The Third Generation
Die Dritte Generation
May 13, 1979 (Cannes Film Festival) — 105 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.66:1 — Comedy
Fassbinder’s 35th feature, a pitch-black comedy about a bumbling gang of radicals that kidnaps a powerful industrialist, unaware of hidden agendas.
FILMS: Shorts “Little Chaos” and “City Tramp” | 1. Love is Colder Than Death | 2. Katzelmacher | 3. Gods of the Plague | 4. Coffeehouse | 5. Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? | 6. American Soldier | 7. Niklashausen Journey | 8. Rio das Mortes | 9. Pioneers in Ingolstadt | 10. Whity | 11. Beware of a Holy Whore | 12. Merchant of Four Seasons | 13. Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant | 14. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day | 15. Bremen Freedom | 16. Jail Bait | 17. World on a Wire | 18. Nora Helmer | 19. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul | 20. Martha | 21. Effi Briest | 22. Like a Bird on a Wire | 23. Fox and His Friends | 24. Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven | 25. Fear of Fear | 26. I Only Want You to Love Me | 27. Satan’s Brew | 28. Chinese Roulette | 29. Women in New York | 30. Stationmaster’s Wife | 31. Germany in Autumn | 32. Despair | 33. In a Year With 13 Moons | 34. Marriage of Maria Braun | 35. Third Generation | 36. Berlin Alexanderplatz | 37. Lili Marleen | 38. Theater in Trance | 39. Lola | 40. Veronika Voss | 41. Querelle.
If we ever needed a comedy about terrorism, now’s the time – and Fassbinder is the one who delivered it… in 1979.
Not only is The Third Generation topical again, it’s one of Fassbinder’s most wickedly funny, and best, late films; and it has now appeared in a vivid DVD transfer from Tango. This is the complete 105-minute original version of the film; the packaging lists “127 minutes” but that refers to the combined times of the feature plus the illuminating 22-minute interview with Juliane Lorenz, the film’s assistant director and editor (as on all of Fassbinder’s late films), and subsequently head of the Fassbinder Foundation. While you can enjoy this picture on its own, it is also a pivotal film in Fassbinder’s body of work. It offers his provocative insights into modern Germany, important aspects of the arts (including philosophy, literature, and cinema), and his own filmography. This visually striking picture is one of only two that he photographed himself (in addition to writing, directing, and producing), and it offers a tantalizing key to the many pictures that preceded it, and to the six he was yet to make. Below is a brief summary of the film, followed by a look at its eclectic background, then an analysis of what makes it tick.
The Third Generation is a pitch-black farce about a gang of bored West Berlin middle-class types who decide to embark on the “adventure” of radical politics. Obviously terrorism is not funny – as Fassbinder well understood – but these bumbling buffoons are… until they begin acting out their violent agenda, dressed in cartoon costumes. The large, and exceptional, ensemble cast features many of Fassbinder’s best-known actors. The plot revolves around the terrorist wannabes’ plan to kidnap multinational kingpin PJ Lurz (Eddie Constantine – Beware of a Holy Whore) – as they cluelessly put it – “in the name of the people, for the good of the people.” The ringleader is the mysterious and slimy August Brem (Volker Spengler – In a Year With 13 Moons), who wants Susanne Gast (Hanna Schygulla – Effi Briest), Lurz’s secretary, to help them get access to her boss. Other members of the dysfunctional Gast clan are also involved, including her ineffectual, ex-composer husband Edgar (Udo Kier – The Stationmaster’s Wife); and ‘playing for the other team’ is his father, Inspector Gerhard Gast (Hark Bohm – The American Soldier), who is both Susanne’s sadistic secret lover and the man the police have assigned to protect Lurz (how tangled is that). Two more Gasts are no part of the terrorist cell, but they still influence the course of events: the dotty Grandpa Gast (Claus Holm – The Marriage of Maria Braun) and ghostly, pill-popping Mother Gast (Lilo Pempeit – Fox and His Friends). The other “terrorists” include the abused wife Petra Vielhaber (Margit Carstensen – The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant), downtrodden record store clerk Rudolf Mann (Harry Baer – Gods of the Plague), pseudo-feminist history teacher Hilde Krieger (Bulle Ogier – Rivette’s L’Amour fou), and heroin addict Ilse Hoffmann (Y Sa Lo – Satan’s Brew). The action heats up when Terrorism Central sends a new mastermind, the charismatic sexist pig Paul (Raúl Gimenez – Berlin Alexanderplatz), to speed the plan along (he’s even quicker at reducing the once-independent Hilde to a docile helpmate). Then two wild cards show up, further complicating the mix: Ilse’s lover, and a munitions expert, Franz Walsch (Günther Kaufmann – Whity), and the puppydog-like anarchist intellectual Bernhard von Stein (Vitus Zeplichal – Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven). The plot twists come thick and fast, as do some shocking revelations.
(You may jump directly to an analysis of The Third Generation, or read the following background information, which briefly covers the film’s: (1) production and reception, (2) historical context: terrorism in 1970s Germany, (3) cinematic inspirations, (4) literary and philosophical background, (5) connections with Fassbinder’s overall body of work, including some of his own comments on this film.)
Understandably, Fassbinder thought highly of The Third Generation; shortly before his death he ranked it his 4th best film. It’s remarkable that a film so acerbically entertaining is also so rich on so many levels – in relation to historical events and artistic traditions and in its own right as one of Fassbinder’s most original and provocative creations.
Attesting to the film’s deep personal meaning – and to offer us distance from the torrent of its farcical melodrama, which he’ll release momentarily – Fassbinder includes the basic production information in the opening credits: “Shot on Kodak ECN II in West Berlin from November 1978 to January 22, 1979.” Although Fassbinder was now at the crest of his popularity – with his previous film The Marriage of Maria Braun an enormous critical and box office smash around the world – paying off earlier films’ debt left him with only DM 10,000 to begin this production, which he’d budgeted at sixty times that amount. Thanks to some creative financing, he started filming, but with only a detailed synopsis: He wrote the actual dialogue scenes just hours before each day’s shoot. He pulled it off stunningly, in part because he’d already spent years working closely with his cast and crew, and everyone doubled up on jobs – among the actors, Harry Baer was also the executive producer, Raúl Gimenez the production designer, Volker Spengler the art director; assistant director and editor Julianne Lorenz also played the unhelpful job counselor. (Here is a summary table of Fassbinder’s principal crew and cast members; the two categories frequently overlap.) To say that it received a mixed reception would be an understatement. While some critics reveled in the film’s mordant political humor, it – infamously – found a less appreciative response elsewhere. At a screening in Hamburg, the projectionist was beaten unconscious, while in Frankfurt an incensed mob threw acid at the screen. Then there were all of the death threats, not for the first – or last – time in Fassbinder’s incendiary career. Worse, from the film’s point of view, was that it effectively disappeared after 1979 – no television broadcast, only rare theatrical showings – until now, when the DVD will bring it to a wider audience… and one living in an era when terrorism is, more than ever, a hot button topic. This film’s influence is alive and well, as can be seen in Canadian gay experimental filmmaker Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich (2004), about the “terrorist chic” of queer radicals who bill themselves – alluding to Fassbinder’s title, but up three notches – as “the Sixth Generation of the Baader-Meinhof Gang.”
