Country: West Germany
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
In the sixteen years between 1966 and 1982, Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) directed forty-four films—shorts, documentaries, TV movies and mini-series (including the 15-hour long Berlin Alexanderplatz), and more than twenty feature-length movies. In some years he made as many as four or five films. Yet despite the remarkably prolific nature of his career, none of his work I've seen ever struck me as hasty or improvised, but rather as always carefully planned and meticulously crafted. He seems to have been a natural film artist, a man of innate creativity whose instincts were so acute that his quick decisions habitually reflected nearly infallible artistic judgment and tremendous technical skill.
Fassbinder was also one of the first openly gay directors to make films that integrated elements of gay life into mainstream movies made for mainstream audiences. Not all of his films focused on gay characters or themes. In fact many, probably most, didn't. But when they did, as in Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder, while quite frank about the details of gay life, at the same time treated it in a strictly matter-of-fact way. He presented the lives of his gay characters not as something sensationalistic or alien, not as a freakish subculture, but simply as a way of life that while unique was in its essence like any other. Of all his movies, perhaps none surpasses Fox and His Friends in showing gay characters dealing with emotions and situations in a way that makes these things easily understandable to all viewers, gay and straight alike. As Fassbinder said about Fox in a 1975 interview at the Cannes Film Festival, "In films, plays or novels, if homosexuals appear, the homosexuality was the problem, or it was a comic turn. But here homosexuality is shown as completely normal."
The main character in the film, played by Fassbinder himself, is Franz Bieberkopf, who calls himself Fox. As the film begins, Fox is working in a cheesy traveling carnival as a sideshow attraction called The Talking Head, in which he plays a disembodied head who makes predictions for the punters. When the carnival's owner is arrested for tax evasion and the circus closes, Fox finds himself on the street and broke, an especially dire situation since he is convinced that this is his lucky day and he will win the lottery if he can somehow get enough money to buy a lottery ticket. He allows himself to be picked up by an interior decorator named Max, uses his unwitting trick to cheat a gullible florist out of the money for the ticket, and true to his prediction, wins 500,000 marks.
It might seem that Fox has hit the jackpot, but far from it. Through Max he meets a whole set of new friends, including Eugen (Peter Chatel), who becomes his lover. Eugen is the son of a family that owns a book-binding factory and seems to Fox good-looking, cultured, and well off. Fox says that what he feels for Eugen is "not just infatuation" but "real love" and describes Eugen as "someone who wants nothing from me." But as the hapless Fox discovers during the course of the movie, not only does Eugen not love him in return, but only one thing about Fox interests Eugen and his friends—Fox's money.
This is a movie with a political viewpoint that is unmistakably leftist. Fox and the people in his world are separated from Eugen and the people in his world by barriers of class, education, and social pretension. Fox is fooled by appearances into believing that Eugen and his social group are superior to him, whereas the truth is that they are without exception relentlessly self-centered, materialistic, and predatory. All the while he and Fox are living together, Eugen is two-timing him with his ex-lover. Eugen's family tolerate Fox only because they need his money to save their bankrupt business. Eugen's snobbish friends make fun of Fox behind his back then exploit his connection with Eugen to bilk him after Eugen goes on a Pygmalion-like campaign to reinvent Fox in a more socially acceptable incarnation. Fox's sister Hedwig sums up the situation succinctly: "Fox the lottery king, conned like a sucker."
It takes the naive Fox awhile to realize that Eugen's treatment of him is utterly manipulative. When he does, at first he ignores the truth, blinded by his love for Eugen, then accepts it with stoical resignation. A good example is the way Eugen maneuvers Fox into buying a new car. He casually drops hints about the age and condition of his present car, then waits for Fox to suggest that he buy Eugen a new one. By this point it's clear that Fox is aware of the way he's being used, but he simply goes along with it to please his lover. The same thing happens when Eugen offhandedly remarks after an argument that they've been working too hard and could use a change. By now attuned to his lover's covert wheedling, Fox immediately suggests that they take a vacation, and soon they're on their way to Morocco.
By the end of the picture, Fox, who starts out naive and trusting, becomes a willing victim of the cynically exploitative Eugen. Even that, though, doesn't keep their relationship from deteriorating into a one-sided affair, with Fox desperately trying to maintain the relationship and Eugen reacting coldly to attempts at physical or emotional intimacy. In the end, their relationship is no different from any other that is doomed to fail because the participants are too divided by class and education and their basic attitudes toward the treatment of others.
I hope I haven't made Fox and His Friends sound like a polemical screed on the exploitation of the underclasses by a privileged and corrupt bourgeoisie, because there's much more to the film than its unabashedly leftist view of human and social relations. The motivations of the characters may be transparent to us—if unfortunately not to the innocently trusting Fox—but all the characters in the film down to the most minor are wholly individualized, and fully imagined and inhabited. The film is always compelling, never schematic or predictable, and at times even quite funny in a drolly satirical way. Visually, it's beautifully realized even in its smallest details and adroitly photographed by Michael Ballhaus, who went on to work on several of Martin Scorsese's films.
But the heart of the film is Fox himself, a tragic modern-day Candide feeling his way through a treacherous world in which love and happiness invariably prove to be illusory. Fassbinder occasionally took small parts in his films, but in Fox and His Friends he carries the film. It's a subtle, sensitive, and ultimately heartbreaking performance that seems so natural it might make you believe Fassbinder isn't acting at all, but playing himself. Maybe there is something of himself in the childlike Fox, but there's no way that someone as uncomplicated as Fox could have produced something as observant and poignant and dramatically sophisticated as this wonderful film.
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