“Cash, cash, cash. You say a word enough and it has no meaning.” – Bank Teller in Fox and His Friends
I did not count how many times Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf said “I love you,” or expressed the sentiment about or to his boyfriend Eugen Theiss, and it probably isn’t important. What is important is that Eugen never responded in the affirmative. It is Fox who has the love and money to give, and Eugen only takes and takes until Fox is left, his corpse lying on a cold cement floor, his pockets picked, abandoned by his friends.
Fox and his Friends charts the rise and fall of an unemployed carnie, the eponymous Fox. After winning the lottery he goes on to fall in love with the son of a publishing magnate. The film follows the up-and-downs of their relationship and finishes with their break-up. It contains one of the most brutal endings I have ever seen. Not because it was unexpected, but rather because of the buildup leading to it. It was akin to staring down a slow moving freight train, watching it gain speed, and then letting it run you over.
The film opens in a lighter atmosphere than how it ends, although even the happy tones of a carnival quickly sour. Fox’s lover, and boss at the carnival, Klaus, is arrested by the police in the first few opening moments of the film. We do not learn it is for tax fraud until much later when Klaus reappears, but his involvement in the film, and the downfall of Fox are only incidental. The plot of FAHF is fairly basic, but this is neither a movie nor a director that is concerned with plot. What Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who also plays Fox, is interested in is relationships; the relationship between Eugen and Fox, between upper and lower class, between love and money. The carnival scene recedes and we see Fox desperately attempting to purchase a lottery ticket, stating that he knows he is going to win. In his search for the funds to buy the ticket he comes across an older, distinguished looking man, in a men’s room. This man, Max, picks up Fox. After swindling the money, and eventually buying the ticket, Fassbinder cuts to a sort of house party at Max’s. Here we see the direct juxtaposition of the two classes that will remain a major theme throughout the film. We also see the first change in Fox, his ratty jean jacket with his name bedazzled, is now replaced by a new leather jacket. It is important to note that throughout the film Fox’s transformation are all on the exterior, new clothes, new furniture, new friends, but his essence, his nature is not changed, so much as twisted. But his being is not as malleable as some, and like a rubber band, no matter how much you twist it, it will return to its natural position, or snap. At the party, Eugen is the one who shows the most contempt toward Fox, until Max reveals that he won 500,000 marks in the lottery. After the party they sleep together. When Eugen is discovered with Fox by his boyfriend Phillip, he rather enigmatically states he would explain all of this later. It seems that Eugen’s family business is going under, and in Fox he has found a perfect investor. Fox is struck by one of Cupid’s arrows and can only see hearts, Eugen is instead struck by the bill collector and can only see dollar signs.
The movie has a fluidity in its sense of time. Months, day, years, come and go, and the only indications are passing lines of dialogue. Oh, 6 months has passed, oh, it has been 2 years since I started working here. This fluidity adds to the films power. You as a viewer are just as swept up in Fox’s life as he is, time and life go on quickly. There is also a strain of humor suffused in the film that adds to the sense of lightness that is established with its time construct. The recurring character of the florist that Fox swindled out of the money for the lottery ticket is played for laughs, but the laughs come when he, in times of distress, whispers “Policia!” You know they are not coming, but our need for them is real. There is also humor, although of a most uncomfortable kind, in the dinners between Fox, Eugen and Eugen’s parents. These scenes can almost be seen as comedy of manners, with Fox playing the lower class fool, grabbing the wrong fork, saying the wrong thing. While I said there is a lightness to the film, it is the light that exist before night, before the darkness comes crushing down on our heads.
You can feel the darkness seeping in as the movie goes on. Fox is more and more willing to spend his money with or on Eugen. Besides the 100,000 marks that Fox gives as a loan to Eugen’s company, he also buys an apartment, and then Eugen picks out 80,000 marks worth of antiques with which to furnish it. As I watched I attempted to keep a running tally, how long until Fox runs out of money? At first he is a little resistant, but slowly he succumbs to Eugen’s wiles. He becomes passive, deferring to Eugen in all matters. You are shocked by his outburst at a party in defense of his drunk sister. Where has this man been? But even that recedes. His love for Eugen seems to have blinded him, or he has willfully blinded himself. Fox is attracted to this lifestyle. He wants to speak French, he wants to be able to appreciate the opera. And maybe with a better teacher he would be able to do these things, but Eugen is only interested in the money and belittling Fox at every turn. The stress from the relationship causes a physical reaction and a doctor prescribes Valium, and with that the gallows are built.
Throughout Eugen is hard to read, perhaps on purpose. You only realize later that he has planning Fox’s downfall the entire time. One of the saddest things about the movie, to me, was that you can easily imagine a version of this movie where Eugen is the hero. A sort of Henry Higgins, pulling Fox and his dirty jacket out of the gutter to the wider, classier world. His attempts to shape Fox into a cultured member of the uppercrust foiled by Fox’s own stupidity and character flaws. I think this speaks to Fassbinder’s class critique. Fox is flawed, yes, but he is also a human being. Eugen is more of a shark, dead-eyed, he senses there is money to be gained, circles and strikes.
I am glossing over a great number of details and scenes from the movie, because even a week later, I still have the remains of the physical reaction I had to this film. It left me utterly devastated. Watch enough sad movies or read enough Shakespeare and you should be able to guess when things will not end well. I think it is the build up, and the anger I felt at how thoroughly Fox had been taken advantage of by Eugen, that led to this reaction. Even Eugen’s father seems to sense the moral depravity of what his son did, when, near the end of the film Fox comes to claim back the money he loaned the company. Eugen smugly tells him that it had been paid out, that what Fox thought were his wages for working at the factory, were in fact payments of his loan. After Fox leaves Eugen’s father looks out on the floor, there is a sadness in his face. Eugen asks, “was I not right?” to which his father, resignedly replies, “in principle, yes.” I have read some opinions of this film, and of Fassbinder’s goal. They point out that he sees love as a contract, he sees it almost in financial terms. And you can see that translate to this, out of money, out of love. But I think his aim was not just exploring love, but the predatory relationship between the classes, at capitalism itself. Fox willingly gives all of himself in the hopes of bettering his situation. While he may have been in love, as that love unravels he still grasps unto its vestige. Eugen is better at this, Eugen knows all of this, this is a sort of repeated mantra by Fox. Eugen is some sort of ideal that he has been looking up to, striving toward. Eugen is not a marble statue to idealize, but rather a plaster one, hollow and easily chipped at. Fox does not see this, because Fox has been led his whole life to believe that the things he values are not the right things. There is a moment when Fox plays the first record he ever bought, some German pop song. Eugen shudders at it, stating that it is garbage, and Fox agrees. But Fox also says that for some reason he loves it anyway. There is Fassbinder’s real vision of love, you have to take it for what it is, trash and all.