Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends offers the sad parable of a simple man who realizes his dreams, only to suffer unexpected consequences. The director plays the starring role, and he occupies an effective performance space blending unaffected looseness with subtle strains of pathos. As the protagonist falls deeper and deeper into a humiliating abyss, with those around him forever preying on his naïveté, we, the viewers, aren’t asked to weep for the character but rather to empathize. This distinction is key, for while Fox and His Friends follows a somewhat conventional narrative path, Fassbinder strives for docudrama realism instead of manipulative melodrama. One could argue the film suffers for this choice, since the ending could have had greater impact, but one could also argue that restraint is what makes the familiar storyline palatable. That is, for viewers who aren’t put off by the story’s gay themes and copious amounts of male full-frontal nudity.
In modern Germany, Fox (Fassbinder) works as a sideshow attraction in a carnival run by his boyfriend. When the boyfriend is arrested, Fox casts about for his next situation. First he seeks shelter with his alcoholic sister, and then he turns prostitute for men prowling public bathrooms. Optimistic to an almost delusional degree, Fox buys a lottery ticket one day, certain he’ll win. He does, scoring a prize of 500,000 deutsche marks. Most of the film explores how acquaintances react to Fox’s newfound wealth, and because many people behave in predatory ways, a maudlin theme emerges. Fox represents those who believe financial windfalls can fix every problem, but never take the time to learn how money works. Fox’s fortune begins to slip from his hands virtually the moment he takes possession. Also woven into Fassbiner’s depressing story are issues of class. Fox’s first rich patron, Max (Karlheinz Böhm), treats Fox as a sexual plaything barely worth contempt until Fox becomes rich. The protagonist’s second patron, Eugen (Peter Chatel), behaves even more callously, convincing Fox to make a huge business investment. Desperate to find a place among the sophisticated set, Fox plays along until he realizes he’s being used, but by that point, his self-image has suffered irreparable harm.
In the merciless way of his best stories, Fassbiner takes Fox’s decline to a logical conclusion, so viewers shouldn’t look for the glimmers of hope a Hollywood version of similar material would surely provide. The aforementioned homoerotic content provides more than titillation, because the othering of gays in West German society circa the mid-’70s is an important component of the storytelling. Fox discovers how those above his social station mask themselves in the name of assimilation, and he also discovers what happens when straight society sees through those masks. Additionally, a sequence set in Morocco reinforces the trope of sex workers desperate to escape, or at least survive, poverty by any means possible.
Fox and His Friends: GROOVY