Fox and His Friends (1975): Remembering Two German Giants

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)

To view Fox and His Friends click here.

The recent death of legendary cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is one that stings just as much as any movie titan in recent memory. Fans of American cinema know him as the gifted eye behind such films as The Departed (2006), The Age of Innocence (1993), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Broadcast News (1987), to name just a few of the titles that earn him a place in the upper Hollywood ranks. However, the Berlin-born maestro really cemented his reputation on the world stage with his decade-long collaborations with the great Rainer Werner Fassbinder, a collaboration that spanned from Whity (1971) through Lili Marleen (1981).

You can find plenty of examples of the brilliance of the Ballhaus-Fassbinder team right here on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979) their most acclaimed among American viewers. Each film has a different flavor, but if you’d like to really see both men at their peak, allow me to direct you to Fox and His Friends (1975). Like many Fassbinder films it draws on Hollywood melodramas to tell the story of the devastating social exploitation that awaits poor carnival employee Fox (played by Fassbinder himself in a rare starring role), whose unexpected lottery win allows him to taste the sweet life – while swimming with more than a few sharks.

FOX AND HIS FRIENDS (1975)

The big twist for the time is that almost every significant character in the film is a gay man, and the film is Fassbinder’s one drama to portray that segment of the German population in a realistic, flawed and sympathetic light wholly at odds with the portrayals seen in Hollywood during that same period. Sure, the indie film The Boys in the Band (1970) had tried to bring that celebrated play to the screen, but now it plays more like a politically incorrect minefield. Big studios were only comfortable with gay characters when they were either monstrous perverts or tragic, saintly angels destined for heartache, and Fassbinder’s film is miles away from that. One of Europe’s great gay directors of his era (along with Pier Paolo Pasolini), Fassbinder only made one other similarly themed film, the perverse Jean Genet meets Tom of Finland fantasia Querelle (1982), which turned out to be his swan song; however, this is the one to watch to see his ultimate statement on the subject. Paradoxically, it’s also a story that could be told any place, at any time, among any sexual orientation.

So, how does Ballhaus figure in all this? Plenty, and it’s evident in the evocative way he adopts color palettes and textures as the story progresses. We start off at a fairground that’s bright, gritty, natural; you can almost feel the dirty air rubbing against your skin. Even a lengthy scene on a train platform soon after that is thick and heavy in its look. Fassbinder always had a knack for really making his films feel like they were taking place in the urban cities or reasonably developed towns in which they were set (a pastoral director he definitely isn’t), and this might be the strongest example of that. Once Fox starts moving up through the world, notice how characters start to be shot through mirrors and reflective surfaces, arranged in geometric spaces with books, vases and wine glasses often foregrounded to show the material environment that could be Fox’s downfall. Ballhaus achieves some beautiful effects here, often refracting sunlight and bouncing it from unexpected sources so that it comes from the sides of the screen or occasionally blots out the characters’ faces to show who has the upper hand in a given scene. (The fact that Fassbinder emphatically stated this was based on a true story, albeit with a slightly less pessimistic outcome, is all the more unsettling if you think about it.)

It’s also interesting how small a role sexuality really plays here; aside from a few pecks here and there, physical intimacy is kept to a minimum. Even a trip to a bathhouse is filled with casual nudity but no sense of carnality in sight; instead the voyeurism in this film is all about money and possessions, not the flesh. It reminds me of one of the more poetic descriptions of the film when it came out, courtesy of The New York Times, saying that Fox “is the virtuous proletariat – as homosexual – taken up, used, destroyed and discarded by the gilded bourgeoisie – as homosexual… It is a Blue Angel done in drag.”

If you’re a bit more seasoned with Fassbinder, this film is loaded with familiar faces from his gallery of players, some from his early films and a few later ones as well. I’m always pleased to see Kurt Raab pop up here; the distinctive actor (who plays Wodka-Peter here) has a way of drifting through Fassbinder films in roles both tiny and large, sometimes even just as a cameo. He had his biggest and most hilarious role in the underrated Satan’s Brew (1976), my pick for the funniest film Fassbinder ever made, and horror fans will know him as the lead from Tenderness of the Wolves (1973), directed by Fassbinder protégé Ulli Lommel. Raab is one of those gifted actors who can either be terrifying or hysterical depending on the angle from which he’s shot, and it’s always a jolt of adrenaline whenever he appears. Speaking of which, it’s nice to see that Fassbinder’s reputation as a “depressing” filmmaker (which was very common in the 1980s and even into the 1990s) finally seems to be subsiding now that we can see beautiful, crystal-clear versions of his films to see just how multifaceted and even warm they can be, albeit in a very peculiar way most of the time.

In case you eagle-eyed viewers see that opening title card and start wondering how on earth a title like Faustrecht der Freiheit could possibly translate to Fox and His Friends… well, it doesn’t. The title we English speakers now know was given when American distributor New Yorker Films picked it up, but when the title was shopped around and shown at festivals, it was first known as Fist-Right of Freedom (an awkward but accurate translation of the German title) and then more smoothly translated as either Might Makes Right (the title it had at Cannes in May of 1975) or Survival of the Fittest. Whatever you call it, don’t miss it.

Nathaniel Thompson

1 Response Fox and His Friends (1975): Remembering Two German Giants
Posted By Jlewis : April 26, 2017 4:02 pm

There is a lot to digest in this one. I like both this and ALI: FEAR EATS THE SOUL, but this is definitely the more ambitious of the two. Camerawork wise, I like the scene in the men’s clothing store with the cheating kiss seen in the mirrored ceiling, this being an ominous sign that the ex-lover (played by one of the few surviving stars Harry Baer) would eventually claim Fox’s man (Peter Chatel) back. It is one mirror/illusion that will become a reality later. Also quite a few scenes shot outside the front windshields of cars, unlike the traditional rear-projection inside-the-car image we were used to up to this time. Again, there is no real sex on screen (aside from guys talking about it) and the bath house seems to be strictly for bathing purposes only, but I guess the whole point of that scene was to demonstrate that the social pecking order remained in tact even when everybody was naked or in robes. You can also add the loud Technicolor clothes the two guys wear when vacationing in drab Morocco… and they only notice winking El Hedi ben Salem because he too is as brightly orange and white like a fellow tourist as well. Not that a fellow Moroccan is fooled at the Holiday Inn and discriminates him like any other fellow Moroccan. There are lots of “stuff” that you notice with repeat viewings.

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