Morocco, where Fassbinder highlights racist tendencies from white queer men who have a complicated mixture of attraction and repulsion to racial others—men they desire to consume but feel compelled to assert their greater social worth over.
Fassbinder exemplifies these tendencies in Fox as well, who continually rejects and abuses the other dive bar patrons who desire him, such as Peter Kern’s florist, derided as “Fatty” Schmidt, only useful to Fox when all his other fantasies have withered away. Fittingly, Eugen’s copy making business becomes a metaphor, a rigid world where everything must be properly administered, in a self-involved universe literally defined by facsimile, not unlike the codified social strata in which he belongs to. Like a mistake he makes in the factory, Fox is not quite the right setting for this arena
Fassbinder’s blunt and startlingly bleak portrait of how gay men consume one another plays like a historical time capsule (for something equally sincere yet less desolate, check out Frank Ripploh’s 1980 Taxi Zum Klo), albeit one indicating how little has changed within the community’s overarching framework of impossible standards of beauty, which includes misdirected allegiance to materialism, superficial pop culture attributes, and the nagging self-loathing accompanying the desire to idolize the rigid performance of masculinity.
Criterion, a label which has long championed Fassbinder’s films (including an Eclipse disc set, as well as recent Blu-ray transfers of both Ali and The Merchant of Four Seasons to name a few), presents this new 4K digital restoration of Fox and His Friends undertaken by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. The celebrated DP Michael Ballhaus invites us warmly into Fox’s mind frame, a man oblivious to the trap being set for him. Different locales of West Berlin, whether they be the gay dive bar, Eugen’s flailing corporation, or Hedwig’s hibernation, are all glanced over with a sort of foregone indifference—only once, at the very end, when a glimmering haze of pills displaces the gleaming jewels on Fox’s jacket do we catch a glimpse of the dull sheen beneath the pleasant gleam of the façade. Picture and sound quality are first rate, not unlike Criterion’s usual unparalleled standards.
Criterion conducted this seventeen minute interview with Harry Baer in Berlin in 2016. Baer, who plays the role of Eugen’s boyfriend. The actor notes he is one of three people still alive from the production (the others being Ingrid Caven and Irm Hermann), and also comments on Fox being the exact mid-way point in Fassbinder’s filmography.
Pour le Cinema:
This five minute excerpt from the 1975 French television series Pour le Cinema finds Fassbinder discussing how the intersections of homosexuality and class commentary led to his playing the role of Fox.
Criterion conducted this twelve minute 2016 interview with director Ira Sachs (Little Men; Keep the Lights On) who discusses his fascination with Fox and His Friends.
Composer Peer Raben discusses his collaborations with Fassbinder in this three minute 1981 excerpt from the French television series Cinemania.
One of Fassbinder’s most poignant melodramas, Fox and His Friends has lost none its resonance as both pointed social commentary and a moral fable.
Film Review: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