On a crucial level, The Third Generation grew directly out of Fassbinder’s commitment to understanding the complex phenomenon of terrorism in his time, specifically the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF), popularly known as the Baader-Meinhoff gang. Fassbinder calls this film, in the opening credits, “a comedy in six parts,” but he fully knew that violence, regardless of the so-called “ideals” behind it, was no laughing matter. The RAF (in German, Rote Armee Fraktion), between the 1970s and 1998, was West Germany’s most active and notorious left-wing terrorist organization, creating widespread civil unrest and causing 34 deaths. It was associated with other terrorist groups including Italy’s Red Brigades, the IRA, and the PLO. The so-called “German Autumn” began in September 1977, when both the RAF’s kidnapping of wealthy industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer (who was also a former Nazi SS officer) and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet in Mogadishu, Somalia failed to bring about their demands to free their imprisoned leaders, including the charismatic Andreas Baader. In retaliation, the RAF murdered Schleyer; later Baader and two other RAF leaders were found dead in their cells: the government claimed suicide, the RAF murder. This led to possibly the biggest showdown in postwar Germany, and it tore the nation apart, leading to curtailment of civil liberties for all citizens – and the outrage of many people, including intellectuals and artists. Recall the quotation, referring to these events, which Fassbinder puts onscreen during the opening credits: “‘I can only thank the German lawyers retrospectively for not adhering to constitutional procedures’ – Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, as appeared in Der Spiegel [magazine] September 1979″): this is also an unmistakable allusion to how Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, through the craven, and opportunistic, German legal profession. Fassbinder was one of eleven filmmakers who contributed to a collective 1978 film – part documentary and part, like Fassbinder’s segment, fiction – about these tumultuous events, Germany in Autumn.
The other best-known filmmaker involved in Germany in Autumn was Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, 1979); on an artistic level, The Third Generation seems in part to be a response to The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975 – from Heinrich Böll’s recent novel), an acclaimed film co-directed by his friends, and fellow New German Cinema stalwarts, Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta (Rosa Luxemburg, 1986). (Trivia buffs take note: von Trotta played the suicidal maid in The American Soldier; her extended monologue, sitting on a hotel bed next to two naked lovers, is nothing less than the story outline of Ali: Fear Eats the Soul.) The controversial Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, about how Germany’s government and mass media – controlled by the right-wing – exploited public hysteria over (pre-“German Autumn”) terrorism to its own advantage. This recalls a central plot element in The Third Generation (and, perhaps, the situation today in certain nations). While Schlöndorff and von Trotta’s film is a model for taut political thrillers, Fassbinder, as we’ll see, takes his film in a radically different stylistic direction, despite the similarity of themes.
Another inspiration comes from Godard, who was the primary early influence on Fassbinder. They have also shared a key actor, Michael Constantine, who played the “intergalactic” private eye Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville (1965) and a pointedly similar, if more terrestrial, part in Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (the title refers to cinema), as well as industrial magnate PJ Lurz in this film (ironically, Constantine fought a supercomputer in Alphaville, while here he sells them). For people interested in both Godard and Fassbinder, one of The Third Generation’s most fascinating, if rarefied, stylistic aspects is how Fassbinder both returns to his first eleven Brecht- and Godard-inspired films (before he discovered, and redefined, melodrama), while simultaneously achieving a new, completely individual form of abstract/political/poetic filmmaking. The Godard film most clearly on Fassbinder’s mind here is the incisive comedy La Chinoise (1967), about four or five self-deluding middle-class Parisian students, crammed into a small apartment (which of course belongs to one of their parents), who hatch a plan for using terrorist tactics to bring France a cultural revolution like Mao’s in China. As in his other works of this period, Godard keeps the film hopping – sometimes hilariously – with jump cuts, long tracking shots, pop songs, cartoonish posters heavy on the primary colors (including red, of course), in-your-face intertitles with radical slogans, and bizarre theatrical interludes. Fassbinder has selectively used most of those techniques in earlier films (he only brings them on en masse in his ambitious but unsuccessful historical piece, The Niklashausen Journey), but several can be seen, in restrained form, here. For instance, graffiti and sloganeering are important elements here, as is theatricalism – although it’s most evident in the static tableaux, often for groups of two or three characters at tortured, but plausible, angles to each other. Still, this is both one of Fassbinder’s most Godardian and, if you will, post-Godardian films (for instance, Fassbinder’s use of sound here is more densely layered than even Godard’s). While unique, both filmmakers make pictures that are deeply poetic yet incisively psychological (not least about group dynamics) and political, offering sometimes astonishing insights into the human condition.
There are also two literary classics, exploring the phenomenon of terrorism, which may have influenced Fassbinder; in any event, the works provide revealing counterparts to each other. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1872 novel The Devils (also translated as The Possessed), based on a recent historical event, is about the rise and fall of a revolutionary group near St. Petersburg. Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is a darkly comic tale of spies and terrorists plotting, and counter-plotting, in contemporary London. (Trivia buffs take note: Conrad’s novel was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock as Sabotage (1936) – arguably Hitchcock’s most underrated film, and a masterpiece; but Hitchock’s Secret Agent (also 1936) was based on the 1928 novel Ashenden, perhaps the first modern spy saga, by gay author W. Somerset Maugham.) A major connection between Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Fassbinder includes their psychological probing into what makes a terrorist; also each one takes an ironic, even sardonic, approach in exposing the personal and ideological flaws which ultimately cause each of the groups to shatter.
“The world as will and idea” is the secret ‘password’ which Fassbinder’s would-be revolutionaries can’t seem to say often enough. The phrase is, in fact, the title of Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1819 magnum opus, which is more often translated as The World as Will and Representation. The terrorists’ blatant misunderstanding of his work reveals more about their limitations than the philosopher’s; in fact, they’ve gotten his central idea completely backwards. In a nutshell, Schopenhauer believed that our will, or volition, is what subjugates knowledge and reason. Following the will’s dictates leads to self-deception (worshipping mere “representations” instead of what’s real) and suffering, so the goal of the good life is to get rid of “the will.” Not only does this sound remarkably like the core of Buddhism, it also puts Schopenhauer solidly in today’s “reality-based community.” Compare that to Fassbinder’s chuckle-headed, über-self-deluding terrorists, and you’ll see how 180-degrees-off they were in their password pick (among so much else).
