Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends opens with a dedication to Armin Meier, Fassbinder’s real-life boyfriend at the time. Though Meier doesn’t appear in the 1975 film, he played roles in seven subsequent Fassbinder productions before killing himself in 1978, and on Fassbinder’s birthday no less. In hindsight, Meier’s ghost lingers over the proceedings as a retroactive assertion of Fassbinder’s own potential coldness as a lover. Appropriate, then, that Fassbinder casts himself in the lead role as Franz, a sometimes carnival barker, sometimes rent boy whose previously sour luck turns on a dime after winning half a million marks in the lottery, only to be subsequently bled dry by a band of gay, custom-suited human vipers.
Franz’s rough-and-tumble attitude conceals sweetness and fear; he was surely modeled in part after the title role in Frank Borzage’s Liliom, that character himself a carny whose rotten luck forces him into criminal acts before killing himself when faced with police capture. Fassbinder’s amendment snatches Franz away from depression-era futility and places him within a more cunning environment of active bourgeois types who smell Franz’s lucky riches like blood in the water. That’s especially true of Max (Karl-Heinz Böhm), whose afternoon cruising leads to a pickup and subsequence introduction of Franz to Eugen (Peter Chatel), a posh daddy’s boy whose father (Adrian Hoven) could use a small “investment” from Franz’s newfound fortune.
The film’s tragic terms are never in question and can even seem glaring given the evident duplicity exhibited by Eugen as he chastises Franz’s lack of acculturation (he scoffs at the prospect of taking him to the opera) yet relishes the dividends, such as a new apartment and a trip to Marrakech, of his lover’s luck. With Fassbinder’s films, however, any outward obviousness of the story’s terms are contested by the specificity of each character’s relationship with personal emotions and negotiated interest in class mobility.
In Franz’s case, the winnings lose their tangible source of ownership (Fassbinder includes a remarkable scene where Franz and a bank teller keep volleying the word “cash” back and forth to one another) after they’re funneled into paperwork—a contract that’s meant to make Frantz a partner in Eugen’s father’s business after the investment is repaid. Fassbinder articulates the silent violence of bureaucratic procedures with devastating precision, as Frantz’s bid for meaning and admittance into the bourgeois class is accompanied by a sneezing fit, with Frantz convulsing upward of half a dozen times before falling silent. Those in the room simply wait for his episode to end and then proceed with the matter at hand.
Fox and His Friends becomes acutely autobiographical during a sequence in which Eugen and Frantz vacation in Marrakech (on Frantz’s dime, of course) where they attempt to pick up a Moroccan man (El Hedi ben Salem). Ben Salem, Fassbinder’s former lover and star of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, follows them nearly silently back to their hotel but is stopped by a clerk who informs them that Arabic people aren’t allowed in the hotel. Eugen looks the clerk up and down and notes that he, too, is Arabic. In response, the clerk offers to send a hotel staff member to their room, who will presumably, also, be Arabic. It seems that for wealthy men, no matter their desires or sexual orientation, anything can be had for money, so long as it’s attained with the oversight of a corporate eye. They are staying in a Holiday Inn International, after all.
The scene ends without further discussion, but blood has already been drawn; Ben Salem, having fled to France in 1975 after attempted murder charges, finds his way back into Fassbinder’s films illegally, just as his character—a man living in his native country—attempts illegal entrance into a place constructed and operated in accordance with the desires of tourists. Ben Salem hung himself in 1977; Frantz, finally booted from the inner circle of socialites after going broke, overdoses inside a train station, where Max recognizes his dead body but flees, not wanting to get involved. The irony is that involvement always begins at the initial point of contact and often with a smile—that which brought Frantz into Max’s car in the first place.
Criterion's 4K scan of the film radiates with the sharpness of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's visual sensibilities. There are no signs of image deterioration or corruption throughout; each cut reveals a luminous composition which appears intact from the original negative. Colors, especially golds and blues, practically leap from the screen, and in sharp contrast to Fox Lorber's washed-out 2002 DVD, which has been up to this point the film's only North American home-video release. The soundtrack is stellar, carries the dialogue on an even keel from scene to scene, and is free of cracks, pops, or hisses. It's difficult to imagine a more thorough and complete restoration this.
To date, not a single Region A Blu-ray release of a Fassbinder film has included an audio commentary with a historian or scholar who's written about the filmmaker, and the streak continues with this supplement-light release. The best extra here is a brief interview with Ira Sachs, who explains why he believes Fassbinder is a genius and how his films have yielded a lasting influence on his own work. The interview, while informative and enticing, plays a bit tersely and pales in comparison to those offered on past discs by filmmakers such as Joshua Oppenheimer or Ang Lee. Actor Harry Baer provides a short interview about his recollections working with Fassbinder and the sadness he now feels when revisiting the film, knowing that most of the cast members have died. A pair of archival excerpts totaling less than 10 minutes give brief insights from Fassbinder and composer Peer Rabin on the film's conception and production. Rounding things out is a trailer and a compelling essay by critic Michael Koresky.
One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's greatest explications of class violence and sexual exploitation, Fox and His Friends arrives on Blu-ray with an immaculate transfer and a lacking slate of extras from the Criterion Collection.