A lottery win leads not to financial and emotional freedom but to social captivity in this wildly cynical classic about love and exploitation by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Casting himself against type, the director plays a suggestible working-class innocent who lets himself be taken advantage of by his bourgeois new boyfriend (Peter Chatel) and his circle of materialistic friends, leading to the kind of resonant misery that only Fassbinder could create. Fox and His Friends is unsparing social commentary, an amusingly pitiless and groundbreaking if controversial depiction of a gay community in 1970s West Germany.
Methods for exploitation come in all shapes and sizes, but few tactics are as painfully devastating as the sting of feigned love. Using false sentiment as a means to manipulate, some particularly detestable individuals can claw their way into our lives, hoping to take what they want and leave nothing left in return. Filled with scathing social commentary, Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Fox and His Friends' is a bitingly tragic examination of such unsavory abuse, weaving a cynical tale about one man's heartbreakingly damning windfall.
After winning the lottery, a naïve working-class man, Fox (played by the director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder), falls in love with a bourgeois businessman named Eugen (Peter Chatel). Though the relationship seems sound enough at first, Eugen soon tries to forcefully refine Fox's crude behavior while continually taking advantage of his wealth. As the manipulation continues, Fox begins to lose his sense of self, putting both his bank account and health at risk.
Slowly stripped of his own identity through merciless control, Fassbinder presents a protagonist who is gradually molded as something else, chewed up, sucked dry, and spat back out broken and used up. Fox starts out as a crude yet earnest hustler with a good heart, but through Eugen's selfish meddling he is forced to conform to pretentious standards. This leads to several sequences that demonstrate how tragically out-of-place Fox is in his boyfriend's posh and materialistic world -- revealing Eugen's boiling embarrassment at Fox's lack of refined manners.
Throughout it all, Fassbinder keeps Fox devastatingly sympathetic, even if his decisions are frustratingly poor. Perfectly content with a modest life, he doesn't even think to buy extravagant items and, despite his partner's continual abuse, he remains blinded by love like a loyal yet repeatedly mistreated puppy dog. The audience can see through Eugen's ploy almost immediately, but poor Fox remains oblivious for most of the runtime, forcing the innocent man to pay a potentially heavy price.
This scathing examination of class and exploitation is all realized through a meticulous visual style marked by several of Fassbinder's trademark aesthetic touches. Long takes with impeccably layered compositions are common, placing different elements and characters throughout the foreground, middle ground, and background -- allowing the director to change emphasis and emotional dynamics through zooms, deliberate blocking, and focus shifts as the scene develops and people move into and out of the shot. Objects, like doorways, plants, and mirrors, are all used to frame individuals within the frame as well, tightening the space around them or slightly obscuring our view.
Key images are also used to help further the movie's rather matter-of-fact treatment of sexuality, including one particularly notable cut to a close-up of a man's crotch. Casual nudity pops up occasionally as well but is never gratuitous. Instead, it simply helps to further Fassbinder's multi-faceted and slightly controversial examination of the gay scene in 1970s Germany. The bar crowd that Fox used to hang out with is shown to be outwardly catty, but loyal and caring when it counts. Meanwhile, his new bourgeois circle of friends is revealed to be outwardly polite, but this façade only masks internal selfishness and greed. Both unapologetically critical and deeply empathetic, the movie reveals shades of grey within the homosexual community, painting its members in both positive and negative lights.
Forced to draw the short straw when it comes to love and fortune, Fox is ultimately asked to pay a very high price for his innocence. Unashamedly cynical and quite powerful in its moments of raw grotesque tragedy, 'Fox and His Friends' offers an emotionally depressing yet darkly insightful examination of exploitation and fading identity -- revealing that sometimes even when we win, we really lose.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Fox and His Friends' in their standard clear case with spine number 851. The BD-50 Region A disc comes packaged with a pamphlet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Koresky.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Marked by a pleasingly filmic appearance, this is a very strong video presentation.
Culled from a new 4K digital restoration of the original camera negative, the source is in great shape with a light to moderate layer of grain preserved and only a few fleeting specks and faint vertical lines. With that said, grain does look a hair fuzzier in the opening sequence compared to the rest of the runtime. Overall detail is strong, offering a great sense of fine texture and dimension. Colors are also nicely saturated, adhering to a slightly pastel palette marked by rich blues, yellows, and reds. Contrast is nicely balanced with solid shadow delineation, but black levels are a little elevated.
Respectfully restored, 'Fox and His Friends' arrives on Blu-ray with a rather gorgeous transfer. There are a few minor inconsistencies, but by and large this is a stellar image.
The audio is presented in a German LPCM mono track. Inherently modest but effective, the mix comes through fairly well.
Dialogue is clear and well prioritized, but speech appears to have been added in post so there are some minor syncing issues. Likewise, dialogue has a slightly thin and flat quality, though the track's intermittent effects work, ambience, and score demonstrate a bit more range. Thankfully, there are no notable signs of pop, crackle, or background hissing.
The mix lacks some of the fullness found in other films from this time period, but the track gets the job done just fine.
Criterion has put together a decent collection of supplements, including a few interviews with the cast and crew. All of the special features are presented in 1080p or 1080i along with English subtitles for the foreign language portions.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 'Fox and His Friends' offers a cynical examination of exploitation and identity. Through its scathing social commentary, the director examines the dangers of manipulation and love. The video transfer is exceptional, preserving the film's potent style with a pleasingly filmic image. Likewise, despite some minor issues, the audio mix is solid as well. Though not packed with supplements, the included interviews are worthwhile. The subject matter is ultimately rather depressing, but Fassbinder's filmmaking is quite powerful. Recommended.