Fassbinder pulls off a miraculous bit of mischief with The Third Generation (1979) — and who better than Fassbinder for mischief! — he creates a broad comedy about terrorism. And while I imagine creating such a movie in a post 9-11 world would be unlikely, Harold & Kumar notwithstanding, imagine making this film in West Germany with the kidnapping and killing of industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer by Red Army Faction (RAF) still heavy on the mind of audience.To say that this film created a stir when released would be putting it mildly. While the film was praised by critics, several audiences engaged in their own cinema-attendance form of “radical politics”: in Hamburg, the film projectionist screening The Third Generation was beaten unconscious, and in Frankfort, angry audience members threw acid on the projection screen.
The thumbnail story of the film: an industrialist (Eddie Constantine, from Alphaville) has difficulty selling his security-related computer systems, so he conspires with the inspector general of the police to create and squash a terrorist cell of inept, superficial middle class leftists. I tell you the simple version of the story to get it out of the way so you don’t miss the chance to take in what is happening in front of you. This film isn’t as abrasive as its close cousin, Satan’s Brew (1976), but it is demanding viewing: unfolding in a densely-layered, high-pitch style that rewards repeat viewing.Watching this film now, as broad and silly are some of its pranks and physical gags, I find myself as engaged and disturbed by the ideas and questions in this film. I suspect my experience has more to do with the character work in the film than the basic plot: for straw men and fools, the terrorist twits are compelling, realized cartoon-creations by a cast of Fassbinder regulars, exercising a great deal of control and specificity to create this universe. The constant collision of layers of sound, radio, television, and music worked for me far better than I at first expected, far better than it has in other densely layered work — and continues to haunt me while I write this response to the film. Despite the controversy when this film was initially shown, after 1979 for all intents and purposes the film vanished: lack of television broadcast or other venues kept this film out of the public eye. And yet, it remained one of the films the director was most proud of up until his death (by his own ranking). This film was also one of only two for which he gave himself a cinematography credit. The highly articulate, always moving camera remains one of my favorite elements of this film. Before writing Fassbinder’s film off as an audicious prank, consider what he said about the film back in 1979 “ . . . that in the last analysis terrorism is an idea generated by capitalism to justify better defense measures to safeguard capitalism.” The implausibility of the film’s plot doesn’t suggest “conspiracy theory” reading to his words, but drawing on the ideas and forces evoked in this film I see a kind of prelude to the use/repurposing of terrorism as a tool for political and military leverage in our own country.
It seems as if Fassbinder needed to purge his system after In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978), a traumatised remake of Louis Malle’s Le Feu follet (1963), chronicling a transsexual depressive’s last days, and inspired by the suicide of Fassbinder’s lover Armin Meier (2). Meier had appeared in Fassbinder’s segment of Germany in Autumn in which the director agonised over the draconian government response to RAF atrocities, while mercilessly bullying his lover, his mother and a homeless man. That liberal hypocrisy is amplified ad absurdio in The Third Generation, as a group of bourgeois professionals – including a record shop owner, a history lecturer, a banker’s wife, a personal secretary and a composer – enjoy the “game” of being in a terrorist cell, with its apparatus of codes, passwords, whispers and disguises, but literally wet themselves when called to action. As a quote from anarchist theorist Mikhail Bakunin implies, these are children who refuse to grow up: they bully those weaker as if they were still in a schoolyard, and ultimately can’t handle “real” life. When Edgar (Udo Kier) witnesses the murder of a co-conspirator by policemen led by his father (Hark Bohm), who is also sleeping with his wife (Hanna Schygulla), he collapses into Oedipal blubbing. As the terrorists go into hiding, they bicker and compete like the kids in any extended family.
Fassbinder had earlier narrated terrorist misadventures in his TV movie Die Niklashauser Fart (The Niklashausen Journey; co-directed with Michael Fengler, 1970) (3). This account of a medieval peasant revolt was recast as an agitprop Passion Play, mixing declamatory speeches, songs, skits, anachronisms and Brechtian lessons; its revolutionaries were as hapless, divided, unfocused and self-regarding as those of The Third Generation. After an hour-and-a-half of talk, the film climaxed in an ejaculation of bullets and bombs. Schygulla, Margit Carstensen and Günther Kaufmann appear in both. Kaufmann’s is the only sympathetic character in The Third Generation, the only one to genuinely – if uselessly – connect with others; where his colleagues’ disguises make them even more ridiculous than before, his greying hair seems to express his growing sadness and disillusion (4). Otherwise the characters are figures of derision. The treatment of Hilde (Bulle Ogier) is typical: she is raped by Paul (Raúl Gimenez), who considers her feminist independence “middle class bullshit”, and quickly becomes his besotted, domestic slave. Fassbinder treats the plot just as sarcastically, giving it away in a joke in the opening minutes.
This comedy of terrorism takes its cue from Jean-Luc Godard, in particular those films about politicised cells like Le Petit soldat (1960/63) and, especially, La Chinoise (1967); Alphaville, une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution’s (1965) Eddie Constantine stars as capitalist puppet-master P. J. Lurz, hilariously obliging as he repeats for video the cod-Marxist demands of his kidnappers (5). As with Godard, the film is dense with allusions to popular and high culture (the terrorists are as fatuously “highbrow” as the Thiess family in Faustrecht der freiheit [Fox and His friends, 1975]), history and current affairs, in-jokes and self-referentiality. The slapstick heists refer back to Fassbinder’s earlier films which were themselves inspired by Godard’s genre mash-ups. As if to rise to the challenge of his mentor, Fassbinder produced his most audio-visually complex work to date.
The first shot gives a seemingly clear view of Berlin in winter. As the camera pulls slowly back over the flashing credits, this transparency is problematised by multiple screens (window, computer, television) and sound sources, as well as difficult-to-read quotes. A complex network of communication and information is implied. We are in the office of Lurz, a centre for the plotting of both terrorists (his secretary is one) and the agents provocateurs who manipulate them. This nexus expands throughout the film – through overlapping sound (Peer Raben’s score, which veers from electronica and atonal rhythms to movie pastiche and romantic schmaltz; television programmes, mostly films, news reports and studio debates; radio and tape recordings; screaming and shouting); through links between technology, surveillance, capitalism and the police; through a narrative of betrayals and dangerous liaisons; through transposals of language, gender and race; through signs, paintings, prints, posters, books and magazines; and through cash and official documents – but, rather than connect, it serves to create noise and chaos; it is in the establishment’s interest to restrict the dissemination of “real” information. The only characters to correctly see behind this “transparent” view are a madwoman and a holy fool; both easily ignored or disposed of. The use of dubbing is typical of the period and international co-productions like The Third Generation, but, together with the halls of mirrors (and windows and doorways), also serves to further dissociate the characters from any true “self” or “essence”. Like the Maxwell’s Demon in Thomas Pynchon’s comparable fable of comic paranoia, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), the perpetual generation of information leads to inertia, not energy. This is an inertia ingrained in West Germany that Fassbinder alone diagnosed in the preceding decade.