Criterion Collection Blu-Ray Review: Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s ‘Fox And His Friends’

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox And His Friends (1975) was one of Criterion’s more low-key releases of 2017. Criterion continues to present films by the incredibly prolific Fassbinder, who made over 40 films in less than two decades, and this one isn’t one of his best-known works. However, Fox is still an engrossing drama, presenting a brutally uncompromising view of homosexual life in West Germany.

Fassbinder casts himself in the title role, Franz “Fox” Biberkopf, a working-class carny who played the “Talking Head” for a circus run by his boyfriend Klaus (Karl-Heinz Staudenmeyer). When Klaus is arrested, he finds himself without a job and his only hope is to win the lottery.

fox and his friends
Cover by Grant Delin and Eric Skillman

Thanks to art dealer Max (Peeping Tom‘s Kartheinz Böhm), he manages to get his winning ticket at the very last second. A month later, Max introduces Fox to his other gay friends at a party. There, Eugen (Peter Chatel) spots Fox and immediately senses how easy it would be to take advantage of him. Over the course of the film, Eugen tries to transform Fox into a member of the bourgeoisie while slowly draining his bank account.

When watching the film, one can’t help but feel like it’s Pygmalion gone wrong. In this case, Fox wants to move up in society but he chose the wrong Henry Higgins to help him. In the dark, dirty world of Fassbinder, a story that usually has a happy ending is twisted to show the underbelly of society.

Fassbinder doesn’t seem to get any joy out of showing a naive character’s downfall, especially one played by himself. The point of the film is to show that anyone from any part of society can be preyed upon by the wealthier corners of it. As Michael Korensky notes in his essay, Fassbinder had to defend the film because some critics thought it was a derogatory depiction of the gay community. The director said he wanted to show homosexuality as “completely normal.” He wanted to tell a story about a man taken advantage of by the person he loves, and this is how he chose to tell it.

That’s what movies always come down to. If all plots have been told, it’s up to the director and writer (both the same person in this case) to come up with a new way to tell it. We’ve seen plenty of movies where a man takes advantage of a woman’s money, or vice versa. Fassbinder wanted to show that it could happen in a community rarely represented on screen at the time.

Fassbinder’s character shares the same name as Franz Bieberkopf, the main character in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. The 1929 novel was a major influence on Fassbinder. One of his last works was a mammoth, 15-hour TV adaptation of the novel in 1980, which Criterion released on DVD in 2007.  Fassbinder is clearly drawing a connection between the two tragic characters, who both hopelessly aim for better lives.

The Blu-Ray

Again, Fox And His Friends was one of Criterion’s under-the-radar titles of the last 12 months. It was released in January, and features a stunning 4K restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. Fassbiner also shot most of his films in full frame, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus finds ways to create striking imagery in the format.

As for the extras, they are informative, but very short. Here’s what we get:

  • Harry Baer – Actor Harry Baer, who had a supporting role as Eugen’s former boyfriend, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film in a 16-minute interview. He kicks off by noting that he’s one of only three people involved in the film still alive. While a full-length commentary from a critic or historian might have been better, Baer does a good job of providing context for the film.
  • Ira Sachs – Filmmaker Ira Sachs (Love is Strange) provides a surprisingly analytical look at the film in this 12-minute interview.
  • Pour le cinema – This is a five-minute interview with Fassbinder filmed shortly after Fox And His Friends was completed. Sadly, there’s clips of the film between his comments, so it’s a very choppy interview. You also have a French commentator speaking over him, plus the English subtitles you need to understand it.
  • Cinemania – This is a three-minute interview with composer Peer Rabin filmed in 1981. Like the previous one, it’s too short and includes some clips from the film. He focuses on the cabaret sequence.
  • Trailer
  • “Social Animals” by Michael Korensky – The insert includes a long essay by Michael Korensky, who analyzes every aspect of the film. In the absence of a commentary, this is a wonderful essay.

Fox And His Friends is a unique film. Certainly, the melodramatic story has been told before, but the way Fassbinder does it is extraordinary. It’s a great film. You might not want to watch it regularly or whenever you’re looking for “junk food,” but it is a fascinating exploration into how our emotions can be used against us.

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