Fassbinder’s personal philosophy has roots in the utopian anarchism of Mikhail Bakunin, whose books fill Bernhard von Stein’s suitcase. Bakunin was a dedicated foe to imperial/feudal Russia, which exiled him to Siberia – he escaped to London, where he became the nemesis of Karl Marx (a communist party dictatorship is, Bakunin said, “all the more dangerous because it appears as a sham expression of the people’s will”). Bakunin’s political philosophy revolves around individual freedom, libertarian socialism, and rationality (“the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice;” he wrote, “it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind”). His best-known passage comes from his 1871 essay, Man, Society, and Freedom: “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.” Clearly Fassbinder would agree in principle, but as an artist he also understands that such utopian ideals can only be realized through us flawed human beings: note the evolution of the Bakunin-toting, and terribly naive, Bernhard by the film’s end.
For all of its political, aesthetic, and philosophical richness, The Third Generation is also intensely entertaining. It’s about as much fun as you can have… being brilliantly outraged. It’s arguably one of only two, or so, comedies made by Fassbinder (who is, of course, consistently a master of irony). While this film looks, and laughs, at self-deception through politics and undigested philosophy, it parallels Satan’s Brew, his farce about self-deception through art. Fassbinder’s entire body of work is interconnected, by both theme and style (the two are, of course, fused), so here is an outline of this film’s connections to some of his other major works. (The analysis below will look more closely at selected comparisons.)
A theme which runs from Fassbinder’s first film, Love is Colder Than Death, to his last, Querelle, is also central to The Third Generation: crime – and, more specifically, an exploration of its nature from key perspectives: socioeconomic, psychological, and philosophical. Crime’s hidden agenda, which can include the covert collaboration of politics and business, is also central to The American Soldier, The Niklashausen Journey, Fox and His Friends, Chinese Roulette, Despair, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Lola. Game-playing (the terrorists love board games, and name their big job “Operation Monopoly”), and its associations with arrested emotional – and ethical – development, is also key to Fox and His Friends, Chinese Roulette, and Lola. In this film and others, characters often – and disastrously – substitute half-baked “philosophy” or romanticized “art” for self-understanding: Katzelmacher, The Niklashausen Journey, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, Effi Briest, Chinese Roulette, Satan’s Brew, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Lili Marleen, Lola, Veronika Voss, and Querelle. The resulting lack of emotional and intellectual maturity sends many of Fassbinder’s characters into the hell of dependent and exploitative relationships (which, of course, are invariably two aspects of the same person) – this is arguably the principal theme of all of his works, for both cinema and theatre; here are the ‘top 10’ clearest examples from among his 41 features: Katzelmacher, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, Effi Briest, Satan’s Brew, The Stationmaster’s Wife, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, and Querelle. Note the irony that the revolutionaries in The Third Generation, implicitly fighting for “freedom” and “equality,” allow themselves to be manipulated by a rigid hierarchical structure, headed by the contemptuous master-exploiter Brem and his sexist second-in-command, Paul.
From his earliest films, Fassbinder creates ingenious visual metaphors for these corrosive relationships, which can be summed up by the (perhaps too angst-ridden) title of his debut feature, the revisionist film noir Love is Colder Than Death. That is also his first of many ‘winter tales’ – films which parallel the gray, frozen months with equally frigid characters: Gods of the Plague, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, The American Soldier, Rio das Mortes, Pioneers in Ingolstadt, The Merchant of Four Seasons, Effi Briest, Fox and His Friends, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Chinese Roulette, In a Year With 13 Moons, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and Veronika Voss. Even more externally reflective of these trapped characters are the (literally and metaphorically) constricting spaces in which they live, which both drive them deeper into themselves and force them to collide, and explode, with their fellow sufferers, as in: Love is Colder Than Death, Katzelmacher, Gods of the Plague, Why Does Herr R. Run Amok?, Beware of a Holy Whore, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Martha, Effi Briest, Fear of Fear, Chinese Roulette, The Stationmaster’s Wife, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Berlin Alexanderplatz, Veronika Voss, and Querelle. All of these themes and motifs are developed in The Third Generation. As Fassbinder once remarked, “I would like to build a house with my films. Some are the cellar, others the walls, still others the windows. But I hope that in the end it will be a house.” Picking up on his metaphor, this film seems like ‘the rear bedroom’ – or guest room (punning on the name of the Gast family, which means ‘guest’) – in Fassbinder’s deeply personal, universal – and interconnected – vision.
We are fortunate to have more of Fassbinder’s thoughts on The Third Generation than for almost any other film, as collected in the indispensable The Anarchy of the Imagination: Interviews, Essays, Notes – Rainer Werner Fassbinder, edited by Michael Töteberg and Leo A. Lensing. Fassbinder is an insightful, if sometimes gnomic, interviewee and essayist, as his remarks on this film demonstrate. It’s also worth noting that one of his principal aims was to get us to decide, for ourselves, what his works mean and how we can apply them to our lives and society. The alternative, of not thinking for ourselves, is all too clearly revealed through the benighted terrorists of The Third Generation.
What does the cryptic title mean? In his essay on the film, first published in the Frankfurter Rundschau of December 2, 1978 (during production), Fassbinder slyly complexifies – both clarifying and deepening – the mystery:
“The Third Generation could mean:
1. [The First Generation] The German bourgeoisie from 1848 to 1933;
2. [The Second Generation] Our grandfathers, and how they experienced the Third Reich and how they remember it;
3. [The Third Generation] Our fathers, who had an opportunity after the war to set up a state that could have been more humane and free than any had ever been before, and what becomes of that opportunity in the end.
But The Third Generation could also mean the present generation of terrorists, if you accept the idea that there was a first and a second generation before them….”
In other words, Fassbinder enlarges the historical scope of his title, while leaving it up to us to come to our individual conclusions.
In an October 19, 1979 interview, Fassbinder presented a succinct overview of modern radicalism’s lineage – or rather, degeneration. Fassbinder explained that The Third Generation refers to the three stages of terrorism: “The first generation was that of ’68. Idealists, who wanted to change the world and imagined they could do that with words and demonstrations. The second, the Baader-Meinhof Group, went from legality to armed struggled and total illegality. The third’s the generation of today, which simply acts without thinking, which has neither a policy nor an ideology and which, certainly without realizing it, lets itself by manipulated by others, like a bunch of puppets.”
