An ex-carnival worker of middling intelligence wins the lottery and engages in a personal and business relationship with a man born in a higher class than him.
I find I’m always drawn to the rebels of history; the Joan of Arcs; the Vincent Van Goghs; the Kurt Vonneguts and Charles Bukowskis; the Led Zeppelins. I’m the same way when it comes to my film watching; I like filmmakers who can show me things I haven’t seen in ways I haven’t seen them. Since I joined TMM I’ve repeatedly found myself coming back to the films of rebel filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman (“Persona”), Mike Leigh (“Naked”), Oliver Assayas (“Clouds of Sils Maria”), and Roman Polanski (“Repulsion”), and now, after only seeing a few of his works, I think I might have to add Rainer Werner Fassbinder to that list.
Before I get started, why do I label Fassbinder a rebel? He was born in Germany in May of 1945, four months before the official end of WW2 (to think what being born into a world like that must do to a child). He grew up in West Germany and eventually became a leading figure in the New German Cinema movement (I know that Michael also reviewed a few movies from this movement for our German series. Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, The Wrath of God” and Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas”). From what I’ve read, Fassbinder was a difficult person to work with; he would often engage in relationships with his actors (both male and female), and he would frequently get angry with them on set. Fassbinder’s life was cut short by an overdose on cocaine and barbiturates, a habit that he apparently carried with him for some time before it caught up with him. But despite the fact that he was an addict and a difficult person to work with, he had an incredible work ethic. He died at the age of thirty-seven, but by that time he had completed more than forty feature films, two television series, and a number of plays.
My first contact with Fassbinder was through his miniseries “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day” which is a familial drama about an extended family surviving in West Germany. That series is just over eight hours long, and really it’s just about the daily lives of a group of individuals, yet I couldn’t help but find myself falling in love with the characters and situations in which they found themselves. “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day” is a relatively wholesome show, but I read that upon its release the series was considered controversial for the way it subtly criticized life in West Germany (especially since the series was funded by German Public Broadcasting). To me, those little criticisms were absolutely fascinating. Though West Germany was on our side of the Iron Curtain, it still felt as if I was getting a look back through time at a world similar, but in many ways very different from our own. But what really makes Fassbinder amazing is his ability to create a wide assortment of realistic, intriguing, and sympathetic characters. It feels as if every side character we meet has a backstory and a relationship with our main characters, and because of this, Fassbinder’s worlds just jump off the screen.
For our German series I wanted to watch another Fassbinder series, but I didn’t have time for what is perhaps his best known work “Berlin Alexanderplatz”, a fifteen and a half hour crime epic, so instead I decided to go in blind to a film in which I knew Fassbinder himself stared.
Within the first few minutes, I realized that this was one of Fassbinder’s dramas themed around the homosexual lifestyle in West Germany. While there’s nothing at all wrong with that (I loved “Call Me By Your Name”), I usually know that I’m getting into these kinds of dramas before I really start them up. I wasn’t sure if I would vibe with “Fox and His Friends”, particularly because the way in which some of the homosexuals (the ones in the gay bar) were portrayed in the first few scenes seemed to be a bit flamboyant, almost to the point of an offensively derogatory parody. I found this a bit strange that Fassbinder would portray homosexuals in a negative light as he himself was bi-sexual, but I went on to read that Fassbinder had, at times, been criticized over the course of his career for being anti-gay, and even anti-Semitic (yeesh!). I wondered if, perhaps, I were better off choosing a different film, but I watched for several more scenes, and almost immediately I felt the allure of this world; I decided to stay and finish the film, and I’m very happy I did.
“This is my lucky week.”
Franz Biberkopf AKA Fox (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “The Marriage of Maria Braun”) works as a carnival performer at a traveling circus until his boyfriend (whom is also his boss) is arrested for tax evasion and the circus is shut down. Fox buys a lottery ticket and wins half a million Deutsche Marks. Soon, Fox meets an older, more refined gay man named Max (Karlheinz Bohm, “Peeping Tom”) whom introduces him to a younger gay man named Eugen Thiess (Eugen Thiess, Peter Chatel, “Satan’s Brew”). Fox and Eugen soon begin a relationship, which seems to be driven more by Eugen’s love of Fox’s money than it is of Fox himself. Eugen eventually introduces Fox to his father Wolf (Adrian Hoven, “World on a Wire”) whom is running a failing business. With Fox’s money, Eugen is sure that they can bring the business to the top again.
As far as story goes, this film is pretty straightforward. I feel like the rags to riches story is one we’ve all heard before, and the cautionary themes that usually go along with these kinds of stories are pretty much the same ones you’d expect to come along with a story like this. Essentially: if you get a sudden windfall of money, the sudden influx in friends is probably due to the money, not your personality. Those friends will probably be fickle, while the ones you had before your windfall of cash were the ones that would’ve stuck it out with you through thick and thin. While I feel like the story and themes are pretty simple, the characters and the character relationships give this film a lot more depth and meaning.
For one thing this film talks a lot about class struggle, and how those who are born into lower classes are sometimes destined to stay where their born even if they do somehow find a way to make money. As Fox becomes friends with Max and Eugen, he struggles to fit in; he doesn’t know the ways of their world as he knew the ways of the circus performers’ worlds. There are times when we can see him struggling to figure out how to properly behave in a classy establishment, other times when he almost willfully rejects advice given to him because he doesn’t want to fit the mold others are trying to fit him into, and as the film goes on, it becomes more and more obvious just how desperate he is to try to fit in, even when he knows it wont bring him happiness.
(Spoilers About the Ending Follow)
Fox, to me, feels very much like Marcello Rubini in “La Dolce Vita”. Both characters are from lower classes whom have worked their way into a world that they thought would be better than their own (for Fox he’s around the rich, for Marcello he’s around the famous), and both characters eventually come to feel trapped in these worlds after they’ve realized that happiness doesn’t inherently lie there. Without means of escape from the cages they’ve made for themselves, they give up; Marcello resigns himself to an exciting yet meaningless life of parties and women, and Fox overdoses and dies. It’s a sad ending for both films, but the way in which Fassbinder does this almost seems to poke fun at Fox.
After Fox has lost everything and Eugen has left him, he takes a prescription for valium in a train station and dies. As his body lies cold in the station, two young children come over and pick over his body for the last of his money and his watch. Soon, two of Fox’s ‘friends’ pass by, see who it is, and just keep on walking, saying there’s nothing much they can do for him anymore. The film ends on a long shot of Fox’s body lying in a vacant terminal; it’s so hopeless, so casually cruel that it almost becomes funny. It’s as if our final shot is from the perspective of the cold indifference of the universe itself; it works brilliantly as a tying up of themes.
This film is certainly not what I expected, but I’m happy to say I still enjoyed it. Fassbinder has a way of crafting stories around characters that feel more tactile than many dramas I see today. He’s got a way of making trenchant observations on human behavior that is simultaneously acutely fascinating and mildly disturbing. While I can’t say I enjoyed this film nearly as much as I enjoyed “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day”, I can say that Fassbinder once again has proven that he knows how to craft a world and characters that feel real enough to touch, and that’s enough to make me want to check out more of his films.
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