No, the tenor, if you will, hasn’t changed. The theme’s remained the same, and always will remain the same: the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings within the system that we live in, and that at least one generation or more after us will certainly have to live in. What’s changed is the workmanship, the form, where I always try to get beyond what I’ve already mastered.
—RWF, “Cinema Between Autobiography and Criticism” in The Anarchy of the Imagination
I’ve been having a really hard time with this one—this is the third version of this post I’ve tried to write, for God’s sake—which is surprising, since The Third Generation is in many ways a pretty simple film. But maybe that’s the problem? Its so simple it’s deceptive: it encourages you to take it at face value. But just as you can’t (or shouldn’t) read Love Is Colder Than Death, say, as a straight gangster film, or Whity as a western, maybe viewing The Third Generation in a conventional context misses the point.
My first mistake was to try and write about The Third Generation as a political film, even if to do so would be perfectly logical. After all, it’s one of only a handful of RWF films that actually dealt with the issue of terrorism in contemporary Germany in the 1970s—which makes it, by definition, political, right? But as with Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, or RWF’s contribution to a Germany in Autumn, or even The Niklashausen Journey, neither politics nor even revolutionary activity are the true subject of the film; they’re effects, not causes, of a cultural malaise that precedes them. The true focus of these films if you look below the surface is precisely “the manipulability, the exploitability of feelings,” which is to say, people, “within the system that we live in.” Terrorism and its relation to the capitalist system just happens to offer a more extreme, more dramatic vehicle for examining this phenomenon. In any case, I’m sure RWF would say that all his films were political.
My second mistake was to view The Third Generation as a kind of deliberate throwback to an earlier time in RWF’s career when he did everything himself on a shoestring budget and worked with a stable of mostly unknown regulars (Margit Carstensen! Harry Baer! Gunther Kaufmann!)—a throwback which in this context would represent a reaction to the big-budget industrial milieu in which the filmmaker found himself increasingly working in the late 1970s. This too seemed like a perfectly logical approach, based on fundamental assumptions many of us share about the purity of art and the motives of the genuine artist, on the one hand, and the commercial demands of an industrial production system on the other. (The lower the budget, the more honest and authentic the work; the authentic artist by definition experiences working within the system as a conflict of interests, etc., etc. You know the arguments.)
Looking over RWF’s body of work and his many statements on the subject, however, I can see no reason to believe he found this dichotomy between art and industry all that meaningful. Maybe this is why he was able to move so easily between cinema and television, the underground and Cannes: it was only ever about the work. What mattered was getting the work done in whatever way he could get it done, mastering some aspect or other of his craft, and then moving on to the next project and the next hurdle, not remaining true to some Edenic ideal of artistic integrity. The integrity is in the work itself; I’m pretty sure the whole notion of “selling out” or “not selling out” was meaningless to him.
Anyway, the title, The Third Generation, refers to a third wave of terrorists in late 1970’s West Germany. The first generation was defined by the movement of May 1968 and centered around protest as a vehicle for revolutionary change, untarnished by cynicism. The second was dominated by the Red Army Faction and their emphasis on armed struggle, whose activities became steadily more violent and whose sympathizers were driven underground by the violence of the crackdown that this wave provoked. The third, it seems, were the remnants or the offspring of the second, thoroughly disillusioned and cynical, or just arrivistes, children of the middle-classes looking to the revolution for meaning, looking for thrills—nihilists more than idealists, easily manipulated, lacking a coherent ideology.
Susanne Gast (Hanna Schygulla) works as an assistant to PJ Lurz, computer magnate (Eddie Constantine). The rest of the time she and her husband, Edgar Gast (Udo Kier), are members of a revolutionary terrorist cell. Susanne and Edgar live in a grand house with Edgar’s family—grandfather (Claus Holm), mother (Lilo Pempeit)—who appears to be a bit “touched” (RWF does her up like a sort of latter-day Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane)—and father, Gerhard Gast (Hark Bohm), chief of police in Berlin with whom Susanne is having a sordid affair. (Yuck.)
The rest of the cell includes the bitter Petra Vielhaber (Margit Carstensen, naturlich), who is married to an abusive banker (Jürgen Draeger) and does not herself work; Rudolf Mann (Harry Baer), who works in a music store and lives in an enormous flat with a junkie roomate, Ilse (Y Sa Lo), whom everyone urges him to get rid of because junkies invite surveillance and attract police attention; Hilde Krieger (Bulle Ogier), who teaches history and lives alone in an equally large flat; and their leader, August (Volker Spengler), who has “gone underground” and so does not have a job. Nobody seems to question how August supports himself.
