May 24, 2010

World on a Wire (1973)

West Germany

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

205 min

Fassbinder is most widely known as the prolific director of Sirkian melodramas that exposed the moral hypocrisy at the core of West German society in the post-war years, whether it’s the critique of Adenauer’s ‘economic miracle’ in ‘The Marriage of Maria von Braun’ (1979) or racial and generation divisions in ‘Fear Eats the Soul’ (1974). Fassbinder held an uncomfortable mirror to a country that had at least on the surface or in its own collective consciousness, had laid the ghosts of Nazi Germany to rest. Fassbinder reminded it however, that this ‘success’ was illusory and where it had been achieved, it had come at a price.

If Fassbinder’s reputation rests on these films, then this means that several others he directed that didn’t overtly address social, economic and political issues, could easily be unfairly overlooked. ‘World on a Wire’ is such a film. Certainly in the Fassbinder canon, it stands out as an oddity. Made for German television during one of his most personally creative periods (‘Fear Eats the Soul’ and ‘Effi Briest’ almost immediately followed), it’s an adaptation of the science fiction novel ‘Simulacron-3’ by the American writer Daniel F. Galouye. Although Fassbinder personally adapted the novel, one wonders whether it was his original idea to make this film. Given what we know of his prior and subsequent career, science fiction appears a strange direction, though Fassbinder might have seen it as an opportunity to wrongfoot his audience and critics and to demonstrate his versatility.

In a convoluted narrative that really needs to be followed closely in order to appreciate precisely what’s going on, the IKZ cybernetics institute has developed a simulation programme that features thousands of ‘identity units’ living as human beings, thinking they’re human beings, acquiring memory and consciences. Corporate paranoia and intrigue manifests itself in betrayal and murder, though we’re constantly asked to consider what we see; whether this is the real or simulated world, or whether indeed, there’s more than one level of simulation. Although this scenario sounds familiar to modern audiences; there’s parallels with The Matrix series of films, and Galouye’s novel was filmed in 1999 as ‘The Thirteenth Floor’, Fassbinder has a different emphasis from the traditional set up of science fiction films. He eschews any interest in action sequences, which are kept to a minimum. Instead, ‘World on a Wire’ is more of an intellectual and philosophical film, discussing the theories of Plato and Zeno amongst others. Fassbinder often employs his camera urgently (courtesy of his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, now Martin Scorsese’s DoP of choice) and the set design keeps the film rooted in the contemporary (e.g. 1970s) style rather than suggesting a more optimistic aesthetic of the future. His usual acting stock participate. All these elements taken together suggest therefore that Fassbinder had more of a personal investment in this film that one might initially imagine. It features numerous hallmarks of the classic Fassbinder film and style.

‘World on a Wire’ had been unavailable almost since its original transmission. It had never been broadcast in cinemas and had only been shown on German television on a few occasions. Thanks to Second Sight, an important moment in Fassbinder’s film making career has been restored and is now ripe for rediscovery.

‘World on a Wire’ is released by Second Sight films on 17 May 2010


October 14, 2008

Fox and his Friends

West Germany, 1975

Director: Rainer Werner Fassbinder

With: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Peter Chatel, Karlheinz Böhm

123 min


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

West Germany, the mid-1970s. Franz Biberkopf (‘Fox’) works at a carnival booth, which is closed by police when the proprietor, also Fox’s lover is arrested for tax fraud. Homeless and destitute, Fox meets Max, an older, evidently well off man and they discuss having sex. Using the money loaned to him by a gay florist whom he threatened to expose, Fox wins DM500,000 on the lottery. Fox is then introduced to the bourgeois world by Max and soon begins a relationship with Eugen. Fox’s love is evidently not reciprocated, and it is clear Eugen is only with Fox because of his money. Fox is too blinded by his feelings to notice, even though his working class friends find Eugen’s intentions all too transparent. Fox rejects their advice, claiming envy.

Fox then loans Eugen’s father DM100,000 to save his company, which is on the verge of bankruptcy, whilst Fox and Eugen take a vacation to Morocco to save their relationship. Eugen convinces Fox to engage in a threesome with an Arab man, only to be told that Arabs are not permitted in this specific hotel and that the hotel can provide male escorts. Fox attends dinner at the home of Eugen’s family; at which Fox embarrasses his hosts with his lack of table manners or refined behaviour. Eugen then breaks up with Fox. Fox’s money has run out and when he attempts to recover the money he was loaned, he discovers that the contract he signed has effectively swindled him, and Eugen keeps the flat that they shared. Heartbroken, Fox takes an overdose of Valium and dies in the street. As he lies dead, two young boys rob him.


