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The Fox

For his 2017 debut, “The Best of Old Worlds,” Austrian director Adrian Goiginger told a story based on his own childhood experiences regarding his troubled relationship with his addict mother. For his latest effort, “The Fox,” he once again mines his family history for inspiration, this time going back in time to tell a story involving the experiences of his great-grandfather, Franz Streitberger, beginning in his childhood and extending through his experiences as a soldier during World War II. Indeed, just before the end credits, we hear the voice of the man himself via a recording made by Goiginger recounting the events that we have just seen unspool. If the entire film had consisted of these recordings, it might have made for the kind of haunting and moving screen experience that it is clearly trying to be but never quite manages to accomplish.

The film begins in 1927 as young Franz (Maximilian Reinwald) is living with his large and impoverished family in a remote area in the mountains of Austria. Unable to provide for everyone, his parents give him away to a rich farmer, who does educate him but also employs him as a farmhand for the next 10 years, a move that leaves him with an inability to trust or connect with others. After he is released from his duties in 1937 (and now played by Simon Morze), he ends up enlisting in the military, more for the job security than due to any thoughts about the gathering clouds of war. Three years pass and with World War II in its early days, Franz, serving as a motorcycle courier, and his unit are preparing to head into France when, following a humiliation at the hands of some of his fellow soldiers, he petulantly runs out into the woods and comes across a wounded baby fox near the body of its dead mother.

A connection is immediately formed between the two outcasts and Franz sneaks the cub onto the base to have its injury treated. When it comes time to ship out, he cannot bear to leave the animal behind and takes it along with him, hiding it in the sidecar of his motorcycle. As Franz goes about his duties, the bond that he establishes with the fox seems to have awakened the desire for a connection with others that he has long denied himself. He begins to write a letter to the father who gave him away, though he is not quite to the point of being ready to send it off. Later, while in occupied France, he finds himself spending time with a local woman (Adriane Gradziel), who remains a good sport about things even after it becomes evident that he is more interested in his fox companion than in her. Of course, real life intrudes on the bliss existence between Franz and the animal he dubs Foxy and before he is sent off to the somewhat less bucolic Russian front, he has to come to terms with the fact that he and his friend will finally have to separate.

“The Fox” is a film that serves as a confrontation of the horrors of war, a look at an emotionally reticent man struggling to come to terms with unimaginable past hurts and make his first real attempts to engage with the world and a look at the bond that instantly develops between a human and an animal when their paths cross unexpectedly. To make these seemingly disparate elements work together in a narrative that is both plausible and emotionally moving requires an extremely deft directorial touch—anything less and you run the risk of making a film that feels more like a laundry list of elements cynically thrown together in the hope of jerking tears from the audience in a particularly ham-fisted manner. Although a number of the advanced reviews that I looked up after watching it suggested that it managed to succeed at this with a number of viewers, I have to admit that the entire enterprise left me largely unmoved when all was said and done.

At first, I thought this was the result of my admitted lifelong disdain for most films involving adorable animals at their center, an antipathy that began in childhood as I sat watching the various misadventures of Benji in a state of paralyzing boredom and has continued on to this day. Actually, the scenes involving Franz and Foxy are among the best here because, as even a curmudgeon like myself would have to admit, the fox is undeniably cute. 

No, my problem is that while the film is clearly telling a story that wants to come across as profoundly emotional, I always felt as if I was being kept at too far of a distance from it while watching it. It doesn’t really seem to have any thoughts on its mind deeper than the ideas that war is Bad and cute animals are Good, notions that I don’t think will come across as too shocking to viewers. Because it refuses to delve deeper into any of its issues or ideas in particularly substantive ways (especially in its approach to dealing with the subject of WWII and the inescapable fact that our central character is fighting on the side of the Germans, mostly by avoiding any pesky details about his activities in the field or the feelings he might have about them), I just got the feeling the Goiginger was holding back from telling a potentially troubling but potentially richer version of this story, one that is hinted at in those brief moments of the real Streitberger speaking at the end.

“The Fox” has been made with some degree of style—utilizing a squarish framing approach, co-cinematographers Yoshi Heimrath and Paul Sprinz give the material an intriguing look that suggests snapshots in a scrapbook that have come to life—and I will concede that perhaps other viewers will respond to it on a more emotional level than I did. Yes, it says all the right things about love and humanity and the folly of war. My problem is that it doesn’t say any of those things in ways that are particularly interesting or ultimately moving and Goiginger winds up selling his great-grandfather’s story short as a result.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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