The cell is jolted into a state of increased excitement by the arrival of the debonair Paul (Raul Giminez), just returned from commando training in Africa. The calm is further disrupted by the arrival of two recently discharged marines, Franz Walsch (Gunther Kaufmann, taking the name of RWF’s favorite alter ego) and Bernhard von Stein (Vitus Zeplichal), who are looking for Ilse. Franz is Ilse’s old boyfriend; Bernhard, his buddy, is a naïve and well-intentioned son of the aristocracy who earnestly reads Bakunin’s anarchist texts. Neither of them knows that Ilse is a heroin addict, nor that they’ve just stumbled into a terrorist cell. Rudolf agrees to let them stay for a few days. (Petra posits that this “uncontrollable desire to do good” must mean that Rudolf was raised Roman Catholic. How else to explain such a desire?)
August informs the group that something big is about to happen. They will need new identities, so they draw lots to determine who will break into the local records office to steal them. (August preselects his own lot ensuring that he will not be chosen.) When the triumphant thieves return from their harrowing mission, their euphoria is muted by the discovery that Ilse has died in her room of an overdose. The despairing Franz, who happens to have been trained as an explosives expert in the military and is now hopelessly unemployed, agrees to join the group.
August, it turns out, is not merely a coward but a traitor—a double-agent, a mole—accepting payment from none other than the industrialist PJ Lurz in exchange for tip-offs regarding the group’s every move, which August orchestrates on Lurz’s behalf. (Terrorism, Lurz informs us in the film’s opening scene, is good for business: the more paranoid the state becomes, the more computers it requires.) August sets up a meeting between Paul and Edgar at a local Japanese restaurant; before Edgar has a chance to enter, his father the police chief arrives with a team of armed police who gun down Paul where he sits by the window. Edgar, terrified, flees.
The group goes underground with their new identities, awaiting instructions from August. Petra is assigned to set a bomb, courtesy of Franz, in the town hall. August betrays both to Lurz; Gast and his men shoot down one then the other in cold blood where August indicated they would be. The only person who figures out what’s actually going on is Bernhard, whom the others left behind when they went underground. Bernhard follows August to one of his assignations with Lurz where he learns of the betrayal. After Franz ignores his warning and walks straight into the trap set by August, Bernhard goes to Gerhard Gast himself with evidence of Lurz’s duplicity. He “accidentally” falls down a circular stairwell to his death once his tale is told, however.
The remaining members of the group decide to take matters into their own hands. Without informing August they decide to kidnap Lurz, which they do on the last day of Berlin’s Carnivale celebrations, in appropriately ludicrous costumes. Lurz, delighted, knows that this will translate into skyrocketing contracts for his business. The film ends as the inept terrorists try to shoot a classic kidnap video, the smiling Lurz happily repeating his lines as they shoot take after take (“My name is PJ Lurz. I am being held prisoner in the name of the people, for the good of the people . . . .”).
As I’ve already said, The Third Generation is a pretty simple film, its sole purpose, it seems, to illustrate a single point: if terrorism didn’t exist, capitalism would have to invent it. The terrorists, RWF tells us, serve the interests of the state—which wants nothing better than to crack down on subversives with the full force it’s capable of—and of business—which profits directly from the police-surveillance-industrial complex—more than they do the revolution, or the people, or whatever ideal they think they are fighting on behalf of.
I am convinced they don’t know what they are doing, and what they are doing derives its meaning from nothing more than the activity itself, from the apparently exciting danger, from petty adventures within this system, which admittedly is administered ever more perfectly and therefore alarmingly. Action undertaken in danger, but without any sense of perspective, adventures experienced in a sort of a intoxication for their own sake—these are the things that motivate the “third generation.”
The third generation, in other words, is a bunch of bored, privileged, overgrown children, and this is exactly how RWF depicts them. Susanne gets off on taking risks and crossing uncrossable boundaries. (Sleeping with her father-in-law is bad enough, but when the father-in-law’s raison d’etre is to destroy people like her? Talk about thrill-seeking!) Edgar is a cry baby. Rudolf longs for adventure. Hilde claims independence but, it turns out, really just wants to be ravished. Paul is a patriarchal asshole. August gets off on elaborate disguises, like a child playing at spies, like a glorified cross dresser (RWF even dresses Volker Spengler almost identically to Elvira from In a Year with Thirteen Moons for his first visit to Lurz’s office). Petra thinks it would be really cool to go by the alias “Michaela Angela Martinez”.
The women cluck and coo over fashion; the men want to play cops and robbers. Like bullies in the schoolyard, they torment the earnest Bernhard when they discover he underlines important passages in Bakunin like a schoolboy, and they make fun of Rudolf for wetting himself with fear when he thought he was about to be caught during the records office heist. They are perfect little bourgeois, miserable to the core—products, in other words, of the system they claim to want to overthrow. Fassbinder despises them.
