Fox and His Friends
Faustrecht der Freiheit
1975 — 123 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Poignant story of a gay carnival worker who wins the lottery, and suddenly finds many new 'friends;' the only starring role which Fassbinder played himself
Fox and His Friends is one of Fassbinder's most poignant and accessible films. The story and performances are direct, and the look of the film is polished and inviting. Yet it is also a powerful work, dealing with some of Fassbinder's central themes, such of the search for love, and exploitation in its many forms (both gay and straight). Wellspring Media has released a pristine DVD of the film (which has never looked or sounded so good), from a carefully restored new print.
Franz "Fox" Biberkopf (in a rare starring role for Fassbinder, who gives a brilliantly nuanced performance) is a hapless gay carnival worker, whose partner is hauled off to prison in the opening scene. Everything changes when he wins a fortune in the lottery, and finds himself among a circle of scheming "friends," including Eugen Theiss, his charming new lover (played with ideal restraint by Peter Chatel), and Eugen's parents, who fleece Fox out of his winnings for the "noble" purpose of saving their bankrupt company.
The German title of this film, "Faustrecht der Freiheit," literally means "fist-right of freedom," which we might paraphrase as "survival of the fittest." Social Darwinism has rarely been so entertaining, or movingly portrayed, on film. And the film was, in its day, a landmark for depicting gay people with psychological and emotional depth, not to mention bitchy humor and chiseled abs. Intriguingly, Fassbinder based his screenplay on his own relationship with an illiterate butcher, only here he casts himself as the victim.
Fassbinder worked with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (with whom he did sixteen pictures: Ballhaus has since been director of photography on almost all of Martin Scorsese's films since 1985) to create crisp images and saturated, although natural-seeming, color (which come across beautifully on the DVD). In fact, every aspect of the film is top-notch, from the smooth editing to the detailed, and sometimes even witty, set design. The over-priced decor which Eugen convinces Fox to buy looked garish, even to my untrained eyes. Then it turns out that this was part of yet another scheme to defraud Fox, masterminded by his new "friend," icy-cool antiques dealer Max (played by Karlheinz Böhm, the son of legendary conductor Karl Böhm, who was unforgettable as the chilling lead in both Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Fassbinder's Martha). Max picked Fox up before he won the lottery, then afterwards never let him get far away.
Fassbinder is very effective at shattering, or at least twisting, stereotypes in his films, whether they concern people from a "different" class (The Merchant of Four Seasons), race (Ali: Fear Eats the Soul), age (Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven), or physical ability (Chinese Roulette). In Fox and His Friends he focuses on gay men, in one of the first films ever to depict their lives warts and all as complex lived experience. (Of course, in the years since its 1975 release, film has come a long way in exploring the diversity of gay experience.) Fassbinder made only a handful of other films dealing with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) people: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972), In a Year With 13 Moons (1978), and his last film, Querelle (1982). All are worth seeing; and each remains among his most controversial works. As Fassbinder once remarked, "Homosexuality is probably a factor in all my films ... not all have a gay subject, but they all have the point of view of one gay man."
Since some people consider Fox and His Friends to be homophobic, it's worth noting that there are as many unscrupulous straight characters (including Eugen's mother and father, and one of the slimiest silver-tongued lawyers to ever (dis)grace the screen) as gay ones. And, as in so many of Fassbinder's films, there is a great deal of ethical murkiness around people's motives for swindling Fox. True, Eugen winds up with a fabulous apartment (at least once he gets the hideous decor back to Max, who will resell it at a profit). But he and his parents also seem genuinely to care about their failing book- and magazine-bindery business, and the seventy employees who along with themselves will be thrown out of work if it folds.
Also, the film includes several caring and likable gay and transgender characters Fox's bar buddies who represent a diversity of ages, body types, and demeanors (some are "straight-acting," others love to camp it up). And although Fox's first love was sent to prison, he comes across as a decent, caring man during their few scenes together.
And Fassbinder, in his most demanding role, gives arguably his greatest performance. Fox is not just a figure of pathos (like, say, the wonderful Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria). Or some predatory gay guy on the make, trolling for a sugar daddy (by the film's end, Fox certainly wishes he had never met Max: Of course then he would never have gotten the winning lottery ticket). Fox is street-smart yet innocent, sexy yet shy. He wants to do the right thing, whether that means working hard in the bindery (which, technically, he comes to own) or, on vacation in Morocco, seeing that a local man (played by the great love of Fassbinder's life, Algerian actor El Hedi ben Salem) is not discriminated against. He loves life, yet he allows himself to spiral downwards into hopelessness. There are many complex layers to Fox, and Fassbinder explores them all, from sweetness to pain to defiance to despair, and more.
When I first saw this film, fifteen years ago, I was horrified by the final scene (although it is vintage Fassbinder). Now, after watching it again, I have to wonder if the film actually ends inside Fox's mind. That metro/subway stop is unnaturally eerily clean and quiet. Everything is blue and white, even the clothes worn by all the characters who pass through. Yet this comes at the end of one of Fassbinder's most naturalistic films; nothing earlier is as stylized. So, is this just a "Valium 5"-induced nightmare vision? (But as a friend noted, if you are going to include one dream state in a film and make it the final scene be sure the audience understands the ambiguity.) Has Fox learned, from his devastating experiences, that the glitzy "lifestyle" he has just lost was what was destroying him? So maybe just maybe Fox is ready to begin putting himself back together... if the final scene is just a nightmare.
Wellspring, in cooperation with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, has created a release with outstanding image (from a beautifully restored print) and sound (including both a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack and the original stereo), and additional resources which detailed below.
- In the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Choice of a new Dolby 5.1 soundtrack or the original stereo
- Subtitle control
- Film divided into 16 chapters
- Filmographies for Fassbinder and the lead actors
- Web links
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed August 5, 2002
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