Fox and His Friends: A Film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Harry Baer,
DVD Release date: 17 Jan 2017
Ideal conceptions of love are based on mutuality and reciprocity. The assumption is that two people treat each other in a manner that allows for loving interaction founded on a sense of equality. Taken to an extreme, one might see this as a matter of contractual obligation: I promise to give my love and devotion to you in exchange for your love and devotion given to me in equal measure.
This is the thinking behind Immanuel Kant’s musings in the Science of Right regarding marriage, the “natural basis” of which he defines as “the union of two persons of different sex for life-long reciprocal possession of their sexual faculties.” So, marriage here is a contract whereby I get what we might sarcastically refer to as “goods and services” from you under the stipulation that I return the same in kind.
But Kant was well aware of a certain danger implicit in this understanding: “In this relation the human individual makes himself into a thing, which is contrary to the right of humanity in his own person. This, however, is only possible under the one condition, that as the one person is acquired by the other as a thing, that same person also equally acquires the other reciprocally, and thus regains and reestablishes the rational personality.”
To subsume ourselves to another in this manner is to give up an aspect of our innate human freedom—which Kant defines as our right to be treated as ends-in-ourselves, and not as a means for another person to attain pleasure or gain advantage. The only justification Kant can formulate for divesting ourselves of our autonomy in the manner that he finds implicit within the love relationship is that you are mutually turning yourself into a thing for my pleasure to only the same extent that I turn myself into a thing for you.
Forever haunting the love relationship is the specter of asymmetry, the threat that I will love you more than you love me, thus leaving myself vulnerable, open to manipulation and coercion, allowing you to press me to your advantage, and rendering myself into an object, a mere thing, while you remain a free and autonomous human being. And a mere thing is equipment, a means to an end, not an end-in-itself. If I am your thing, you can discard me, my use value is limited to your pleasure, your discretion, your will.
Even idealists acknowledge that a relationship based on reciprocity is not always grounded in a stable one-to-one exchange. One partner might bring in more financial income while the other handles more of the day-to-day responsibilities of the household. The idealist assumes, however, that everything “comes out in the wash”, that at the end of the day the balance sheet indicates that you and I are equal contributors on an equal (if differing) footing.
More realistically, however, at any given moment in a relationship, and often for the duration of it, one person is at a disadvantage. That person may feel there is recompense involved. “Sure, I am vulnerable to him, his leaving me would hurt me far more than my leaving him would impact his emotional wellbeing, but this is still love, this is still meaningful.” We justify the asymmetry because we cannot eradicate it. We have to trust our loved ones not to take advantage of our impoverished state vis-à-vis our own autonomy.
The problem with that, of course, is that there seems to be an inherent element in that autonomy that presses advantage. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, in their celebrated Dialectic of Enlightenment, track the contradictory process of bourgeois freedom and enlightenment. On the one hand, humankind gains increasing freedom from superstition, control over nature, and the ability to forge its own vision of the world. On the other hand, superstition is exchanged for reification (simply put, everything is a commodity, including other people), control quickly becomes domination, and humankind’s vision of the world becomes the lie that entraps us in perpetuating the status quo. Thus, the dialectic of enlightenment: the cost of freedom is a hidden, treacherous unfreedom.
These themes are at the center of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1975 film Fox and His Friends, and indeed are explicit in the original German title Faustrecht der Freiheit. Faustrecht means the “rule of power” or the “rule of the fist” or more loosely (but revealingly) “survival of the fittest”. It is similar to the English maxim “might makes right”. “Freiheit” means “freedom”. Translating the title literally is something of a problem in that The Rule of the Fist of Freedom is basically nonsense in English. Some translators opt for The Right Fist of Freedom, which is not only a mistranslation but sounds much more like a vehicle for Chuck Norris than a Fassbinder film.
Still, the basic conception behind the title is clear: with respect to human freedom (Kantian autonomy) we are subject to the rule of the strong. We might loosely translate it as Freedom is Subject to the Rule of Force. If our autonomy is predicated upon being treated as ends-in-ourselves, then that autonomy is always under the threat of the powerful Other. There is no guarantee of mutual respect.
This is the basis of Hegel’s notion of the “life and death struggle”. In seeking the recognition of the Other we want to make that Other submit to our power as a demonstration that we are free and autonomous and worthy of respect. The problem, of course, is, as Hegel demonstrates, that if we defeat the Other and make that Other subordinate, then the Other is no longer worthy of our esteem and therefore getting respect from the worthless Other means nothing, signifies nothing.
This is the situation in which Franz Biberkopf (played by Fassbinder himself), nicknamed “Fox”, finds himself. Fox is a lower-class carnival worker. His act, “Fox the Speaking Head”, where he is supposed to be a severed head that retained the gift of speech, is a clever foreshadowing of his emotional and social castration.
Fox is an unmannered but well-meaning innocent. He is gently lascivious (he shows no hesitation in asking after the size of a fellow’s penis) and desperate for reassurance. Fassbinder plays him as a strange paradox of brazen diffidence. He is hopelessly unsure of himself and yet boldly pursues his desires for sex and love. Fox wears a denim jacket with his nickname spelled out in studs on the back. He lacks manners, he lacks taste. What he does not lack is hope.
When the carnival is shut down owing to the arrest of Fox’s lover, the carnival owner, Fox continues to dream of winning the lottery. He turns to his former colleagues, his drunken sister Hedwig (Christiane Maybach), and even a stranger, Max (Karlheinz Böhm), for whom he is apparently prepared to prostitute himself, for a loan so that he can buy a lottery ticket. He finally cons an innocent and clearly smitten florist (Peter Kern) out of the ten marks he needs. Astonishingly, Fox wins 500,000 marks.
