Fox and His Friends (Faustrecht der Freiheit)
Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Cast: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Karl-Heinz Böhm, Harry Bär, Adrian Hoven, Christiane Maybach, Ulla Jacobsen, Hans Zander, Kurt Raab, Peter Kern, El Hedi ben Salem, Marquard Bohm, Barbara Valentin, Brigitte Mira, Evelyn Künneke, Irm Hermann. Screenplay: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christian Hohoff.

Here's what can happen when professional obligations and personal whims coincide: I happened to catch Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Fox and His Friends on the same day that I was re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby for a class I am assistant-teaching. Fassbinder and Fitzgerald: two artists who seem on first impression to hail from different galaxies, until unbidden similarities start to show themselves. The personal audacity of each man followed but also fueled his era-defining artistry. The term "the Jazz Age" was a Fitzgerald coinage, just as a certain kind of lifestyle within that decade very nearly was; similarly, mid-1970s cinéastes had to christen the category of "New German Cinema" just to accommodate the radical stylistic and subjective newness of Fassbinder's work. Contemporaries like Herzog and Wenders were equally stunning, but none could match the incredible prolificity of Fassbinder (whose 32 films in 15 years can go toe-to-toe with the 160 short stories Fitzgerald wrote in 20), nor the eccentric mystique—and this, too, sounds like Fitzgerald—of chemical dissipation, a turbulent personal orbit, early death, and a cultishly devoted fan-base that still pays obeisance.

One wouldn't press the analogy too far, but Gatsby and Fitzgerald are useful starting-points—and, just as crucially, counterpoints—by which Fox's unfamiliar audiences might know something about the soul-shaking sorrow that floods the life of Franz "Fox" Biberkopf after his ecstatic first contact with money. I rush to establish counterpoint because Fox is not, after all, a Fitzgeraldian story about a poor man whose eventual self-made riches do not satisfy him; Fassbinder, the more complex and superior artist, gives us a poor man whose sudden, arbitrary riches cannot satisfy him, because the world has been built to forbid it.

Fox is a puffy and heavy-lidded sideshow performer who's convinced he's going to win the lottery. For the hanger-on characters in Arthur Miller or August Wilson plays, the futile dreams of sudden cashflow are plots in themselves, but Fassbinder mines despair and insight from the devilish fate of getting what you want. Fox actually does strike it lucky, to the tune of 500,000 marks, but he has hardly anyone with whom to share this good news, not to mention the good fortune. There's his sister Hedwig, a blowzy and boozy blonde who can hardly be far from John Cameron Mitchell's inspiration. Besides that, there's Max (Karl-Heinz Böhm, from Peeping Tom), the natty antiques dealer who happened to be leasing Fox's body for the evening when his ship came in, and that's about it. Fox once had a lover, Klaus—the ringleader for his disembodied-head circus act—but Klaus is now sewing wallets in prison for the one-two punch of fiscal fraud and, one of the all-time great felonies, freakshowing without a permit.

To paraphrase Christina Ricci's character from The Opposite of Sex, if you think Fox is just lonely and scrappy and all he needs is a little capital and the right mensch to spend it on, you're in way over your head. Fassbinder giveth and Fassbinder taketh away: a grand irony of Fox and His Friends, which could hardly be a more bitter title in context, is that even the nomadic and radically friendless can swiftly be eaten by beggars, wheedlers, and sycophants. In other words, a man can be an island until he's wealthy, at which point he is immediately colonized. The marauder here is Eugen, a tall, dark, and mustachioed idol cut from Oliver Reed's bolt of cloth, who insinuates his way into Fox's embrace. Somehow Eugen manages to present his steady drawing of funds out of Fox as a benevolent project of Henry Higginsish improvement. He even hires Fox at his father's modest printing house where Eugen himself is assistant manager and heir, thus making his lover simultaneously a worker-bee underling and the financial fuel of the enterprise. It's fully in line with Fassbinder's class sympathies that Fox's undoing comes at the hands not of a fellow indigent trying to get ahead but of an entrepreneurial bourgeois dreamer who dreams of having more.

