The tragic story of Fox is masterfully and poignantly handled by Fassbinder, while never slipping into sloppy sentimentality, but unfolds with grim inevitability. Fassbinder was inexhaustible. In his 15 year career he made 40 feature-length films, 3 shorts, directed 24 stage plays, wrote 33 screenplays collaborating on 13 more, developed 2 series for television and took on 36 acting roles in not only his, but the films of his contemporaries as well. He remains a key figure as the Enfant Terrible in the New German Cinema of the 70s, along with Wim Wenders and Herzog. It was his ability to work quickly on a shoestring budget that allowed him to take advantage of government grants that enabled him to continue working at breakneck pace, often taking on the roles of producer, editor, composer, production designer and cinematographer in order to ensure the quality of his work.
FEAR EATS THE SOUL and THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT were big hits one had to have an opinion on at the time, and then came FOX AND HIS FRIENDS....like Polanski playing the lead in DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES it is odd seeing Fassbinder himself playing the lead as the lumpy fairground worker who is convinced he is going to win the lottery [the woman who sells him the ticket is Brigetta Mira, the heroine of FEAR EATS THE SOUL - and other Fassbinder regulars pop up too]. Add in Carl Boehm (from the SISSI films and PEEPING TOM etc) as the wealthy gay Fox initially hooks up with, and Peter Chatel as the object of his affections and we get a rapacious gay milieu which Fassbinder presents before us.
Below: FEAR EATS THE SOUL / The lush THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT
Fassbinder’s fatalistic outlook was reflected in the extreme brutality and sorrow that permeate his films. That quality, combined with his gritty, naked in your face drama often left film critics and viewers speechless, while utilising melodrama like Douglas Sirk, a big influence on him. His first film LOVE IS COLDER THAN DEATH in 1969 was poorly received and died a slow painful death. THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT was an art-house success in 1972 and concerns the idea that power is the ultimate goal in all human relationships. MARTHA in 1974, explores cruelty of traditional marriage; FEAR EATS THE SOUL brilliantly re-works Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS in a working class milieu as the cleaning woman's marriage to the Moroccan immigrant outrages her family and friends, until they get used to the idea and need her for work and baby-sitting duties, and FOX AND HIS FRIENDS the same year showcases the cruel side of homosexuality. This story centers around a good-natured young adult who wins half a million in a lottery, then naively hooks up with a lecherous man who, aided by his family, drains him of all his money and love, leaving him to die alone on the floor of a train station. These movies (plus a period drama EFFI BRIEST) were staples of London's indie revival houses (like the "Screen on the Green" where I used to hang out all the time), and the BFI also did a major retrospective.
He capped his career with a trilogy of films, the highly regarded THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN in 1978, LOLA in 1981 and VERONIKA VOSS in 1982 all centered around women (usually Hanna Schygulla) in post-fascist Germany; and DESPAIR with Dirk Bogarde, which according to Dirk, the by then drug-addled Fassbinder ruined in the editing just before its screening at the Cannes film festival.
Fassbinder lived hard and partied hard. One of his relationships with men included El Hedi ben Salem, the male lead in FEAR EATS THE SOUL and Fassbinder’s longtime lover, who hanged himself while in jail. Fassbinder did not live to see his last film QUERELLE in 1982, a lurid success about a good-looking sailor, a thief and hustler (featuring Franco Nero, Brad Davis and Jeanne Moreau), because he died from a lethal combination of sleeping pills and cocaine, a few days after his 37th birthday. His short remarkable career influenced some of today’s most imaginative directors like Pedro Almoldovar, Richard Linklater, John Waters, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant.
The ending though to FOX is a tragedy beyond description - Love is colder than Death indeed ... fascinating though the look of that early '70s: the clothes, the interiors, and the characters fascinate: Boehm as the wealthy gay who observes, the alcoholic sister wanting her money back, Chatel as the venal boyfriend with his own boyfriend poised to return once Fox has been cleaned out, the purchasing of the antiques and the trip to Morocco, and the money invested in the parents' failing company, and that ending at the railway station ... what a bleak universe. Interesting now to compare with the newly restored TAXI ZUM KLO, Frank Ripploh's vivid diary of his gay life in Berlin circa 1980. FOX though can be exasperating: does he not realise what is going on, is he complicit in his own destruction, if he is looking for love does he not realise he will not find it here? Is he so unloved?
A personal memory here: I worked for a London university bookshop in the late 70s, imagine my surprise one day when a guy came into my office and sat on my desk, waiting for my colleague, Monica, a German friend, to return. It was Peter Chatel - who died in 1986. Fassbinder's main films though will endure and continue to fascinate.