Fox and His Friends

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS

8/10

Faustrecht der Freiheit : (West) Germany 1975 : Rainer Werner Fassbinder : 123 mins

Franz Biberkopf (Fassbinder), a.k.a. Fox, loses his job as a Munich fairground ‘talking head’ attraction when his MC and lover Klaus (Harry Baer) is sent to prison. He picks up suave antique-dealer Max (Karl-Heinz Boehm) in a public toilet and, after winning a small fortune on the national lottery, is adopted by Max’s circle of well-heeled gay friends. These include the snooty Eugen (Peter Chatel), whose initial disgust towards the ill-mannered Fox instantly fades when he spots a chance to save his family’s ailing bookbinding business. The pair become lovers, Eugen leeching more and more of Fox’s winnings into the family firm – with tragic consequences for the hapless ‘lottery queen’.

Fox is a characteristically bitter and caustic slice of socio-economic melodrama from Fassbinder, but isn’t the ideal starting-point for newcomers to his insanely prolific output. Though never as turgid as, say, Merchant of Four Seasons, it’s still one of his longer films, feeling closer to three hours than two. But the pacelessness is clearly deliberate – just as Fox gets into trouble at the bookbinders’ when he cuts a run of magazines (Bavarian Life!) in the wrong place, so Fassbinder omits what would, in most films, be key scenes: we see nothing of Fox actually winning the lottery, and very little of his final suicidal decline. For Fassbinder, the specific circumstances of good fortune and bad aren’t relevant – he’s more interested in the wider forces that impact upon his fatalistic protagonist, and leaves us to fill in the gaps.

Also not shown (frustratingly) is Fox in action as the ‘talking head that only speaks the truth’ described in Klaus’s opening roll-up roll-up spiel (“a miracle of surgery!”), in which we’re promised “Sensation after sensation!!” But the whole movie, of course, is the product of a truth-speaking ‘talking head’ – not the inarticulate Fox, who never says anything of much note, but Fassbinder himself. This is one of his blunt but persistent and effective attacks on the stratified, deadening society of West Germany in the mid-70s – a well-off but somewhat scuzzy and seedy environment of vile fashions and gaudy dcor. He captures each social milieu in piercing detail, right down to the slightly-too-low chandelier in Fox’s over-stuffed apartment, and the tiny Olympic-rings motif (symbol of Munich’s disastrous, fresh-in-the-memory Olympics of 1972) on his beer glass.

Fassbinder always claimed that the film’s gay milieu is incidental, and it’s hard to disagree. Fox’s sexuality is never a matter of debate or controversy – he’s cruelly, disproportionately punished, but his transgression is of economic barriers, not moral ones. Early on, the screen is full of crotch-height shots packed with phallic imagery, pointing to Fox’s self-image as a randy, proudly rough-edged stud eager to force himself up the social ladder. But he soon finds himself out of his depth when tangling with the corrupt, decadent, patriarchial bourgeoisie, his vitality – his ‘spunk’, perhaps – is being siphoned away along with his bank account as sex is used as a weapon against him.

The film’s opposition of virile ‘proletarian’ Fox and dissipated ‘aristo’ Eugen provides a weirdly apt counterpoint to Werner Herzog’s roughly contemporary Heart of Glass (the phallocentricity, Fox’s sports car and his rags-to-riches-to-rags trajectory, meanwhile, prefigure Boogie Nights), but, for those aware of Fassbinder’s own drug-fuelled decline into podgy decadence, it’s painful to watch his Fox – initially a strikingly magnetic, snake-hipped hustler – sink into a fatalistic, Valium-hastened haze of humiliation and ruination. It’s almost a ritualistic process, charted by a series of cringingly awkward ‘family’ meals in which Eugen mercilessly lays into Fox’s lack of etiquette. Under the exploitative cover of romance, Fox’s personality is undermined and dismantled by the chillingly amoral Eugen, his eyes (always appealingly vulnerable, for all his swagger) revealing an infinite capacity for hurt. It’s a truly naked performance, not just because Fox so often disrobes before ‘his’own camera.

But Fassbinder’s view of love isn’t totally bleak and cynical – it’s true that Eugen’s antics conform to the title of the director’s feature debut Love Is Colder Than Death – but there’s no ambiguity in the warmth of healthy affection that flows between Fox and Klaus, a bond broken only by the state when Klaus is arrested on tax charges: an ironic offence, given the film’s pathological obsession with numbers and statistics, from the date (seen on a prescription stamp) to Fox’s height and weight, and, most precise of all, the exact status of his bank account, even though the film emphasises that wealth and poverty don’t depend on money alone.

As with most (but not all) of his films, Fassbinder is a writer first and a director second – he’s more interested in character and dialogue (“We’re not starry-eyed lovers any more,” snaps Eugen, turning over in bed and inserting ear-plugs to block out Fox’s snoring) than in exploring the possibilities of the cinematic medium, though he does occasionally play with soundtrack-music conventions to underline the artificiality of what we’re watching, though none of these instrumental flourishes match for impact the song Fox listens to at his lowest ebb, ‘Bird on a Wire,’ signalling his passage towards (to steal a phrase from a Nirvana lyric) a Leonard Cohen afterworld.

At this late stage Fassbinder breaks loose with his one dazzling show-off scene, when Fox finally starts to realise the mess he’s in and breaks up with Eugen.The confrontation is staged in a nightmarishly modern, Argento-style shopping-mall made up of disorienting slopes and constricting bits of metal and mesh, disconcertingly black walls providing a stark contrast for the ghostly, white-suited figure of Max who silently circles Fox and Eugen as they walk, but is never once acknowledged. A watchful phantom, or perhaps the voyeuristic spirit of movies past? Boehm was, after all, cinema’s most famous Peeping Tom. With this scene, Fassbinder lets us know he as capable of visual flair as anyone – he’s just too busy and angry to bother.

5th June 2002
(seen 2nd June, Cineside Newcastle)

For the short version of this review click here

by Neil Young
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