Fassbinder acted in several of his own films, but almost never included his name in the credits and rarely cast himself in the lead role. Love Is Colder Than Death: no acting credit. Katzelmacher: no acting credit. The American Soldier, The Niklashausen Journey, Whity: no credit. I’m pretty sure Fox and His Friends is the only film in which RWF both starred and credited himself. Surely this is no accident? Surely this tells us something about the importance of Fox and His Friends to the director personally: he was willing to lend his name, his persona, and even his full-frontal nudity to this particular film as to no other. [Addendum: Except for Germany in Autumn, which I hadn’t yet seen when I wrote this. Now there’s some real full-frontal nudity for you.]
RWF plays Franz Biberkopf (aka Fox). And, yes, you should recognize that name from 1980’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, if you’ve seen it. Franz Biberkopf is the hapless working-class antihero protagonist of that epic series. It is also the alias which Harry Baer’s character, Franz Walsch, uses in Gods of the Plague. I think it’s telling that the director would choose to play a character called Franz Biberkopf—just as it is telling that he would cast himself (in Love Is Colder Than Death) as the first of three characters he called Franz Walsch (Franz Walsch purportedly being an amalgam of “Franz Biberkopf” and “Raoul Walsh,” the prolific Hollywood director). Biberkopf clearly seems to be a sort of archetype for Fassbinder. More important, Biberkopf is a character Fassbinder seems to identify with—or rather, the character Fassbinder wants you to identify him with. This is significant, and I’ll come back to it.
Franz Biberkopf works in a circus/fairground act as “Fox the Speaking Head,” an illusionist’s severed head who amazes audience members by answering their questions live. The sideshow troupe is disbanded in the opening scene, however, when the master of ceremonies (Karl Scheydt), Franz’s lover, is arrested during a performance. Down but not out, Franz still has one card left to play: every week he buys a lottery ticket and is not above turning a trick or two to pay for it. To that end, Franz gets himself picked up in a public bathroom by Max (Karl-Heinz Bohm), a wealthy and sophisticated antique dealer, who drives him to a lotto vendor (Brigitte Mira) as she is closing up shop. And just as he had assured everyone he would be, Franz is the winner. I’m not sure what 500,000 Deutschmarks was worth in 1975, but it appears to have been quite a large sum of money. Max decides to bring Franz home to meet his friends.
Max’s friends—cultured, gay, mostly young, and fashionable—express bemused distaste for the uncouth Franz, but one of them, Eugen (Peter Chatel), ends up bringing Franz home for some rough trade. One thing leads to another and soon the two are living together. Franz cannot believe his good fortune—finally he has a guy who doesn’t need anything from him because he has everything he needs already! Eugen may be a little proper and prissy, and his culture and refinement make Franz feel inadequate, but Franz is on top of the world. He’s in love! His old friends are savvy enough to know who will have drawn the shorter straw in the deal, however, and tell him so. Needless to say, Franz doesn’t listen.
Meanwhile, all is not well with Eugen. The printing company his father owns is on the verge of bankruptcy. But wait: Franz has money! A 100,000 DM loan is hastily arranged, with a promise of partnership for Franz. Never mind that Franz doesn’t understand the contract; Eugen knows all about these things. What matters is that Franz has made it to the big time! To celebrate, Eugen takes Franz shopping for clothes—Franz pays for everything, of course—and, after the landlord evicts Eugen for “illegal cohabitation,” an apartment. Of course the cultured and discerning Eugen must furnish the apartment in a style that befits his stature and impeccable taste and so a trip to Max’s antique store is required. And then there’s the car . . .
You can see where this is going—which is exactly where it inexorably goes. By the end of the movie Franz has been thoroughly exploited and has nothing left, least of all any illusions about the possibility of finding love or transcending his station. His friends and his sister all told him so, and they were right: a guy like Franz could only ever draw the short straw.
