Rainer Wener Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends (1975) provides an exploitative look at the relation between the materialistic upper-class and the blue-collared working class, and, moreover, what happens when that relation is love.
Franz “Fox” Bieberkopf (Fassbinder), an unsophisticated carnival worker is suddenly thrown into an upperclass circle of men after winning 500,000 marks in the lottery. Of these new friends, he begins to date Eugen (Peter Chatel), an unscrupulously wealthy man who, though at first dehumanizes Fox for his proletariate status, pursues him after learning of his newfound wealth. The story of the film follows their relationship as Eugen attempts to polish Fox’s values and behavior, while simultaneously fleecing him of his money for his family’s business.
A scene I found particularly interesting and exemplary of Fassbinder’s themes occurs about three quarters into the film. It’s a short scene (only about a minute long, composed of just four shots) but Fassbinder’s direction, writing, and performance gives a holistic image to the film’s message and punctuates the character’s internal positions within the plot at that time.
For context, the scene occurs after Franz and Eugen have been dating a while. They live in an apartment together, which was paid for by Franz as well was its lavish Marie-Antoinette-esque 18th century furnishings. Franz has just willingly signed over this apartment to Eugen as collateral for the expensive mistake he made at Eugen’s father’s company. Up until this point, Eugen has been snide towards Franz’s lack of poise and knowledge, passively aggressively punishing his behavior. Most of which involve Franz’s “uncultured” attitude, Eugen has previously reprimanded or patronized him for not knowing how to read a French menu, not using proper dinner etiquette, and insisting on doing things the “cheaper” way.
The scene I wish to analyze opens with Franz and Eugen at home.
Immediately, the mise-en-scéne establishes a growing separation in both their intimacy and behavior. They are facing different directions; Franz in informal clothes (blue jeans that suggest his working-class mindset, and an open vest that signifies his primal sexuality), and Eugen perfecting his dressier attire at a mirror. Eugen’s reflection within the mirror may suggest a duality, or false self, which registers with the viewer who knows he has been disloyal to Franz, and underlines his manipulative tendencies. It’s important to note that the frame within this second persona is one that exudes wealth and ostentation.
Franz is the first to speak: With one simple line, Fassbinder’s writing and delivery establishes the situation.
- Eugen is going to the opera.
- Eugen is going to the opera without Franz.
- Franz is unhappy about this.
Context is added that ensures the viewer this is unusual. With Eugen still at the mirror, an added layer of skepticism is associated with his answer.
Eugen’s condescension continues as he sits down to file his nails (an act that implies a need for a perfect and, literally, manicured appearance.) The blocking is also crucial to this analysis, as the viewer can clearly see both men, but they physically cannot see each other.
The doorbell rings and Eugen asks Franz to get it. In a way, a small-scale example of how Eugen controls Franz.
As Franz gets up to obey the order, he ruffles Eugen’s hair in an affection manner…Which is met by Eugen fixing it in annoyance. As Franz answers the door, the shot lingers on Eugen to show his reaction. From off-screen: Though we cannot see who Franz is speaking to, we can assume from the voice and dialog that it is a male character friendly to Fox and Eugen. The camera remains on Eugen until his next retort.We now see mutual friend Max ascend the stairs into the apartment. As he passes Franz and moves into the foreground, Fassbinder implies that Franz feels, and is seen by these men as, below them.
We then see Max and Eugen’s conversation from Franz’s (lower) point of view:
Once again, Fassbinder establishes a motif of separation. Max and Eugen, both dressed for the opera, converse about their escapade as the stair’s railway acts as a divider between them. Not only that, but the fact that this divider is constructed of bars provides another interesting layer to the scene.
It reinforces how Max and Eugen see Franz. His nickname “Fox” (an animal), makes the bars appear almost zoo-like, and implies that being placed outside of his natural environment as a working man, he serves as entertainment of Max and Eugen. Though cynical, it does, in a sense, foreshadow the films bleak ending, in which Max and Klaus (Franz’s former flame before being arrested, who’s appearance in this scene suggests Max is enticing him into the same dangerous cycle) ignore Franz’s dead body because they don’t want to get involved.
In the scene’s final shot Eugen and Max pass Franz as they leave.
As the two exit, Fassbinder pulls back to widen the shot and frame this astonishingly complex image that he lets linger for a few long moments:
This is the image that made me want to analyze this scene in particular, because I think it speaks volumes to the viewer about Fox’s current state of character.
In a few words? He’s trapped. Encaged, more accurately. He’s surrounded by bars, unable to fully immerse himself in the exquisite and expensive world that Max and Eugen have forced him into. He’s also been recently trapped situationally; having just signed over the apartment to Eugen and his family in an earnest attempt to help him. However, due to visual clues and dialog, we can assume that Eugen is not as honest as he leads Fox to believe.
There’s a gap in this cage, one we hope Franz will seize before it’s too late. The fact that he does not move, and stays comfortably in the middle of the stairs (neither grounded, nor at the top with his beautiful expensive things), sadly, but accurately implies how the course of the film will play out.
In this unfulfilling middle-ground, Franz, as a rich man, cannot go back to the carnival days that were as repetitious as the ferris wheel ride that turned behind him. At the same time, he remains lower than someone like Eugen who was born into this class, formally intelligent, and savvy to the upperclass lifestyle.
Despite this new wealth, Fox has not come far from his carnival days; still an exhibit for others to marvel at.