One of the early films in what might be described as the second phase of Fassbinder’s career, which arguably began in 1972 with ‘The Merchant of Four Seasons’ and ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’, ‘Fox and his Friends’ is indicative of the Sirk-influenced melodramas he made after his avant-garde origins. Like Sirk, Fassbinder realised that melodrama could be used as a means of subtly satirising contemporary society, specifically issues of class differences and emotional repression. Although Fassbinder’s melodramas covered similar ground, the film that ‘Fox and his Friends’ perhaps has most in common with is ‘Martha’, which almost immediately preceded this film. In ‘Martha’, a spontaneous and vivacious young woman falls in love with a bourgeois man who begins to control and oppress her during their marriage. Martha submissively accepts her oppression, giving the impression of enjoying it. In a sense, ‘Fox and his Friends’ is almost a homosexual twist upon this film. Fox, who is working class but has money after a lottery win, falls in love with Eugen, a man far more sophisticated and intelligent that him, and becomes complicit in Eugen’s manipulation of him.

Fassbinder was a constant critic of post-war German society, believing that the ‘German economic miracle’ that had been in place since the 1950s was nothing more than a façade, only made possible by the injection of American economic aid. Despite this so-called transition, Fassbinder felt that nothing had changed, that German society existed precisely as it had done before the Second World War, and that prosperity did nothing to change the rigid social class boundaries. Fox attempts to cross these boundaries after his lottery win, but society determines that he must be punished for trying to change the status quo. Fox’s ironic ‘friends’ reinforce the differences between them and him with their casual and patronising insults (“do you wash occasionally?”) and his attempt to immerse himself in their world invokes their opportunism. The more he attempts this, the greater the control applied by Eugen, despite Fox’s belief in the contrary. Note the irony when Eugen discusses buying a new car and Fox exclaims “I won’t let you talk me out of it”, as if he is control! Fox doesn’t have the values of the social class he attempts to enter (a lack of interest in opera or the theatre, boorish table manners), suggesting that is certain to fail in his attempts. This sense of fatalism is increased by the fact that Fox shares his real name with the tragic protagonist of ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, which Fassbinder later adapted into a series for German television. Even his nickname demonstrates a sense of irony. Whilst his cunning and deviousness might be effective amongst his natural community, it cannot match the wits of the bourgeoisie. Fox places all his hope in money being the route to happiness, when it is in fact the root of all evil. In true melodramatic fashion, Fox’s realisation that he was better off as he was before comes too late in a moving scene of rejection when he pleads to Eugen “I just want to be my old self again. As I really am. Simply me!”

As a director renowned for his inventive visual ideas, ‘Fox and his Friends’ does not disappoint. Aided by his cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, Fassbinder uses violent camera movements to represent moments of great drama, such as the scene in which Fox mentions his lottery win to his original lover, now released from prison. This intense close up on Eugen reveals his concern and the threat to his plan of milking Fox for his money. Fassbinder employs many relevant metaphors as well, such as a close up on a big wheel in the opening carnival scene to represent the wheel of chance perhaps, and also a scene where Fox trips after dropping the money he wanted to use to buy lottery tickets. He falls at the feet at a different set of bourgeois men, but this represents that ‘natural’ comparative relationship between Fox and this social class.

Reviled by some as an exercise in homosexual self-hatred, such an attitude obscures Fassbinder’s prime motives behind ‘Fox and his Friends’; assessing class boundaries and the impossibility of crossing them. The film is set in the gay community because this is an environment Fassbinder knows and can accurately describe, but it could have worked just as effectively in the heterosexual community. Fassbinder’s critics were perhaps expecting a gay film with a positive message but were concerned with his portrayal of this community as manipulative, selfish and deceitful. Surely it’s more accurate that it’s the bourgeoisie to whom these characteristics belong. ‘Fox and his Friends’ is one of Fassbinder’s most eloquent and moving melodramas, assisted by the director’s heartbreaking central performance.

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