Max takes Fox to a party of Max’s upper-class, sophisticated, and cultured peers. They sneer at the man they all assume (correctly) that Max had met in a public toilet, claiming that the stench of urine still hung about his clothes. Max informs the haughty Eugen (Peter Chatel) of Fox’s recent windfall and suddenly Eugen looks at Fox in a different manner. Disdain gives way to self-interest.
Fox clearly wants to be accepted by this crowd. He forces his staunchest critic, Eugen’s boyfriend Philip (Harry Baer), to dance to an Elvis record and exudes an oddly beguiling boorish charm. As Fox sashays with his unwilling partner, Max insists to his unbelieving auditors that Fox will never attain culture because he doesn’t need it, that he has a “natural intelligence”. Despite this assurance, Max, one of the most difficult characters to understand in this cautionary tale, becomes an instrument of Fox’s downfall.
Everyone at that party (Eugen, Philip, Max, the lawyer) profits from Fox’s guileless, trusting nature and his profound insecurity amidst what he considers to be his social betters. Eugen takes Fox home with him for a tryst. Soon Fox buys an apartment of Eugen’s choosing for them to share, purchases the furnishings from Max’s store (at Eugen’s behest), buys new clothes at Philip’s boutique (at Eugen’s insistence), and loans Eugen’s father 100,000 marks for his business, signing an inequitable contract that he does not understand drafted by the lawyer that was also at the party. This is a claustrophobic world that Fox has entered and it slowly and inexorably suffocates him.
In contradistinction to the supercilious social circle of Eugen, with their reserved affectations and their ability to navigate heteronormative culture without being rejected, there is the small gay bar that Fox frequents and Eugen derides. The patrons here are of Fox’s social class and embody the more subterranean characteristics of the ‘70s gay scene—transvestism, overtly feminine behavior, and a cutting queenish cattiness.
And yet the social economy of the bar depends upon a non-confrontational assertion of homosexual autonomy. When the florist flirts with Fox and Fox rejects his advances with a stern blow to the face, the bartender reprimands Fox. At this bar, the bartender insists, anyone can do as they like and may reject anyone they don’t fancy but not by means of abuse.
Here Fox is offered a model of love or the possibility of love that is not founded on subordination even if it is not able to totally deny asymmetry—you may want me more than I want you but I have no right (and no need) to treat you as a mere object even when (especially when) I hold you as an object of desire.
We are entering a rather sticky area of consideration here. If we take it for granted that love relationships necessarily (or at least inevitably) involve asymmetrical distributions of power (here read through our relative autonomy) and if we allow Kant to remind us that a loss of autonomy entails becoming an object, then we seem to have fallen into a hopeless morass. To love is to not only risk but to guarantee that someone will lose a vital element of their humanity; that is, their freedom.
This is what the German title of the film clarifies: when it comes to human freedom, only the powerful are able to attain and maintain it. And insofar as power expresses itself through domination, the powerful only feel free by divesting others of their freedom (let’s call this the Horkheimer/Adorno moment).
But in doing so, they divest themselves of the esteem for their vaunted autonomy that they sought to vouchsafe. That is, by making Fox worthless, Eugen nullified the value that his esteem accorded Eugen himself (let’s call this the Hegel moment). By demoralizing Fox, Eugen poisoned his own freedom. He is unfree, condemned to subservience to his own cruel domination of others. He cannot know love because it is unavailable to the unfree.
Fox, despite his relative wealth in comparison to his ersatz friends, lacks the power of social pretension and lacks the savoir-faire to protect himself from emotional devastation and financial ruin. The patrons of the bar offer him a solace that he can no longer accept. He’s deeply in love with Eugen. He confesses to his indifferent lover that he feels he’s nothing without Eugen. And Eugen is more than willing to reduce Fox to nothing.
But Fassbinder’s film is not without hope, a hope that emerges in spite of the harrowing negativity of the film’s view of society and romantic entanglements. After all, that is the nature of hope. Hope only pertains to the hopeless. If I have what I want, what I require, then I have no need to hope for it. If it’s within my reach, I have no need to hope for it. It’s only when I have no hope of attaining my desire, paradoxically enough, that I have a need for hope.
Hope here resides in our understanding of the lover as object. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between the desirable object and the object of desire. The former is something we want that is merely attainable—a thing, fungible, pleasurable but disposable. Once we attain that thing, we no longer desire it. We cast it aside and move on to the next desirable object. For Eugen and his friends, Fox’s money was a desirable object and as the means for attaining that money, Fox himself was desirable.
But he was not an object of desire (at least not for Eugen). An object of desire is not a simple thing to be attained, used, and discarded. An object of desire can never be fully attained. If you are my object of desire, then even when I hold you close, even when I possess you entirely in my embrace, even when I am assured that you love me more than I love you, I have not attained you and so I cannot discard you.
I have not attained you because you remain an object of desire. The desire is not extinguished in the consummation of my passion. It endures and thus so does my passion. Desire is not satisfied; it continues on. In this way, desire is like hope. Perhaps desire is a form of hope—inexhaustible, perpetually drawing me on to explore, to go deeper, to uncover the cryptic indecipherable words that constitute the language of love.
* * *
Criterion Collection has just released a Blu-Ray edition of Fox and his Friends, making this incredibly rich film newly available and resplendent through a beautiful restoration. There are a few extra features included here, although not nearly as many as Criterion generally lavishes upon its releases. There’s an excerpt of an interview with Fassbinder from 1975, a 1981 interview with the film’s composer Peer Raben, a new interview with actor Harry Baer, and an overview of the film’s achievements with filmmaker Ira Sachs.