All of which is to say that, in an important sense, Fox and His Friends can only be heading in one pathetic direction. However, as in the race melodrama Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, Fassbinder reaps amazing bounties from a sadly predictable and deceptively simple narrative that only seems to be unilaterally rooted in a single thematics—in this case, money. Like any good Marxist, Fassbinder knows that money itself wouldn't be such a dynastic power if we hadn't long ago bound it into the other strivings of human life—sex, art, family, flavors—all of which can overwhelm us whenever we make a partial advance on the front of raw buying power. Fassbinder's world is a swamp if you lack money and a trap or a sinkhole if you only have some, or if you have too much too quickly.

But swamps and sinkholes have their own poets and enthusiasts, and Fassbinder, however ambivalently, is one of them. Though Fox may actually believe some of Eugen's empty profusions and false promises, he also seems perversely satisfied by his brand new role as a walking blank check, as a person who can be used. After all, it is only now that Fox has anything that anyone would want to use. That Fassbinder himself plays (gorgeously) the pitiful, sweet, and only partially deluded role of Fox indicates the film's empathy with the character, as well as amplifying the theme of willful self-debasement. The uncomfortably transparent envies and injuries that contour Fassbinder's face carry us right to the sad theme ticking in Fox's broken heart: for whatever cosmic reason, some people are destined to make their greatest, improvident gifts to the world while speeding down a quick track to ruination. Fox seems to know that his fortune and his life, because of their elaborate excesses, must be limited, and so he makes a crushing but fascinating art out of giving out as much as possible while he can; no one could have understood those feelings more than the auteur who has created and inhabited him. The multiple shots of Fassbinder's genitals aren't half as naked as every single close-up of his hooded, plaintive face.

And just as affecting are the moments in Fox and His Friends where a face or a body are conspicuously offscreen. Again as in Ali, Fassbinder approaches framing and editing with the kind of precision Jane Austen brought to a sentence, his craft so meticulous as to be virtually invisible. His images, scruffy in texture and unglamorous in content, are carefully composed and assembled for maximum affective depth. A tense squabble between Fox and Eugen about whether or not to invite a three-way with a Moroccan prostitute (Ali himself, El Hedi ben Salem) sticks mostly to a single wide-shot, not because Fassbinder is uninterested in visuals, but because the camera's own boredom exposes this incident—which many filmmakers would treat salaciously—as just another way for a cynical relationship to kill some time. (Earlier, when these three piled into an open taxi, the camera abandoned all of them for a whole minute and entertained itself by staring at pedestrians.) Toward the end, a fierce standoff in a hallway is filmed from the perspective of a character we don't even know, conveying just how sad—but also how ordinary—Fox's harshest rebuff looks to the unacquainted observer. One of the movie's most disjunctive and most eloquent moves is the cut which commences the final sequence. This unsettling transition seems to skip a lot of narrative incident, but we must admit that exposure to those incidents couldn't possibly teach us what their excision does, which is the inevitability—no matter by what route—of what we find ourselves looking at.

Fox and His Friends is not a happy film, though nor is it humorless. Fassbinder is a charitable enough screenwriter to make Fox's ham-handedness in élite company, as in a dinner scene with Eugen's parents, really quite gentle and funny, by contrast to the crass implausibilities of Julia Roberts flipping escargot in Pretty Woman. Of course one winces at seeing Fox's social, erotic, and intellectual fortunes remain so humble even when his pocketbook hits its surprising peak, but it is ultimately generous and wise of the filmmaker—rather than simply pessimistic—to understand and to show that German capitalist culture (and in what capitalist culture would things be different?) is too well armored to permit the happenstance of a 500,000-mark windfall to change anyone's standing for long. What is awful for Fox to live is instructive for us to see, and besides, I'm not sure one leaves Fox and His Friends persuaded that Fox would have ordered a different destiny for himself if he had it to do over. Which makes him a bit of a dupe, but also a kind of gourmet, finding ways of delectating in a life that's never going to serve him anything but leavings. Not that the message here is, "Be happy with what you get." I doubt there is a guiding moral—just the pure, craftily imagined, expertly disclosed raw materials of a human life, an ace snapshot from 27 years ago that still feels contemporary and pressing. Grade: A

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