When Fassbinder was asked how he would categorize the film, he replied – paraphrasing his own tongue-in-check mile-long Brechtian/Godardian subtitle from the opening credits – “As a comedy, or, rather, a parlor game on the topic of terrorism. In six similar yet fundamentally different parts. Biting and mocking, with emotions and suspense, polemics and caricature, brutality and stupidity, in an atmosphere like a dream, a fairy tale. Like the fairy tales you tell children so they’re better equipped to bear their lives as people buried alive.” (Imagine this set to two Stephen Sondheim melodies: first the raucous “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then seguing into the haunting ballad “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.)
The Third Generation is at once a comedy, a game, a political thriller, a philosophical satire, a psychological study of exploitative relationships in individuals and groups, a critique of capitalism, a fairy tale… not to mention one of his most visually and aurally innovative works. Now let’s see how the whole is even greater than the sum of its wildly eclectic parts.
With so many layers of thematic, aesthetic and emotional richness, it’s remarkable that The Third Generation is also extremely – in all senses of the word – entertaining. Lots of laughs, quirky characters, and an engrossing plot which is both suspenseful and wacky – all of which play off the other layers. Here is my analysis of this endlessly fascinating film. Of course, your interpretation may be radically different… and Fassbinder wouldn’t have it any other way.
Spoiler Alert: I move freely throughout the film, and discuss the final sequence’s many surprises – and shocks. If you want to see it fresh, hold off on this analysis until afterwards.
When an interviewer asked Fassbinder about the storyline, his response was surprising: “On the one hand an industrialist [Lurz], on the other a policeman [Inspector Gast]. Together they decide to form a terrorist cell, the first man because it’ll be useful for his business ventures, the second to justify his repressive activities. [The thesis is] very simple: nowadays it’s capitalism that brings forth terrorism, to boost itself and strengthen its system of hegemony.” Remarkably, Fassbinder did not mention what constitutes the other 90 percent of the film: the terrorists. Like, say, the Dostoevsky or Conrad novels mentioned above, The Third Generation – like all of Fassbinder’s films – is grounded in its characters.
How the many characters interact – they sometimes resemble a jostling, quacking (but skillfully directed) gaggle of geese – is what enriches Fassbinder’s exploration of them. As a terrorist cell, the sum is even less than the parts; but as a collective character study, the sum is strikingly revealing – and grotesquely hilarious. But even the humor has layers: gentle (poor sweet Bernhard), social satire (the Gasts), farce (the robberies, up till when Petra pulls the trigger), and pitch-black sex/politics comedy (all of the terrorists, each in their own way). The laughs both reflect the characters and strip bear – for us, not them – their delusions. Fassbinder knows that ideas breed actions; but he also knows that ideas take root in psychological depths – which in turn are conditioned by socioeconomic factors: Everything is interconnected, as The Third Generation dissects with surgical precision… and a good dose of laughing gas.
In terms of narrative structure, Fassbinder identifies the film as “A Comedy in Six Parts,” then numbers the sections. Notably, there are more individual scenes here than in three or four typical Fassbinder pictures. (At the opposite extreme is The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in five scenes and just one location.) The dozens of mini-scenes, each lasting on average a minute, work in several ways. Since this is an ensemble piece, with over a dozen major characters, it’s necessary to focus on each of them, and their couplings, to reveal their evolution – and devolution. The many ‘scene-lettes’ also add to the film’s rapid-fire pacing, which boosts this comedy’s Entertainment Quotient. On a more abstract level, they allow Fassbinder to control the overall narrative flow, which is at once linear and nervously jerky. Metaphorically, the fragmented structure also underscores the atomized, fundamentally disconnected, lives of these characters, as well as their stasis.
Suggestively, each of the six parts comes with its own epigraph, over a frozen image. Instead of the high-toned tradition, of eighteenth and nineteenth century literature, in which a work’s sections were introduced with brief quotations from literary classics, Fassbinder draws all of his epigraphs from graffiti found in Berlin public toilets. Fassbinder was not afraid to go down into the muck – both onscreen, as in his cameo in a urinal in his 1966 short film “The City Tramp,” and sometimes in his own life like, say, Jean Genet or William S. Burroughs – and report on what he finds, whether it be illicit pleasure or human nature with its pretensions stripped raw.
The six raunchy epigraphs each raises a specific theme, delineating the inflection of its part in the overall film: epigraph 1) “You always pull the short straw” implies fatalism (‘you can never win’), while punning about some men’s fetish about organ size; 2) male same-sex relations but with “No S&M;” 3) opposite-sex relations (in rhyming form, no less), 4) xenophobia (here regarding Turks) as a reflection of the violence between conservatives and liberals (the ongoing verbal brawl involves a “Nazi pig!” and “Filthy communist!”), 5) sadomasochism (“Slave seeks master to train me as his dog”) – an interpersonal dynamic which resonates throughout the film, and 6) “Mac Killroy was here” (‘Kilroy Was Here’ was a jokey phrase and cartoon, of a man’s head with a huge phallic nose, scrawled everywhere by World War II U.S. GIs) – like the incessant American pop tunes playing on German radio in Veronika Voss, it’s an ongoing reminder of just who won, and who lost, the War (to add to the dislocation, these quotations appear to be in English even in the original, so they would have had to have been subtitled in German for native audiences). In other words, the epigraphs raise issues of psychological power dynamics (epigraphs 2, 3, and 5); the reality of social outcasts and the violent ideological split between the Right and Left (epigraph 4); German history (epigraph 6 – Fassbinder was haunted by his country’s failed opportunities, after both world wars, to create a truly free society, instead opting for materialistic excess); and fatalism (the “short straw” of epigraph 1), which he sees as a result of flawed human nature, as suggested in the five other epigraphs. Who but Fassbinder would have thought to encapsulate these large ideas, which determine the structure of his narrative, with quotations gleaned from the most marginalized of locales, even as the characters introduce them – ironically, without understanding – in the exalted form of Schopenhauer and Bakunin?
