When it comes to cinema, sex, money, and death have always been seductive concepts—the terms themselves evoke untold forbidden pleasures of the flesh and spirit. But in the world according to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, there’s no erotic charge to any of them. Sex and money are purely transactional, and while life is characterized by hopeless circularity, death offers no transcendence. People use one another or are used, and the usual markers of success (stable domesticity, steady work, material goods) are revealed to be meaningless. One needn’t look any further for a pure dose of this tendency in Fassbinder than Fox and His Friends (1975), which charts with growing misery the gradual demise of a schnook who is blind to the fact that everyone around him is taking great advantage of him. In it, economic fate and emotional fate become one and the same, and the social creature that is a human being shows himself to be irredeemable, whether exploiting or exploited.
The West German director knew that such bleakness makes an ideal canvas for either black comedy or abject tragedy, and that the line between the two can be dim: after all, what is more absurd than the despair intrinsic to living? The only thing funnier or scarier than seeing someone fall into a tar pit is watching him flail as he tries to unstick himself. Fox and His Friends, Fassbinder’s twenty-second feature, made when he was twenty-nine—a time of life when most filmmakers would be lucky to have half a film under their belts—is amusing, sometimes even hilarious, in its single-minded trudge toward dissolution. Produced midway through a fast decade of bad drugs and badder romances, during which Fassbinder was also tossing off a string of masterpieces, Fox may have been reiterating the idea that power imbalances are inherent to romantic relationships that the filmmaker had been working out in such earlier films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Martha (1974). This was the first time, however, that the openly bisexual director focused specifically on dynamics between gay men. Unsurprisingly, they don’t come off much better than his hetero couples.
Forgoing the Sturm und Drang of such earlier, more purely emotional Fassbinder films as Beware of a Holy Whore (1970) and The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), Fox and His Friends takes a clinical approach to its relentless tale of the downfall of a naive lottery winner, Franz Biberkopf—played by Fassbinder, who, as in his first film, Love Is Colder Than Death (1969), names his protagonist after the doltish ex-con in Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, a hugely influential work for him. Instead of an unreformed murderer, Fox’s Franz is a directionless working-class rent boy and sometime carnival worker. (In the first scene, we see him briefly as the scam sideshow attraction “Fox the Speaking Head”—in other words, a head that keeps talking although severed from its body, a pretty good metaphor for the disjunction between Fox’s brains and his cock, as we’ll see.) After the cops shut down the carnival, Franz plays the daily lottery, soon winning 500,000 marks, after which—and not by happenstance—he falls in with a sophisticated new group of pals, introduced to him by the middle-aged pickup “Uncle” Max (Karlheinz Böhm, whose piercing eyes you may remember—and want to forget—from Peeping Tom). Icy and fashionable, this posh bunch is clearly not hanging around Franz for his wit, grace, and intellect.
A contemporary viewer versed in the rough-and-tumble life and mythology of Rainer Werner Fassbinder will likely be struck immediately by his gentle, soft-spoken performance as Franz, who is the opposite of swaggering, despite the confidence with which he wears the studded denim jacket that announces his nickname. Baby-faced and markedly slender, Fassbinder plays him with a pained innocence that would make you want to protect him, if he seemed to have anything worth protecting. Casting himself as Fox was a stroke of genius on Fassbinder’s part—for us, seeing the director on-screen imparts the idea that there’s no one behind the camera to empathize with the character. And that lack of empathy is infectious. Fox is at sea, and whatever abuse he sustains feels like the result of the natural social order rather than any grave injustice. Later in the film, after Franz has seen how he’s been used and discarded, he will rail against fate rather than acknowledge the part he has played in his own destiny. He may be the victim of a rigid social hierarchy, but Fassbinder also sees him as ridiculous for believing he can use money to transcend his lowly status. This judgment is what separates Fassbinder’s melodrama from, say, Robert Bresson’s L’argent (1983) as a depiction of the evil that money can do. For Bresson, humans have no agency in an entrenched system that is rotten at its core; for Fassbinder, the tragedy is that they could choose to extricate themselves from the morass but often don’t.
Among his queeny new cadre, Franz falls for the willowy, mustachioed Eugen (Peter Chatel), much to the seething chagrin of Philip (Fassbinder mainstay Harry Baer). Though Eugen seems blithely uninterested in Franz, he falls into bed with him, even if Franz is uncouth enough to pounce on Eugen’s bed with his shoes still on. The lack of sensuality with which Fassbinder treats their initial sexual encounter should clue us in to the suspiciously dispassionate nature of the affair, as should the scene in which Eugen takes his hopeless prole to a snooty French restaurant and is mortified when Franz reveals his preference for pilsner over wine and for noodle over turtle soup. What Franz’s new lover wants from him begins to become clear when we meet Eugen’s father (Adrian Hoven), the owner of a formerly successful bookbindery now facing increasingly dire liquidity problems. Motivated by what he believes is real love, Franz extends a 100,000-mark loan to Eugen’s father, though he adds to the contract a wishful-thinking clause stipulating that he will become a partner once the debt is repaid. Franz sneezes uncontrollably while the lawyer reads aloud the details of the contract—as if unknowingly allergic to bullshit.