On one level, Fox and His Friends seems like just another variation on a set of well-worn RWF themes: the pettiness of the bourgeoisie, whose obsession with decorum only partially masks their brutality (Fear Eats the Soul, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Effi Briest); the cheerfulness with which the powerful intimidate the powerless, who act out in predictable and ultimately self-defeating ways and who end up complicit in their own subjugation (Katzelmacher, Whity); the sadomasochism of love, which is just another power relation (Pioneers in Ingolstadt, Gods of the Plague, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant); the wisdom and integrity of the prostitute, who has no illusions about this (Pioneers in Ingolstadt); etc., etc.. What distinguishes Fox and His Friends, however, is this unshakeable sense you get that this film, more than the others, is personal.
Which I think it is. Especially after reading the first chapter of Ronald Hayman’s fascinating biography of Fassbinder called, aptly enough, Fassbinder: Film Maker. (I know, I know, I swore I would avoid scholarly studies when I started this blog, but I just couldn’t help myself. And, yes, I feel like the child who has sought and found the stash of Christmas presents before they’ve been wrapped. I’ve spoiled everything! Traded an innocence I’ll never get back for knowledge I don’t really want . . . but it’s too late now.) It’s all in there: the childhood spent in the company of prostitutes (the patients of Dr. Hellmuth Fassbinder, whose office was in Munich’s red-light district); the fierce loathing of the bourgeoisie unwittingly instilled in the boy by his own emotionally (and often literally) absent bourgeois mother; the son’s seemingly fruitless efforts to buy the mother’s love; the rebellious identification with and allegiance to outsiders, proletarians, and the marginalized in society; the adoption of deliberately crude, coarse language, behavior, and dress to spite the mother; the childhood spent on the streets and in movie theaters; the gay prostitution; and so on. Biberkopf/Fox, in other words, is the persona RWF invented to deflect his own feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. (etc.) Who else could play him?
But does this actually matter? Maybe, a bit, to the extent that it helps you to make sense of the relentless repetition throughout Fassbinder’s work, or what might otherwise seem like odd contradictions. Here’s an example: Fassbinder, who was famously overweight most of his life, slimmed down dramatically for Fox and His Friends, which belies a conventional vanity and genuine self consciousness. At the same time, his character is almost grotesquely uncouth and ill mannered, to the point of making him unsympathetic: a classic posture behind which the insecure and self hating are known to hide.
But does that matter? Actually, no. In fact, I think these biographical tidbits, irresistably juicy though they are, may actually be counterproductive. What I would have posited re: the above had I not gotten bogged down in all this backseat psychoanalysis is actually more interesting and more useful to an understanding of Fassbinder’s genius: to the extent that we find Fox unattractive or embarrassing or distasteful we actually identify on some awful barely conscious level with Eugen and Max and the other bourgeois who dehumanize him, their revulsion a perverse justification for their shameless treatment of poor Franz. (You could argue that this same phenomenon is also at work, albeit to a lesser extent, in Fear Eats the Soul: Brigitte Mira’s unvarnished physical age introduces a certain degree of awkwardness and discomfort in the viewer which makes us less unequivocally sympathetic than we would have been if RWF had cast some “hot” older actress. That’s a hard thing to admit, but I think it’s true. Fassbinder exposes the injustice that lives in all of our hearts, not just the villains’.)
In dwelling on these little biographical nuggets, then, I’ve overlooked the work itself and neglected to describe the things that make this movie great: the beautiful art direction and cinematography (Ballhaus, stunning as ever); how masterfully RWF manipulates the signs and symbols of bourgeois affluence on the one hand, and the gay underworld on the other; how he sets Fox against a background—no, a diorama, like you see in a natural history museum—of bourgeois materialism (the lamps! the vases! the gilt!) and how cringingly awkward he is in this world, the proverbial bull in a china shop; how nobody does a humiliating restaurant scene like Fassbinder . . .
I’ve already remarked re: Effi Briest that if you need to know an artist’s intentions to appreciate a work, it’s a puzzle, not art. I realize now that I really do believe that—much as I love puzzles—and that it’s doubly true in this context. Knowing an artist’s personal history—that Fassbinder hated his mother while craving her love, for example, or that he collected rent from gasterbeiter tenants for his father, or that he treated Irm Hermann like absolute shit—may be fun, but it is not, ultimately, illuminating. What illuminates is the way the director channeled that history and those emotions into an art that continues to convey profound, often painful truths about the world he inhabited (and which we, to whatever extent, have inherited) in a form, or language, or whatever you want to call it, uniquely his own.