This screening was part of an ongoing tour of new Fassbinder prints (DCPs) from the Fassbinder Foundation. Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) was certainly the most prolific and arguably the most inspiring filmmaker of the last fifty years. He made over 40 features for film and TV. Only a minority got a formal release in UK cinemas but more have become available on DVD over the last few years. Restorations by the Foundation have been produced at regular intervals. The film here has a 2015 restoration credit. I went to see it in a cinema despite having a DVD at home (one of very many as yet unwatched). I’m glad I did.
The English title doesn’t tell us much about the film’s narrative. Though not directly translatable, the German title does indicate more. It conveys the awkward combination of ‘freedom’ and ‘the law of the jungle’. ‘Fox’ is the central character played by Fassbinder himself as a working-class gay young man whose real name is Franz Biberkopf. Fassbinder appeared in many of his own films and often took the name ‘Franz’. Here the whole name is taken from the central character of the 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin which Fassbinder adapted for a major German TV series in 1980.
During a very entertaining title sequence we learn that Franz/Fox has been working in a fairground show as ‘Fox the talking head’ (separated from his body, emphasising, as one commentator put it, the disconnect between his brain and his penis), but with the showman arrested by police Franz is now back on the street. Hustling for money and ‘cottaging’ (is there a specific German word for this?) he hooks up with Max, a suave antiques dealer played by Karl-Heinz Böhm (famously seen as the eponymous character in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom in 1960). Convinced he will win the lottery, Franz persuades Max to help him buy a ticket and with his winnings of half a million DMs, he joins the group of wealthy gay men who are Max’s friends. The remainder of the film sees Franz alienated from his own circle of working-class (or at least petty bourgeois) gay men while he is being carefully parted from all his money by his new sophisticated associates. This latter is largely achieved by involving Franz in a bailout of his new lover Eugen’s family printing firm. Franz isn’t just fleeced, he is humiliated on a daily basis. It can only end badly.
I was struck by many aspects of this film but I was most surprised to read about the contemporary critical reaction to it in the 1970s, much of it coming from gay critics such as Andrew Britton who apparently suggested that the film should be ‘denounced’ because of its representation of gay men. Fassbinder argued that the film (his first to present a gay male community in such detail) wasn’t really ‘about’ gay culture – it was simply the backdrop and the narrative would have been the same if these were groups of heterosexuals. I think Britton might have had a point in the context of the 1970s, but now Fassbinder’s argument seems more acceptable. I suspect the main issue for mainstream critics and audiences is that, though still a low-budget film, Fox and His Friends looks more like a glossier mainstream drama than Fassbinder’s earlier 1960s films – but it doesn’t deliver the same kind of narrative pleasures. A common complaint is that it starts in quite a humorous vein and then darkens and becomes ‘pessimistic’ before the tragic ending. Mainstream Hollywood this ain’t. But anyone who knows Fassbinder wouldn’t be expecting anything other than a coruscating satire on the German bourgeoisie and that’s what we get throughout. The society is poisoned by the attitudes of the wealthy and the poor have to eventually tread on each other just to keep their heads above water. The naïve and guileless Fox/Franz is the perfect guide to this corruption of human values.
It should be pointed out that by 1975 Fassbinder was a well-established director in West Germany with half his output already produced, but that in the UK and US his films didn’t receive a release until 1974’s Fear Eats the Soul – the review of which by Laura Mulvey in Spare Rib was a significant moment in the study of Douglas Sirk and the feminist interest in melodrama. New and old films then began to appear out of chronological order. I don’t remember the release of Fox and His Friends but Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Monthly Film Bulletin review suggests that its UK release was in early 1976. It was classified as an ‘X’ Certificate (over 16s only) film with a running time of 123 minutes, suggesting no cuts compared to the current version. The film has a series of full frontal male leads in a bath house which must have been unusual at the time.
The Mulvey interest in Fassbinder is significant since Fassbinder himself had become very interested in Douglas Sirk’s melodramas since viewing several at the start of the 1970s. Fear Eats the Soul (Angst Essen Seele Auf) was generally accepted as Fassbinder’s re-working of elements of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955). I was consciously seeking throughout Fox and His Friends to find any ‘Sirkian’ elements. It did seem to me that though the context and the characters are very different, there are some elements that seem familiar from Written On The Wind, Sirk’s 1956 feature. At the centre of Sirk’s delirious melodrama about a Texas oil family are alcoholic family members, illicit relationships and problems for outsiders in the family group. I think it is significant that Fassbinder chose a small printing company for Eugen’s family – a German industry as nationally symbolic in some ways as the oil industry in Texas. Much more important though is the general aesthetic approach in Sirk’s Technicolor melodramas – the use of colour, camerawork and mise en scène as well as music. I was struck most of all by the camerawork of Michael Ballhaus and the production design of Kurt Raab – both Fassbinder regulars. I’ve included here a selection of screengrabs from a film that is presented in such a carefully constructed way.
Perhaps I’m so obsessed with how satisfying I find the overall aesthetic qualities of the film that I haven’t come to any firm conclusions about what it all means. In the images above I’m impressed by the two familiar melodrama/noir tropes of mirror reflections and compositions dominated by doorways/windows and diagonals. The camera observes this world and offers us these signifiers of the ways in which it oppresses characters. Others have suggested that Fassbinder has taken Sirk’s ideas about directly presented emotions presented through a stylised ‘soap opera’ aesthetic. It does feel to me that this is ‘art’ that perfectly serves Fassbinder’s critique of West Germany’s bourgeois society. But I’m also conscious that Fassbinder is also arguably indulging or ‘working through’ his own personal concerns in this film. It is dedicated to his then current lover Armin Meier – and to ‘all the others’. In addition, he found a role for his former lover El Hedi ben Salem (the male lead in Fear Eats the Soul) as a gay man in Marrakesh when Franz and Eugen go on holiday. Fassbinder had a difficult childhood which if not working-class was not ‘comfortable’ middle-class and some commentators have argued that his insecurity with his working-class gay partners manifested itself in this film through the masochistic way in which as a filmmaker he organised Franz’s downfall.
Here are two helpful clips in gaining an understanding of how Fox and His Friends works. The first is gay filmmaker Ira Sachs giving his personal response and analysis of the film and the second is the film’s trailer (no English subtitles). This shows the range of compositions similar to the stills above which define the aesthetic: