Rainer Werner Fassbinder was a genius of New German Cinema, making 43 films in his 37 year life. As Charlie Fox writes in This Young Monster (2017), he was a “compulsive”; in his cocaine addiction, he felt an immense energy, experiencing a “shorter lifespan significantly more intensely [and] more imaginatively” within an unstable film industry. Recently, the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation have prepared new restorations, allowing his films to be seen by new audiences thanks to the efforts of the Criterion Collection, Arrow Academy and cinema re-releases. Fassbinder, often starring in his own films, portrays Franz Bieberkopf, carnival act Fox the Speaking Head, symbolically reflecting Fassbinder’s own persona. In its style, Fox and His Friends is undeniably Fassbinder, from his melodrama to the composition of the frame.
Although American cinema struggled to explicitly depict queer identity beyond subtext until the 1960s and 70s, in part through the Hays Code, German cinema tackled issues of homosexuality since its inception. As Robert Beachy describes in Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity (2014), Different from the Others (1919) had been a box office success on its release, before protests by Protestant, Catholic and anti-Semitic groups led to censorship. Beyond the effeminate stereotypes of American cinema, Weimar cinema became caught in a cultural zeitgeist through the aufklärungsfilm genre, invoking queer relationships in films like Sex in Chains and Pandora’s Box (1928), and Mädchen in Uniform (1931), many of whose cast and crew became victims of the Holocaust.
As Beachy argues, Berlin as a city had been central to academic discourse around homosexuality as a distinct identity beyond individual sexual acts, through the work of people like Karl Maria Kertbeny and Magnus Hirschfield, altering understanding of gender identity in the process. By the 1970s, Paragraph 175, a law enabling a culture of blackmail and prostitution within queer subculture only worsened through the Nazi Party, remained in West Germany’s constitution, demarcated difference between queer and straight despite some reforms. Fassbinder creates a portrait of the subculture within this: Franz becomes viewed as a prostitute by Eugen, cruising at public bathrooms, yet Franz rejects this identity. Fassbinder represents the unity of community, gathered together between drag performers, young men, older men and English-speaking American servicemen, in everyone’s own uniqueness.
Fassbinder explored masculinity throughout his work, like Hans’ destructive alcoholism in The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), caught in an abusive relationship with his wife. Fox and His Friends carries these themes forward. Franz is not a likeable protagonist, becoming a manifestation of Fassbiner’s “uniquely loathsome personal aura”. Forming a bond with Eugen, Franz rapidly elevates their relationship to sex, without time to think. Franz finds himself drawn to Eugen’s father, Wolf, enjoying a degree of privilege as Wolf accepts Franz on instinct, saying that he “like[s] him much better than the last one”, giving Franz an unofficial role as a bookbinder. Franz’s sister Hedwig becomes torn apart by his actions, leaving Franz alone by the end of the film. In one scene, we see her disassociation from the entire subculture, bemoaning the lack of heterosexual men in a party built upon diverging relationships, jealousy and the sexual gaze. All men screw the same men.
Fox and His Friends is filled with full-frontal nudity, yet Fassbinder is clinical, refusing to eroticise the male body, presenting desexualised flaccid genitals in a swimming pool. Yet Fassbinder keeps a continual sense of sexual gaze, as we sense eternal desire and unfulfilment. Going on holiday to Marrakech in Morrocco, Eugen and Franz seek further sexual fulfilment. Franz sets his gaze on a Tunisian migrant worker, portrayed by El Hedi ben Salem, one of Fassbinder’s former lovers, as he and Eugen follow him, inviting him back to their Holiday Inn as they take a taxi. Taking a seat at the hotel restaurant, the pair are caught in a dialogue split by cultural boundaries, trying to take him back to their room. Fassbinder focuses upon eyes and silence, creating an unsettling atmosphere. As they walk to Franz and Eugen’s room, ben Salem’s character is barred, because he is an Arab, experiencing internal discrimination within his own country.
Fassbinder goes beyond the subculture to explore themes of capitalism and class. Society never rejects Franz for his queerness, but for his class position. Franz exists as a social outcast, his carnival show broken up by police leaving him with an identity he cannot adapt to. Franz is a swindler, betting on the lottery every day, racing in Eugen’s car to hand in his lottery ticket at the last possible minute, bartering with the store clerk; stealing money from a local florist. Franz is elevated to high society, receiving a 500,000 marks jackpot, never deserving it. He rebuilds a new life with Eugen, making an apartment for themselves, antique furniture juxtaposed against modern aesthetics. In his new life, he becomes in constant search of new loans to only further is wealth and physical ownership.
Franz’s identity becomes false. Eugen tries to force him to adapt to the conventions of high society. Going to a French restaurant, Eugen must explain the illegible menu to him, ordering the food for him as onlookers judge in disgust. Eugen bemoans Franz’s lack of cutlery, telling him the dessert fork is on “the left of your plate” as he attempts to eat a cake whole. At the table, he performs fairground tricks. He goes to tailors, trying on expensive clothes, using the iconic Fassbinder reflection shot, projecting front and back in dialogue simultaneously. Yet Franz can never escape his iconic, emblazoned denim jacket. Franz and Eugen’s holiday is booked at random, with no preplanning or worldly knowledge, based on brief descriptions from the travel agent. Franz finds a works for Wolf without any skills, mucking up a print run, never realising he wasn’t actually employed.
In the film’s most emotional scenes, Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire becomes Franz’s personal anthem.
Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
Rejected by Eugen, taking control of their flat, Franz undergoes a devolution, ostracised by his own sister. For all he tries, he cannot move beyond his origins. Selling his modern car at a dealer’s, Franz is met by casual anti-Semitism, joking that he isn’t a Jew as he swindles Franz, buying the car for peanuts within a crumbling market.
In the closing scene, Franz becomes a symbol of Fassbinder, a corpse laying in a subway station, overdosing on valium prescribed by his doctor. Franz’s worldly possessions are taken, a group of kids stealing his iconic jacket and his money. As Charlie Fox writes of Fassbinder, “death was waiting for him, smoking a cigarette in the alley.” For all of Fassbiner’s “Dionysiac excess”, Franz and Fassbinder could not escape death.