Rainer Wener Fassbinder has always been an artist I've respected by reputation, rather than through a deep knowledge or understanding of his work.
In fact, I've only see a handful of Fassbinder films and I will admit to tapping out of the 15-hour Berlin Alexanderplatz several episodes before it ended. However, as I've grown older, and have now actually reached the age at which Fassbinder's life and career ended, I've grown far more interested in the view he had of the world and the immense body of work that resulted. The greatest of which I've encountered so far is this film, 1974's Fox and His Friends.
Fassbinder is Franz, or Fox to his friends working at the carnival, and at the beginning of our story his lover is arrested on stage at the freak show for tax evasion. Franz goes into a bit of a funk, but before too long a miraculous windfall - in the form of a half a million deutchmark lottery win - has him surprisingly chipper about his future. Into this world walks Eugen, a well-to-do businessman who takes the nouveau riche Franz under his wing and attempts to civilize him in an effort to make respectable their cross-class romance, only to find that Franz will be Franz.
Franz isn't the brightest bulb, you see, and Eugen makes sure that Franz is aware of his shortcomings at all times, but not in quite a harsh enough way to scare him off. When Eugen's family business is about to go under, Franz is inspired by Eugen's fast talking to lend them a significant amount to stay afloat. Eugen uses Franz's naivete to squeeze every last drop of cash and goodwill from him, and in the end it is Franz who pays, and not just with his cash.
The film is a fascinating and brazen look at gay culture at a time when it was still very easy to imagine that any such culture even existed. Fassbinder was no stranger to controversy, but he also didn't particularly care what anyone thought of him, and his boldness comes through in Fox and His Friends.
Apart from taking surprisingly restrained look at this culture - the bars, the bath houses, the private parties - Fox and His Friends focuses even more keenly on the kind of class divide that still separates the straight world. Fox is meant to feel inadequate and inferior by a family who was born into money and privilege, and all he wants is to love and be loved for who he is. Fox leaves it all on the table, unfortunately, he doesn't guard his heart or his money the way he should.
The Criterion Blu-ray of Fox and His Friends looks and sound as good as one might expect from the world's premiere boutique label. The image is clean and beautiful, with a color palatte that seems accurate, as drenched as it is in the '70s trademark earthy tones. The audio track is clean and crisp without distracting hisses or pops. This is another great job from Criterion.
The extra features on this disc were particularly fascinating to me as I'm trying to learn more about the filmmaker and his themes. The most interesting of these that I found was an interview with frequent collaborator Harry Baer, who gives a unique insight to not only the production process, but also the way Fassbinder's work connected in real ways to his life off-set.
We also get a great discussion of the film from filmmaker Ira Sachs, who discusses Fassbinder's oeuvre in detail. Lastly there are a pair of archival interviews with Fassbinder and his composer Peer Raben, both of which are interesting in their contemporaneous view of the film. Fassbinder in particular seems decades ahead of his time in terms of his decision to make this story, a very gay story, during a time where films like that didn't really get made. The package is rounded out with an essay from Michael Koresky who discusses the film from several angles, perhaps most pertinent today is the discussion of the politics of identity and the role it plays in the film.
Fox and His Friends is an astounding and exciting work, even all these yreas later, and Criterion has done more than enough to bring it back into the public eye where it belongs. Definitely recommended.