The epigraphs also suggest Fassbinder’s overall narrative strategy: radical condensation. Beyond the torrent of brief scenes, crucial information about characters is often exposed (pun on ‘exposition’ intended) through overdetermined moments. Recall Susanne’s admission of her self-loathing as she’s about to let her despised father-in-law, Inspector Gast, have sex with her; Rudolf’s hypersensitivity about his father (his sadistic manager uses this ambiguous bit to abuse Rudolf: one wonders, could it involve Nazism, since presumably the father then would have been of military age?); Bernhard mentions, to the fawning hierarchy-loving Grandpa Gast, his aristocratic family (which radically redefines his character in the final minutes). These brief revelations open up whole new dimensions for their characters; and there are more, one for almost every character – not least the shocking identity of The Traitor In Their Midst (ironically, Fassbinder tells us who it is while his characters are left even further in the dark). With a less brilliant writer/director, these highly-charged bits would seem mere attempts to cram as much new information into as brief a span as possible. But Fassbinder consistently pulls it off, partly because the dramatically foreshortened – but psychologically complex – characters mesh perfectly with his condensed, and almost poetic, narrative and visual/aural style, and partly because he knows how good his cast is.
Fassbinder directorial style sharply combines naturalism and edgy distance, with the actors both fully inhabiting the characters even while they stand a bit outside of them – carefully making them cartoonish, long before they don those ridiculous costumes. On a philosophical level, this writing/directing/acting approach reflects what the entire film is about: disentangling what’s real from what’s phony and destructive.
Fassbinder’s names for his characters often suggest something about their natures. Here, for instance, we have the agitator-cum-control-freak Brem (bringing to mind Bremse / ‘gadfly’, and Bremsen / ‘put on the brakes’); the record-shop clerk Rudolf Mann (‘man’) is the most ‘average’ [Every-Mann’ of the terrorists; industrial magnate Lurz’s initials, PJ, are an inversion of those of ultimate robber baron JP Morgan. Ironically, Petra Vielhaber (‘has much’) lives a materialist’s dream life but the price is steep: beatings by her professional-class husband; the doomed heroin-addict Ilse Hoffmann (Hoff is ‘hope’) is the most transparently hopeless of the characters; Hide Krieger (from ‘war’) concedes defeat of her feminist principles with stunning if unsurprising rapidity; and Bernhard von Stein (‘stone’) shatters to rubble the moment he’s captured by Inspector Gast. Speaking of the Gast clan, their name (meaning ‘guest,’ ‘visitor’) resonates with the lack of permanence, even the lack of foundation, within their shadowy mansion. There are also a few biblical echoes: the revolutionary leader Paul, whose last name is never spoken (or listed in the credits), practices a more materialistic form of evangelism than the Saint (but his misogyny is comparable); and there are at least two ‘Peters’ – one for each gender – in Peter (PJ) Lurz and Petra Vielhaber; a real stretch would be to include a third: von Stein, as in ‘stone’/’rock,’ related to Peter (‘rock’), as in Jesus’s pun about Peter being ‘the rock’ upon which the church is founded. And yet… this film is about radical-political “disciples” who hope to spread the ‘good news’ of their revolution to the world. I’m not sure if Fassbinder’s tacit allusions went there, but there’s no reason we can’t.
In the background section above, we looked at how The Third Generation relates to major themes in Fassbinder’s other pictures (basically, revolving around self-deception and mutual exploitation). It also contains some specific points of connection regarding characters. For instance, when Petra shoots her abusive husband, we don’t just see her (bloody) liberation from him, we also see actress Margit Carstensen resolve her title role as the beaten-down Martha, who never struck back. Fassbinder pointedly uses several shots – often involving Petra in mirrors – identical to those in the earlier film, to drive home the connection. Even if you have not seen Martha, you can appreciate the emotional power in this film; but if you know it, those scenes take on associative density. And who can forget the most famous Petra in cinema, Petra von Kant, whose tale ends on a suggestive question: Will she be able to find the strength to remake her life? While Petra Vielhaber is certainly no role model, she does grow in self-reliance (alas, in violence too) – even as her “my darling” friend Hilde (who seems to be in a lesbian relationship with her, prior to Paul’s domineering appearance) descends into oblivion. Of course, the plot of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant centers on that Petra’s obsessive love for a beautiful young woman (played by Hanna Schygulla), who leaves her for a man. Here, Hanna Schygulla’s character brings to mind, in her demeanor – and in her masochistic relationship with Inspector Gast – the actress’s recent triumph in The Marriage of Maria Braun. You can imagine inserting Susanne Gast’s scenes in the middle part of the other film, in which years of crucial story development are elided. Susanne’s sly wheelings and dealings would flesh out, as it were, Maria’s never-depicted rise to corporate power. These are just some of the dozens of instances of how this film connects in specific ways with Fassbinder’s universe.
The most resonant name, in Fassbinder’s entire filmography, is Franz Walsch. His enigmatic nature is suggested in this film by his multiple disguises, including an elderly man in sunglasses and even, during a robbery, a campy parody of blackface. Fassbinder is well-known for his disgust at all forms of xenophobia and racism – note Katzelmacher and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul – and for a series of lovers who were of Middle Eastern or African descent, including the German/African-American actor Günther Kaufman, who here plays Walsch. Crossing several boundaries (including mortality, since Walsh is sometimes killed off, only to return), the same role is performed (in what I’ve dubbed the Franz Walsch Trilogy) by Fassbinder himself in the first and third films – Love is Colder Than Death and The American Soldier – but by the the svelte Harry Baer in the middle entry, Gods of the Plague. The name also served as Fassbinder’s pseudonym on most of the 15 films that he edited (he felt he already wore too many creative hats – as writer, director, producer – and hence needed to beef up the crew listings, even as he furthered his identification with this mysterious character). The ‘Franz’ alludes to Franz Biberkopf, the benighted German everyman in the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (which throughout his life Fassbinder dreamed of filming: he finally got his chance immediately after this film). The ‘Walsch,’ a purposefully Germanized spelling of the surname of one of Fassbinder’s cinematic heroes, alludes to American director Raoul Walsh (White Heat). Fassbidner literally spells out the name in The American Soldier, in an eclectic list of political, cultural, and cinematic references (which seem remarkably apt for this film too): “W as in war, A as in Alamo, L as in Lenin, S as in science fiction, C as in crime, and H as in Hell.” Yet another layer comes from having Walsch incarnated here by actor, and Fassbinde’s volatile off-again/on-again lover, Günther Kaufmann; he also plays three enigmatic, but very Franz Walsch-like, characters in the BRD Trilogy (The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, Veronika Voss) – that was a primary way that Fassbinder unified both those flms and what was to have been a much larger multi-film saga about postwar Germany.