This is unusual for RWF, as a rule so magnanimous toward his characters. It was a bit of a problem for me as a viewer, too. The broad strokes with which he renders these people ensure that they remain crudely drawn and one-dimensional (rather like the simplistic black-and-white thinking the characters themselves practice). But maybe this is appropriate, since the characters are themselves products of the system they deride, incapable of authentic emotion or selflessness. The only characters RWF has any sympathy for are Franz and Bernhard—the one an actual son of the working classes and an ethnic minority in a racist society, the other a well-meaning if maddeningly simple aristocrat. Both are belittled by the terrorists and both distinguish themselves as people (not action heroes, not smart asses, not revolutionaries, not sex objects) through their sincerity.
“The world as will and idea” is the gravely spoken password of the terrorists in the cell, aptly chosen, no doubt, by August. It is also the title of a seminal work by Schopenhauer, in which a conception of man’s role as actor in the universe is posited. (I’m no philosophy student, so I can’t say much more.) Grandfather Gast overhears this password and points out that it is a false notion: it discounts the value of humanity, of actual human life, in favor of an abstraction. Bernhard and Franz confirm the truth of this objection: in the way they treat one another, in the love and respect with which they treat Ilse, whom the others hold in contempt, in the way Bernhard studies to better understand the world around him. It’s the hard, unglamorous everyday struggle to overcome bourgeois attitudes and assumptions that will bring about change, not abstractions, and not a few banks robbed or (forgive me) bombs lobbed.
RWF may despise these terrorists but I’ve got to say, technically, he does a really nice job of depicting the state of high anxiety they operate in, the adrenaline rush of living in a constant state of danger, the intoxicating thrill of covert insurrection. The scene in which Susanne, Hilde, and Rudolf rob the records office, for example, is a model of suspense worthy of a great heist movie—and an example of the ways RWF continued to push himself in terms of “workmanship” and technique, going beyond what he’d already mastered. This is a well-crafted film, budget or no budget.
Formally speaking, there’s a lot going on in The Third Generation—too much, really, considering the relative simplicity of the script. The opening sequence, for example, is a barrage of information, relentless and cluttered and just a wee bit bombastic (think late-60s Godard, whom PJ Lurz even indirectly quotes). Susanne watches Bresson’s The Devil, Probably—a morality tale of contemporary alienation (which RWF championed as a jurist at the Berlin Film Festival where it premiered)—in Kurz’s office. There is a long subtitle (“A comedy in six parts, full of excitement, suspense, logic, cruelty, and madness, like the fairy tales we tell children to help them get through life until death”), another title quoting chancellor Helmut Schmidt expressing gratitude that lawyers did not force his government to obey constitutional law in the Mogadishu hijacking investigations, and a curious dedication: “Dedicated to someone who truly loves—so to no one, probably.” All within the first couple of minutes.
There’s more: each of the film’s six parts opens with a transcription of a piece of graffiti taken from a public toilet in West Berlin. The first of these: “You always pull the short straw.” The last: “Mac Killroy was here.” In between: solicitations for sex, S and M, and a racist diatribe. I honestly have no idea what RWF was getting at here. Highlighting the difference between the sentiments of the “revolutionaries” against those of everyday people whose outlet for frustration is confined to writing shit on bathroom walls? Pointing out their juvenile, narcissistic, gratification-orientated similarities and their biased assumptions? Something else? Of course, the last of these graffiti also reminds us of the postwar American occupation and the ideological influence of the US on the newly formed BRD. Is that the point? (As I said, I really don’t know.)
But if all these titles and quotes tend to narrow our interpretation, or at least prescribe it, as I believe they mostly do (graffiti notwithstanding), the soundtrack does something far more interesting. Indeed, the most striking and innovative aspect of The Third Generation is its sound design—“densely layered” doesn’t even begin to describe it. RWF weaves a complex fabric of droning sound effects, music, television, radio, and overlapping conversation that is ubiquitous and pervasive. The tension this creates is almost intolerable and the cacophony utterly maddening. But it’s no mere trick to keep the audience on the edges of their seats (although it does accomplish that, too).
I would go so far as to say that the soundtrack is where The Third Generation’s most cogent critique of contemporary German society is realized: it is an auditory portrait of a culture in crisis, overstimulated and paranoid, media-saturated, schizophrenic, addle-brained. There is a television on in nearly every room in nearly every scene and it doesn’t matter whether it’s playing thoughtful political commentary, sensationalist reporting, historical documentary, or entertainment. It all blends into one manic, stress-inducing wall of sound, the backdrop against which the third generation acts out its incoherent pantomime of liberation as PJ Lurz and his ilk knowingly smile down on them.
God, how I wish Fassbinder were alive today.