Most nations experienced the 1970s as a long, paranoid hangover following the freedom and optimism of the 1960s. But pity poor Germany, which got all of the worst of the 1970s without a ’60s worth talking about. The signature political event of the 1960s in Germany was nothing to do with liberation or protest, it was the construction of the Berlin Wall, and the decade after was even worse. East German spies in top-level West German government jobs, an embattled Chancellor (Willy Brandt) attacked from the left and right, and a string of assassinations and bombings conducted by the Baader-Meinhof Gang… Even knowing that the country had lived through worse in recent memory, it must have been hard to bear.
One of the few points of light in that long dark trudge of a decade was the flourishing of a new German cinema, set into motion by the Oberhausen Manifesto of 1962. The new German directors wanted to take back their film heritage from the Nazis, and they each had their own approach to this task. For Wim Wenders, an anti-Nazi German cinema was one open to foreign influences; for Werner Herzog it involved reclaiming the landscapes and symbols of Weimar-era silent cinema from their fascist appropriators. For other directors it meant rejecting fascism in a more explicitly political, less symbolic manner, which is where Rainer Werner Fassbinder comes in. Two of his mid-1970s works, Fox and His Friends and Chinese Roulette, have now been reissued by Arrow Academy on Blu-Ray, allowing us to reassess Fassbinder’s project as it stood in the middle of his insanely prolific thirteen-year directorial career.
Fox and His Friends is the better-known of the two, largely because of its historic status. It was not the first example of German queer cinema – Carl Theodor Dreyer might have got there first with Michael, as far back as 1924. It is, however, the first of Fassbinder’s films to deal with homosexual subject matter, and seeing as no other German director is so popularly linked with queer cinema that’s enough to make it a landmark. The story of a working-class carny who sees the possibility of a new life when he’s cruised by the son of a wealthy industrialist, it is a bold act of self-revelation both figuratively (in revealing its director’s extreme pessimism) and literally (in that Fassbinder gives himself enough nude scenes to qualify as the Lena Dunham of his day).
On release Fox and His Friends was damned as homophobic for its bleak, cynical portrait of gay life, which could be chalked up to the ideological excesses of a lot of 1970s German film criticism. (Those who clutch their pearls and talk of censorship every time a new film is described as “problematic” or “culturally appropriative” would not get on well with that decade’s critical output) Obviously Fassbinder is not homophobic, but the attacks do put their finger on the movie’s biggest flaw. These characters are more allegory than human, and over the course of the movie’s two-hour-plus run time that can become stifling. Passing details like Fox’s passion for playing the lottery or inability to behave in a suitable manner in upper-class company are underlined, repeated and freighted with such significance even the least politically astute viewer may end up feeling beaten around the head.
One constant of Fassbinder’s work is his classical, cared-for mise en scene, remarkable considering the rate of his work. Fox and His Friends and Chinese Roulette were released one year apart, and in between he somehow managed to make two films and two TV movies. Yet there’s nothing in either film’s shadowy, rich cinematography and careful framing that suggests a man in a hurry. Chinese Roulette creates a visual corollary for its narrative web of secrets and disclosures by shooting characters behind glass, dividing the frame using windows, doors and bannisters. For a movie which is often dismissed as a lesser work, it’s a considerable visual achievement.
In fact, for this reviewer, the less-acclaimed Chinese Roulette was the most enjoyable of the two movies, if only because it placed Fassbinder’s allegorical approach to drama in a genre where it made more sense. Fox and His Friends was an attempt at low-key, linear realism, but Chinese Roulette takes on one of the most symbolically overdetermined genres – the country house murder mystery. It seems to be most inspired by Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, the novel where Christie took the controlling metaphor of her genre – the feeling that the characters are pieces on a chessboard – and made it a literal event within the story. Chinese Roulette has a similar set-piece that takes up most of act three, but the expected inciting event – the murder – is absent. These characters are put in a dangerous, intolerable situation simply by being made to share each other’s company, which is a wonderfully sour structural joke.
Fassbinder’s universe is still pointed to a fault – a character screams “Fascist!” when she’s cut up in traffic, and one of the families has the surname Christ – but it makes more sense when put alongside the props of a classic murder mystery. Characters spout cod-Nietzchean philosophy in stylised monologues, and the Christs’ daughter Angela, played excellently by Andrea Schober, is creepy enough to make you wonder if she got lost on her way to audition for a Mario Bava film. The driving role Angela plays in exposing the adults’ hypocrisies suggests another literary model for Chinese Roulette – a dark mirror of Henry James’s What Masie Knew, with the child exposing the adults through manipulation rather than guilelessness.
Arrow’s extras are enjoyable as ever, with a commentary by Hamish Ford on Fox and His Friends that very nearly turned me around on the movie’s merits. Chinese Roulette gets the most straightforwardly entertaining extra, a ten-minute conversation with Ulli Lommel. Now better known for his ceaseless string of serial killer biopics, Lommel acted in Fassbinder’s film and gives an appraisal of his old friend which feels fulsome and sincere despite the fact that he can’t resist reminding the audience that his film The Boogeyman was very successful in America. Both films are given new 4K restorations, which is exactly what Fassbinder’s craftsmanship deserves.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
- Brand new 4K restorations of the films from original camera negatives
- High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations
- Original uncompressed PCM mono audio
- Optional English subtitles on both films
- Audio commentary by Hamish Ford on Fox and His Friends
- Newly-filmed interview with actor Ulli Lommel on Chinese Roulette
- Original theatrical trailers