Michael Constantine, as PJ Lurz, provides a bridge both to Fassbinder’s personal favorite of all of his pictures, Beware of a Holy Whore, and to the director who primarily inspired Fassbinder to begin making films: Jean-Luc Godard. In fact, the character – in the film-within-a-film – which Constantine plays in his earlier Fassbinder picture is modeled on his famous role – noirish private eye Lemmy Caution – in Godard’s revisionist science fiction classic, Alphaville. There, he had defeated the fascist, world-dominating supercomputer Alpha-60 (which anticipates Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s HAL 9000, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, by a couple of years), but here, he’s running a computer company, and is himself a fascist in all but name. Note that Lurz’s Machiavellian domination of the action is hinted at in the opening: the credits appear in flashes of green, one letter at a time, resembling a monitor display from the (primitive) 1970s computers which Lurz sells.
Although each of the 15 or 16 principal characters is clearly delinated, Fassbinder is primarily concerned with the group as a whole. Like a composer, he uses the characters as variations on a theme. The terrorists’ whispered password – Schopenhauer’s title “the world as will and idea” – reminds us that they have no “will” or “ideas” of their own. They never comprehend Schopenhauer’s meaning, that the will is what leads to illusion and suffering – and that the goal of a good life is its extinction. Fatally out of touch with themselves, they hide behind a ready-made ideology to give their lives purpose, but it only locks them into rigid and degrading roles… and dumb costumes. (These are ultra-left-wing terrorists, but psychologically they’re like their ultra-right-wing brethren, of so many different religious brands.) They’ve become caught up, helter skelter, in a flow of events which reflect only their need, not for revolutionary idealism but only violence – futilely hoping that it will fill the aching gaps in their lives. Of course, those holes are within themselves, and ironically – this is a “comedy” – their actions prevent self-awareness. And like the millions of everyday people who allowed the Nazis to come to power, these terrorists are all too eager to ‘follow the leader,’ even a nasty runt like Brem. As Fassbinder has shown – here, in Satan’s Brew, and other works – people beg, sometimes on their knees (even in toilet stalls), for Masters… whatever the ultimate price.
As with all underlings, these “radicals” never understand the larger forces that actually pull the strings. Fassbinder lets us know, in one of his most incendiary ideas, that it’s capitalism – embodied by Lurz and abetted by a reactionary government, represented by Inspector Gast – behind everything. That includes Lurz’s own kidnapping, which the terrorists think they’ve conceived themselves. Yet even Lurz is a slave to market forces. People are no longer afraid of terrorists, so the ‘anti-terrorism’ computers he manufactures are not selling, so he must whip up a new terror threat to boost sales. On a human level – which Fassbinder always keeps sharply in focus – Lurz seems a sad, lonely little man, closer to the shabby mountebank behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz than to his superhero character Lemmy Caution, let alone a multinational wheeler ‘n’ dealer. For all of the film’s deep but tortured laughs, remember that Fassbinder’s larger purpose is always to wake us up, to make us look behind the surface, to understand – and challenge – the complex, intertwined meanings of “world” (what society is and what it can be), “will” (by extension, the psychological – and hence socioeconomic – base which defines human volition), and “ideas” (which determine our actions, and so the type of society we have, and could have).
In a way, this film is about what prevents the realization of idealist anarchism, as defined by Bakunin and largely – but critically – embraced by Fassbinder (his collected essays are aptly-entitled Anarchy of the Imagination). Here he dramatizes a critique of the forces – both internal/psychological and external/socioeconomic – that block human freedom. Fassbinder exposes why we must escape the prison of our own and society’s limitations before we can ever achieve a truly free society (which Fassbinder, like idealists today, knew was far in the future, if possible at all). The wide range, but fundamental similarity, of the blinkered revolutionaries’ problems lets Fassbinder reveal the phenomenon in many of its forms, from Ilse’s physical heroin addiction to Susanne’s self-loathing expressed her sadomasochisic relationship with the ultimate enemy, not to mention her own father-in-law, Inspector Gast.
This multiplication of character joined to unity of theme, and analysis, creates a kind of refractive narrative which seems as condensed as poetry. As with his other ‘weird’ – and almost impossibly densely-layered – late films, like In a Year With 13 Moons, Fassbinder’s unique and revealing distortions of conventional ‘good dramatic writing’ seem comparable to ‘weird’ late Shakespeare plays, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, although Fassbinder pointedly eschews any climactic reconciliations – which he believes must take place within us individual audience members if at all. I’m not saying that Fassbinder is a latter-day Bard of Avon, but both dramatists, in their final works, enter a radically new and more exposed kind of drama, which almost taunts the audience to make sense – rapidly – of what in a lesser artist’s hands would be merely alienating. Although gut instinct is perhaps not the most reliable ‘aesthetic meter’ available, and I’m sure other viewers will have a different take, I do keep thinking about Fassbinder’s radically evolved dramaturgy – it’s as if he’s gone back to the transparently abstract style of his first eleven films (inspired by the polemical poetics of Brecht and Godard), but simultaneously incorporates the volcanic emotions of his middle period’s revisionist melodramas, as in Martha. The resulting synthesis in the best of these final films – as clearly seen in The Third Generation – is a form of drama and cinema unique to Fassbinder: political, poetic, ironic, and profoundly heartfelt – all crushed together, with enormous psychological pressure, and resulting in works which are (if you’ll allow me the metaphor) as clear, hard, and refractive as diamonds.
Critical to the total nature of Fassbinder’s cinema, as seen here, is how he uses visual and sound style, to both reinforce and selectively undercut the narrative form. Fassbinder worked with some outstanding cinematographers, including – on his early films – Michael Ballhaus and Dietrich Lohmann, and later Xaver Schwarzenberg. But I’d argue that, frame for frame, his most visually resonant films are the two he shot himsel: In a Year With 13 Moons (1978) and, a year later, this one. He masterfully sets up tensions between the beauty of the rich, saturated colors, the precisely-deformed compositions, and the grotesquerie of the characters. Virtually every shot can be appreciated on all of these levels, and their interplay with Fassbinder’s ideas, beginning with the disembodied opening image. Let’s take a close look at this quietly exhilarating shot, which is emblematic of the film’s overall visual strategy (which you may want to explore, and savor, on your own).
