Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1975
Starring: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Karlheinz Böhm
Franz Bieberkopf, a carnival worker known as “Fox, the Talking Head,” loses his job when his boyfriend, the owner, is arrested for tax fraud. Out of desperation, he prostitutes himself and plays the lottery with his earnings. He wins, to his surprise, and finds himself in a posh new social circle with upper class friends and a handsome, cultured new boyfriend, Eugen. Though Eugen secretly despises Franz, his wealthy family is suffering financially and he needs Franz’s money. Eugen soon convinces Franz to become a “partner” in the family printing business, which really just means he is giving Eugen large sums of money. Eugen also convinces him to buy an expensive apartment and lavishly decorate it, but Eugen will lose interest in Franz as soon as the relationship is no longer profitable…
Fox and His Friends holds a special place in my heart, because it was my first encounter with Fassbinder. It’s one of his finest films, which is perhaps unusual because he wrote, directed, and starred in the film. Though he would give a variety of supporting and starring performances in his own films and those of his friends, this is probably the best performance of his career. Fox/Franz is a uniquely sympathetic example among Fassbinder’s protagonists. He is innocent, yet also sexually mercenary, sweet, yet demanding, and above all suffers because of his desire to love and to please. While Fox engages in prostitution at the start of the film – it is ironically responsible for his lottery win – the film also depicts a different kind of prostitution. Fox and His Friends is the story of an upper class man and his family exploiting a guileless, lower class worker who lacks the education or life experience to realize that they may be duping and robbing him.
The film’s original German title, Faustrecht der Freiheit, translates to Right Fist of Freedom, implying that Fassbinder is examining the sort of social Darwinism – a belief that the strong have a right to exploit the weak, often violently -- espoused by contemporary writers like Ayn Rand, but also by Nazis like philosopher and key ideologue Alfred Rosenberg. Nazi propaganda films like Alles Leben ist Kampf (All Life is a Struggle) depict nature-based scenes of insects fighting each other for survival, implying that their campaign of anti-Jewish violence was somehow scientifically justified. This is one of the earliest public, government-sponsored combination (Marx and Engels were also proponents of it in their writings) of Darwin’s scientific findings with non-scientific theories of genetics, race, and evolution meant to defend exploitation, abuse, and murder.
Adolf Eichmann’s Protocol from the Wahnsee Conference relates the following: “In pursuance of the final solution, special administrative and executive measures will apply to the conscription of Jews for labor in the eastern territories. Large labor gangs of those fit to work will be formed, with the sexes separated, which will be directed to those areas for road construction and undoubtedly a large part of them will fall out through natural elimination. Those who remain alive — and they will certainly be those with the greatest powers of endurance — will be treated accordingly. If released they would, being a natural selection of the fittest, form a new cell from which the Jewish race could again develop.” While philosophers and scientists have responded to this tenet with horror, Fox and His Friends is Fassbinder’s more subtle essay on the subject, cloaked in a melodramatic plot about a romance gone wrong.
Fassbinder addressed the subject -- particularly in regards to Nazism -- in varying degrees previously with his controversial play Shadow of the Angels and in future film Lili Marleen, Fox and His Friends is fundamentally concerned with class-based prejudice. Fox is systematically destroyed by Eugen and his family, because they believe that his working class status makes him socially inferior. They treat him as sub-human and conspire to strip him of his wealth. A particularly painful moment is during a scene where Fox attends dinner with Eugen’s family. They almost sadistically humiliate him simply because he doesn’t handle his utensils in the proper way. There are moments reminiscent of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, where a woman introduces her adult children and their spouses to her young, black, Arabic husband, who is a poor and a migrant worker who is not familiar with all of their class-based social customs.
While Ali: Fear Eats the Soul ends on a tentatively hopeful note, Fox and His Friends is a work of persistent pessimism. Love is equivalent to financial worth and prostitution is a fact of life in varying forms. Fox’s death on a subway platform – an act of suicide by a bereft man – is one of Fassbinder’s most moving set pieces. While the film is primarily naturalistic and contains only subtle instances of Fassbinder’s dramatic sense of style, this death scene is a nightmarish vision of cold blue and white. Fox’s body is spotted by Eugen, who scurries away to avoid getting involved while equally unsympathetic children rob Fox's corpse.
The name Franz Bieberkopf is taken from Berlin Alexanderplatz, one of Fassbinder’s favorite novels, which he later turned into his masterpiece – a 14-episode series. Franz/Fox is a character demeaned by life at every turn. His one seeming success – winning the lottery – simply drives him further into despair and ruins his life because he is such a giving, generous person. This blunt message is an extreme version of “money won’t make you happy,” and the inherently innocent and simplistic Fox is simply unable to survive in a world of social Darwinism. While Fox and His Friends has been criticized for its negative depictions of homosexuals, this indicates a lack of understanding about Fassbinder’s work as a whole. He is unprejudiced and unrestrained in his portrayal of the bleak, selfish, and cruel side of humanity, so his villains, brutes, and manipulators are gay, straighten, men, women, white, black, anti-Semites, Jews, rich, and poor. His message here seems to be that no one possessing humanity can survive in this predatory, violent environment and even though Nazism has faded into history, its presence lingers malignantly on.
Fox and His Friends comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a crushing film, but an undeniably important one. Pick it up on DVD or watch it on Hulu through their partnership with the Criterion Collection – hopefully a release will follow on the tail of the Eclipse box set, Fear Eats the Soul, and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.