Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s films create an intriguing dialogue between subject and spectator where opposing fabrics of the social and personal are profoundly interwoven. It is not enough to presume that an exchange between characters is relevant to a specific situation alone, but rather, is representative of broader oppressive cultural and sexual politics brought into focus by the intensity of common human dramas. Faustrecht der Freiheit (Fox and His Friends) – Fassbinder’s 23rd feature – explores the sacrifices necessary to sustain love, and the importance of wealth in determining individual happiness.
Fassbinder’s Fox (a.k.a Franz Biberkopf) – a naïve, sex-driven carnival sideshow attraction (literally, he is employed as Fox the Talking Head) – practically sweats unfulfillment. Simple touches like his character’s cheap, bejewelled denim jacket or the drizzly, lifeless fairground where he and his friends run their scam, evoke an atmosphere of quiet despair, symbolising Fox’s internal struggle for transcendence.
Once the police arrive to shut down the act, it is revealed that Fox is gay, and also somewhat delusional. While the others choose to move on to the next town, Fox announces he will leave the carnival because he is going “to win the lottery”. In a brilliantly arranged shot, a spinning Ferris wheel behind the head of a dancing girl (Irm Hermann) seems to be endlessly repeating itself, advancing nowhere – an image complemented by the dialogue, that’s surely meant to represent the fate of the carnival workers, if not Fox himself. Already, the character of Fox feels deeply realised. Alongside a daring mix of subtle and overt imagery, Fassbinder expertly crafts a study of one man’s fate that condemns those who lead him on, while aptly criticising his own willing participation in the events that unfold.
Having turned to prostitution as a means of buying a lottery ticket, Fox meets an erudite businessman, and charms him with his unrefined ways. The two embark on a somewhat farcical journey to buy the ticket, which turns out to be a 500,000-mark winner. This stroke of good fortune results in the businessman introducing Fox to his wealthy, bourgeois friends, one of whom – Eugen (Peter Chatel) – takes particular interest in the abrasive newcomer.
Upon learning of the lottery win, Eugen promptly leaves his lover Phillip (Harry Baer) to begin a relationship with Fox. This is the first of many moments in the film that inextricably link love with wealth and social status. Unfortunately for Fox, Eugen’s only interest is in benefitting from Fox’s lack of discretion in sharing his fortune, a windfall which could help revitalise Eugen’s failing family business. The pre-existing nature of greed and socio-snobbery that Fox now embraces, determines the course of his behaviour. If he does not satisfy the primal urges to which he adheres (sex, greed, and the desire for love), he will risk losing those things which justify his new position in life. One gets the sense that Fox has wandered into something for which he was destined, yet is completely unprepared.
At the time of the film’s release, Fassbinder was maintaining a ridiculous workload, creating at least a couple of his own films each year. In 1975, his anti-theatre company had developed a remarkable work ethic in order to satisfy their leader’s creative appetite. As Thomas Elsaesser writes: “His furious schedules set a pace neither his fellow directors of the state funded New German Cinema, nor the moribund commercial film industry could hope to follow” (1).
Yet, this particular film – and specifically the character of Fox – seems to be of tremendous significance to the director. The decision to cast himself in the lead (in addition to directing, producing and co-writing the screenplay) imbues the work with an emotional core that is notable when considering how the film fits into Fassbinder’s entire output as a director.
Fox and His Friends – the story of a tortured carnival outcast left to die in a Munich Subway – may sound grim at first, but the remarkably concise pacing of the film allows the narrative to unravel much like a modern morality play, countering the gloomy mystique of his earlier work – Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? (Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, 1970), Katzelmacher (1969) – with a more refined desire for grandiosity and the attainment of wealth. It features more of the “cabaret” approach Fassbinder experimented with in his later work – Lili Marleen (1981), Lola (1981), Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (Veronika Voss, 1982) – while maintaining a degree of art-house realism. Fox and His Friends, in retrospect, feels like a summation of the director’s favourite themes, re-treading some familiar ground (namely issues of race, gender and class as they relate to the individual) while introducing certain shifts in tone that would come to feature more prominently throughout the remainder of his career.
Like many Fassbinder characters, Fox maintains a cool, almost shy exterior, offset by bursts of deep emotion. These rare instances provide essential information in understanding his hidden emotional state, and can be seen as a reflection of the director’s own personality. Certain gestures like a newly destitute Fox throwing himself into the arms of a bar patron (incidentally, the man he robbed – after the businessman refused to lend him money – to buy the winning lottery ticket) while screaming “I have to pay for everything always!”, are exceptionally effective, moving beyond the traditional boundaries of character to the innately human.
As Timothy Corrigan argues: “From Fassbinder’s position, the point is not to convince viewers of the sophistication and depth of his own mind and politics, but to motivate the viewer’s own emotions and thought along a syntactical path that is accessible to emotional comprehension” (2).
Fox and His Friends is a deeply personal exploration of the human condition, desperate in its attempt to justify all behaviour leading to personal satisfaction. Of course, the film itself cannot succeed in achieving this goal, and in a similar unravelling of fantasy, Fox meets his end. What becomes clear is that Fox’s decision to leave his old friends, join a new social milieu and behave with indiscretion toward all who might impose upon him does not seem entirely the action of one man, but an extension of the cold sexuality and traditionally insensitive political economy that controls his life.
Faustrecht der Freiheit/Fox and His Friends (1975 West Germany 123 mins)
Prod Co: City Film/Tango Film Prod, Dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Scr: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christian Hohoff Phot: Michael Ballhaus Ed: Thea Eymesz Prod Des: Kurt Raab Mus: Peer Raben
Cast: Peter Chatel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Karlheinz Böhm, Adrian Hoven, Christiane Maybach, Harry Baer