We begin floating in space which, ambiguously, feels both limitlessly deep yet flat: Welcome to Fassbinder’s Berlin! As the camera slowly pulls back, we see that we are looking out of a huge office window, on which happens to be the fifteenth floor of the mall-like (but never seen) Europa-Center, as editor Julianne Lorenz notes in her revealing interview on this DVD (she also wryly adds that the building’s owner made only one suite available to filmmakers, and charged accordingly: ouch). The snow-dotted urban landscape may remind us Godard’s setting for Alphaville (set on another planet – which bears an uncanny and perfect resemblance to mid-winter Paris); that connection will be reinforced in a minute, when Michael “Lemmy Caution” Constantine appears. What we see is also evocative: the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Like this film, in some ways, this defining Berlin landmark is a study in contradictions: partially destroyed in World War II, yet rebuilt… but not quite enough, with its uneasy mixture of postwar modernism wrapped around the original nineteenth century pseudo-Gothic structure, which refuses to be contained. Looking ahead to the end of this film, with the terrorists in costume, it fancifully anticipates the theme of ‘dress-up’ which never quite comes together. Also important is Fassbinder’s framing: like his many other literally and metaphorically ‘ground-less’ characters, in films like Katzelmacher, whose feet never touch the earth, so too is this Church shown cut off from its foundation – and with a film playing on TV called The Devil, Probably, that’s really not good. Freud-o-phobes forgive me, but the Church, especially as framed here, is phallic. Before groaning too loudly, recall that this film is about sex as the, er, root of so many ills — and in Fassbinder, politics is always sexual politics. The Church’s shape also suggests a squeezed version of the towering main building which dominates Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), yet another film that reveals the secret collusion between a sham ‘revolutionary’ leader and the ruling elite (who actually create an android to dupe the volatile underlings); further tightening the intertextual web, Godard also pays homage to Lang in Alphaville. Even with so many fraught connotations, the image as a whole is sensuously beautiful, with its cool, rich palette of grays, powder blue, all contrasted with those throbbing bright green credits (discussed above).
The camera continues its slow, sultry movement across Lurz’s office (which recalls that of kingpin Anton Saitz, in In a Year With 13 Moons) until finally coming to rest, at which point Fassbinder signs the film. But look at the complex – and meaningful – composition with which the shot ends. Fassbinder uses the window frame and right-hand wall to divide his frame almost, but not quite, into thirds: subtle tension – we subliminally want perfect thirds… but nothing is perfect in the world of this film. Four objects, which reflect important motifs in the film, give us a strong diagonal from lower-left to upper-right: the computer monitor (the shark-like necessity of its sales – if they ever stop, Lurz goes bust – drives the dirty deal between Lurz and Inspector Gast), the television, the ‘head’ of the Memorial Church (in the distance), and finally the wall with its rows of three clocks (recall Fassbinder’s almost fetishistic use of precise dates, times, and locations throughout the film – which paradoxically grounds its fiction in the ‘real’ world). But wait: there’s more! There’s another, queasy vector running from the lower-right (the plant, pointing upwards), the big black chair (we can just see the back of Susanne’s head), again the almost-but-not-quite central TV, and then, where you’d expect a visual cap (in the upper-let)… nothing – we’re back out in the unsettling space where we began the shot.
Since we’re looking at this one shot in detail, let’s go all the way and consider the object which is central to both of these diagonals: the television, playing the climax of Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977). On a personal level, Julianne Lorenz tells us how much Fassbinder admired this film: when he served on the jury of the 1977 Berlinale film festival, he fiercely championed it for best picture (to no avail). Bresson’s film includes some themes which clearly connect with Fassbinder’s: the handsome, adrogynous twenty-ish protagonist raises issue about sexual identity (which needs to be explored throughout Bresson) – and the exploitative nature of his relationships with two young women, simultaneously – even as it possibly may connect to his political nihilism, which in turn is the reason (or is it rationalization?) he gives for his ‘poetic’ suicide (shades of such canonical German authors as Hölderin or Kleist). In fact, Fassbinder had only recently pulled himself back from the brink of un-poetic suicide, after his lover Armin Meier killed himself. That suggests the rueful, almost-despairing acknowledgment in the opening credits – “Dedicated to someone who truly loves — so to no one, probably” – which also echoes Bresson, in even more than the “probably.” You can imagine hearing any, and all, of Fassbinder’s self-deluding terrorists echo what Bresson’s protagonist says to a psychiatrist, who asks the young man/poseur what’s wrong with himself: “I see things too clearly.” Bresson’s title also alludes to vast, shadowy forces controlling human society: for him, a religious man, the force may be supernatural (“the Devil, probably”), while for Fassbinder, a humanist, it’s an unholy combination of our psychological inner demons and the diabolical aspects of capitalism (represented by Lurz), definitely.
Certainly, other viewers will find even more, or less (perhaps overly imaginative) dimensions in this single opening shot: and that’s part of my point. Fassbinder – even with his prodigious background in theatre, and literature – is also and always a master of image, of using all the qualities of cinematic visual language to enrich, and counterpoint, both characters and themes. You will find countless instances of this dark brilliance throughout The Third Generation and in virtually all of Fassbinder’s other films.
Before turning to sound, let me add a couple of other notes about this film’s visual strategy, beginning with all of its darkness. The clearest example is the Gasts’ palatial home, its every corridor and corner filled with unnerving shadows. A frequently repeated visual device involves a character either going down or coming back up a long, narrow, and blackened hallway. Although most of the film is purposely set in cramped apartments, when characters venture out it’s often into dark places: Susanne and Gast’s sleazy motel room (made all the darker by that garish, and cartoonish, red neon sign outside), the to-be-robbed government office at night, the undergrond where Bernhard pursues Brem, the shadowy staircase in the city hall, even the record shop where Rudolf works and, at moments, each of the various apartments. Metaphorically, this reinforcces the psychological and ethical void within the characters; but at the same time, like almost everthing else in the film, there is a sensual – almost inviting – quality to it. Of course, beauty is always ambiguous in Fassbinder. In contrast to the blackness, the film’s world is punctuated with a few exterior scenes marked by cold, white winter light, which – it could be said – parallels the frozen emotions and minds of the terrorists.
Fassbinder also makes effective use of movement, both within shots and, in the editing, between them, to contrast with the largely – and thematically dead-on – static nature of the terrorists’ world. A couple of notable instances of camera movement include one shot, reminiscent of Godard’s patented linear tracking shots, set outside the Japanese Restaurant where Paul eats what will be his last supper: the sinuous movement traps him. Fassbinder also includes some virtuoso fluid shots during large ensemble scenes. There, he uses the camera to splinter off selected groups of characters, sometimes in mid-sentence. The shifting positions of the carefully framed characters, often in twisted relationship to each other – and not infrequently speaking to the back of someone’s head, slyly reveal the power dynamics of their relationships. The series of high-angle, twisted establishing shots of various locations, most dramatically inside the Gast mansion, reveal the the underlying nature of this unbalanced world.
