In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first film, Der stadtstreicher (The City Tramp, 1966), the director enters a public pissort and sneers at his derelict anti-hero (Christoph Roser). Public toilets also provide an over-riding metaphor in Fassbinder’s later Die dritte Generation (The Third Generation). Obscene graffiti from Berlin jakes provide epigraphs to the film’s six chapters, not least as a smeary riposte to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, quoted as thanking the country’s “legal experts” for not obstructing emergency measures brought in to deal with the contemporary terrorism of the Red Army Faction (RAF), known to the public as the Baader-Meinhof Group. This revolutionary activity and the government’s curtailment of civil liberties became a key subject for the New German Cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The most famous of these films – Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta’s Die verlorene ehre de Katharina Blum oder (The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, 1975) and von Trotta’s Die bleierne zeit (The German Sisters, 1979) – were made by several of Fassbinder’s erstwhile collaborators (1). Compared to the earnest hand-wringing of such works, Fassbinder’s “comedy” could only seem flippant.
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.
- Von Trotta acted in Götter der pest (Gods of the plague, 1969), Der Amerikanische soldat (The American Soldier, 1970), Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970); Rio das Mortes (1971) was derived from an idea by Schlöndorff, who, like Fassbinder directed a section of the anthology film Deutschland im Herbst (Germany in Autumn, 1978).
- Volker Spengler travesties his lead role in that film as The Third Generation’s cross-dressing, duplicitous cell leader, August.
- The Third Generation was released the month before Fassbinder started filming Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), with its “revolutionary” groups (Nazi and Communist) of an earlier generation.
- Kaufmann’s character is Franz Walsch, the name of characters played by Fassbinder himself in earlier works, and his pseudonym when editing. Echoing Fassbinder at the time, Walsch is paralysed with grief at the death of his lover.
- Constantine played himself in Beware of a Holy Whore, and had a cameo in Welt am Draht (World on a Wire, 1973).
Die dritte Generation/The Third Generation (1979 West Germany 105 mins)
Prod Co: Filmverlag der Autoren/ Pro-ject Filmproduktion/ Tango Film Prod, Dir, Scr, Phot: Rainer Werner Fassbinder Ed: Juliane Lorenz Prod Des: Raúl Gimenez Mus: Peer Raben
Cast: Harry Baer, Hark Bohm, Margit Carstensen, Volker Spengler, Eddie Constantine, Jürgen Draeger, Raúl Gimenez, Hanna Schygulla, Günther Kaufmann, Udo Kier, Bulle Ogier,