The loan represents a sizable chunk of Franz’s lottery winnings, though Eugen and company clearly know there’s plenty left to go around, influencing Fox to invest in real estate (Eugen would love a luxury apartment!), trendy shirts and cravats (Philip owns a clothing store!), and tastefully old-fashioned home furnishings (Max is an antiques dealer!). Baroque armchairs, gilt-framed mirrors, silk Chinese rugs, Chippendale candle sconces: this consumption is especially conspicuous for West Germany in the seventies, as the country’s economy had declined throughout the sixties, after the postwar economic miracle of the fifties. Amid all this materialistic excess, Fassbinder directs with a matter-of-fact detachment, mostly forgoing the visual flourishes of his more outwardly stylish earlier films. The camera merely sits and watches the nastiness unfold. Despite his boyfriend’s docile pliability, Eugen continues to treat him poorly, admonishing him for tastelessness, not inviting him to the opera because he “won’t understand anything about it,” and dropping sweet nothings like “In the end, we’ll manage to make a human being of you.” Quite the opposite happens; what Franz experiences is progressive dehumanization, which is nearly complete once he, his cash reserves having dwindled to nothing, breaks up with Eugen and is summarily cast out of his false paradise. A final insult: during an ambiguous come-on from a pair of American soldiers at a gay bar, one of them asks Franz, “How much I pay?”
Fox and His Friends initially drew ire for what some perceived to be a derogatory view of gay culture and community implicit in its depiction of a circle of male friends and lovers as shallow, catty, and materialistic. Critic Andrew Britton, for instance, wrote in Gay Left in 1976 that its “version of homosexuality degrades us all and should roundly be denounced.” Identity politics being so central to criticism now, and representation such a crucial issue in our evolving popular culture, this kind of read of the film hasn’t gone away—nor should it, necessarily: the filmmaker’s pervasive cynicism undoubtedly infects his portrayal of a social group whose members were already objects of derision. For his part, Fassbinder denied that the film was specifically about gayness at all. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, he said, “Here, homosexuality is shown as completely normal, and the problem is something quite different. It’s a love story, where one person exploits the love of the other person, and that’s really the story I always tell.” If this seems to skirt the issue a bit disingenuously, it is undoubtedly true that the film is concerned with universal truths about romantic and social inequality. Perhaps the question of whether its viperous superficiality is attributable specifically to homosexuality is ultimately less interesting than the way its gay men accept and enforce the class divisions of a larger culture that marginalizes and oppresses them.
Throughout, Fox and His Friends trades in this kind of grim social critique—judging a group for its willingness to eat its own in order to protect its perceived standing—even and especially during Eugen and Franz’s late-film trip to Marrakech (which, of course, Franz pays for). While cruising the bazaar, conspicuous in their white suits, the two men encounter a strapping local played by El Hedi ben Salem, a Tunisian migrant worker whom Fassbinder had met at a bathhouse and started a tumultuous, tortured affair with, before casting him, unforgettably, as a middle-aged woman’s love interest in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974). After they exchange a few shrewd glances, ben Salem’s character accepts the couple’s invitation to go back to their Holiday Inn International. Upon entering the building, a hotel manager stops them, barring ben Salem from entering, as Arabs are not allowed in the building. Eugen points out the double standard: the hotel manager is Arab himself. Eugen is surprised that a group can judge and cast out one of its own due to mainstream social forces; surely Fassbinder wasn’t.
Fassbinder wrote the Morocco scene in order to give a role to ben Salem, who had fled Germany after stabbing three men in a bar. Nevertheless, Fox and His Friends was dedicated to the director’s subsequent boyfriend, the working-class Armin Meier, with whom by all accounts he enacted the kind of relationship between nonequals that is dramatized in the film. Thus, Fox and His Friends has been viewed as a lacerating self-critique, in which Fassbinder lays bare his own tendency to belittle and take advantage of others.
A few years later, after the two had broken up, Meier, feeling shut out of Fassbinder’s life, killed himself on the filmmaker’s birthday. One year before that, ben Salem had died in a French prison. Love and death commingled throughout Fassbinder’s career, both on-screen and off. Fox and His Friends concludes with an image that’s as miserable as it gets: Franz, facedown on the floor of a dirty subway station—his body stepped over by two former acquaintances, his wallet and beloved denim jacket stolen by a couple of kids—following an apparently fatal overdose. Money can’t buy love, happiness, or freedom. But it can buy Valium. Life is funny that way.