One of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s towering masterworks, Fox and His Friends is the devastating story of a poor circus worker who wins the lottery and finds himself fleeced out of his fortune by lecherous upper-class monsters. The film begins with Franz Bieberkopf, alias Fox (Fassbinder), firmly planted at the bottom of the culture’s social ladder, but even then he is still only an abstraction of a real living, breathing human being. When his boyfriend Klaus (Karl Scheydt) is arrested for tax fraud, “Fox, the Talking Head” must turn tricks in order to buy the lottery ticket he’s convinced will bring him his fortune. After meeting a gay sophisticate, he’s introduced to a group of queens who shun him for his proletariat stench. The hypocritical Eugen (Peter Chatel) disregards his gorgeous boyfriend, Philip (Harry Baer), and pounces on the working-class dope, enticed by the boy’s rough but endearing disposition, feelings that intensify after he learns Fox is worth 500,000 German marks.
Make no mistake, this is the real Queer as Folk, but for all of Fassbinder’s gripes with an elite gay culture’s many sexual hang-ups, Fox and His Friends is first and foremost a riveting evocation of social Darwinism in action (Fox is called “stupid and primitive” and the tagline that follows the film’s title on the Wellspring DVD of the film aptly proclaims: “Survival of the Fittest”). A mere child at heart, Fox is unconsciously rude to his elders and pounds his hands at the dinner table. His sweetly innocent behavior nonetheless brings shame to Eugen, who has no problems borrowing 100,000 German marks from Fox to prevent his father’s printing business from going under. And after Eugen and his elite family (they prefer Mozart to loud modernist composers and are easily mortified when Fox drops chunks of bread into his soup) successfully bilk Fox out of his entire fortune (embarrassing him by forcing him to work at their factory and then suggesting that his slave labor is his interest due), Fox returns to the earth, so to speak, after dying of a broken heart.
Curiously, Fox and His Friends has been deemed homophobic by some and overly pessimistic by others. The film’s homosexuals are, not surprisingly, any different than the film’s equally lecherous heterosexuals. And the film’s pessimism is far outweighed by Fassbinder’s humane indictment of Fox as an active participant in his own victimization, a familiar critique found in many of the director’s films. Is there such a thing as natural intelligence? So asks one of the film’s characters at one point. More importantly, how does one truly measure human decency? When Fox’s perpetually drunk sister, Hedwig (Christiane Maybach), causes a scene and is subsequently reprimanded at a party hosted by Eugene at the apartment he bought with Fox’s money, she wails, “It stinks of high heaven, and God, dressed as Marlene Dietrich, holds his nose.” In Fox and His Friends, Fassinder likens the abuse his character suffers at the hands of his “friends” to that of a poor animal ravaged by carnivorous predators, and the smell of human hate is certainly far more crippling than the smell of urine that hangs from his clothes.