During the large ensemble scenes, we also hear some of the clearest instances of Fassbinder’s personal breakthrough with sound. About the aural design, an interviewer once mentioned to Fassbinder that he’d heard it referred to as “acoustic terrorism.” Fassbinder elucidated, “[W]hat’s more typical nowadays than the sounds, the noise, the shouting that constantly washes over us from television, radios, and the streets…. [T]he individual characters… are completely secondary in comparison to the climate of noise and racket they live in.” Rather than mere noise, his use of it here is closer to, say, the overlapping verbal pyrotechnics of Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, 1940), or the density of multiple conversations and sounds in Robert Altman (Nashville, 1975), as well as, of course, Godard’s extraordinary soundtracks (Masculine–Feminine, 1966). Fassbinder’s densely-layered tracks provide concrete details about the actual day-to-day world of the story’s fictional events (Fassbinder videotaped the evening news every night during production – some of those recordings play in the background of scenes – which connects with the many specific date/time/place references throughout the film). But the frenetic soundtrack is also echoes the hysteria which the terrorists have created both in the external world and within themselves. In one of the terrorists’ group ‘party scenes’ (more mixer than strategy session), the overlapping of a half-dozen conversations, radio, music from a stereo and a TV news broadcast is not conveying information, it’s reflecting chaos. But if you listen closely (which the subtitles help us to do), what the participants in a discussion on the television news are talking about is clearly relevant to Fassbinder’s themes. As one commentator opines, “The instinct to command others, in its primitive essence, is a carnivorous, bestial and savage instinct. Under the influence of man’s mental development, it takes on a more ideal form and becomes somewhat ennobled.” Not only is this remark relevant to events in Germany in late 1979, it also highlights a key – and all too timeless – theme running throughout Fassbinder’s body of work: domination, and its price (which we looked at above). As if it needs saying: the more, and the more closely, you look and listen in Fassbinder, the more you’ll find… to provoke you, into critical reflection.
When Fassbinder referred to this as a “simple film,” he clearly had his tongue in his cheek; yet in terms of its stylstic surfaces, it is simple – in the sense of how it refines ideas/images to their essences. But the enormously evocative, and provocative, power of this film comes with how all of these elements reinforce each other paradoxically by playing against each other. On its most obvious stylistic level, the film counterpoints narrative structure, character, image, and sound: like oil and water, they just don’t seem to blend – much as the gap, in characters, between their (purposefully) generic nature and psychological complexity. And that disconnect is part of the larger political, and psychological, point. We come to see what the would-be revolutionaries never do: that they are living in a well-appointed but empty and claustrophobic world. Yes, the tight budget constraints were well-served by most of the film being shot indoors in three or four main locations – but so was Fassbinder’s analysis of the characters’ interdynamics, and inner demons. Not only are they trapped by the folly and self-blindness of what Rudolf Mann calls “searches for adventure,” when they finally do burst out onto the street, in the climax, they wear ridiculous childlike cartoon-animal costumes, showing that they are very little (with apologies to Dostoevksy) “devils” indeed.
Their dress-up reveals much about the characters’ immature and even bestial natures: clowns who kill. Of course, it is the last day of Fasching – a German word for the pre-Easter Carnival season – which raises some interesting associations. Historically, Fasching was when the so-called lower classes were allowed to wear masks and costumes – and to mock the aristocracy, and heads of church and state, without fear of punishment. Of course, such a ‘level’ egalitarian society is what utopian anarchists want 365 days a year, but without gunplay. On one level, the would-be radicals’ costumes, typical of both their personal fantasies and the holiday’s intrinsic faux-freedom, reflect outsider status: Susanne as a white moth, Hilde the machine gun-toting clown, Rudolf a pirate, and Edgar’s drag queen (recalling Brem’s earlier film-noirish femme-fatale disguise, which is in striking contrast to actor Volker Spengler’s heartbreaking transgender character in In a Year With 13 Moons). Throughout the film – from planning stages, to the robbery, and finally the Lurz kidnapping – the terrorists’ disguises grow increasingly grotesque and concealing. They begin with tacky wigs and assumed names. Susanne is especially excited to become “Sarah Grünbahm, a housewife…born December 25, 1950” (I’ve found no correspondence between these specific fictitious birth dates and the actors; however, Christmas ’50 might have been the first holiday that Fassbinder and his mother – who bears no resemblance to her zombie-like role of Frau Gast – spent alone together, after Herr Dr. Fassbinder walked out). The disguises suggest that these people are trying, with increasing desperation, to be something – anything – othern than the sad nonentities that Fassbinder reveals. Their final, and most outrageous, Fasching costumes exposes the childish narcissism of these buffoons, who nonetheless shoot with, and are being shot at by, real bullets. The huge dolls, which litter the film, also relate with this implicit critique of life-threatening immaturity: is it any surprise that those five-foot stuffed animals appear in the shadowy corners of both the Gast mansion and the terrorists’ flats.
Because we in the audience have been privileged to hear the plotting between Lurz and Inspector Gast (tacitly representing the government), we – unlike the costumed ‘radicals’ – understand exactly what’s really going down. Lurz is masterminding a new eruption of terrorism; people will predictably/understandably demand that their government do something about it – like buy Lurz’s ‘anti-terrorism computers’ at exorbitant prices – to restore order, even as they say, Take away more of our freedoms and civil rights to “protect us” — please, Sir… please, Master… please, Leader.
And we’re back to the steep price society’s – and individual’s – pay for demanding hierarchies, whether it’s in general terms with the terrorists and Brem, or specific couplings like Hilde under Paul, or Susanne expressing her (openly admitted, but ill-understood) self-loathing through submitting to Inspector Gast, or even in desperate message scrawled on a toilet wall, like the epigraph which opens the film’s fifth part: “Slave seeks master to train me as his dog. I have no ties and am willing to sacrifice everything to do exactly what you want. Here again next Thursday at 4pm. Every true sadist will immediately recognize me as a slave. A slave that’s ever willing to sacrifice himself, whatever the consequences.” Message in the men’s toilets at Bahnhoff Zoo, cubicle on the right, West Berlin, 26.12.1978″ – as Fassbinder knows, the gender doesn’t matter – not even the specific time or place matters. What’s important – and tragic, and bitterly ironically hilarious from a certain point of view – is the desperate compulsion to submit to someone in power. Throughout much of The Third Generation we can laugh along with what Fassbinder calls his “comedy … like the fairy tales you tell children so they’re better equipped to bear their lives as people buried alive.” At the end, when he literally ‘sends in the clowns,’ we think maybe we’re going to get a few huge rolling belly laughs. But no. The one groveling police captive who connects the dots – Bernhard – is thrown to his death… by the officer in charge. And we end with master-manipulator Lurz, the “prisoner” who is in fact in control – but not quite, since he will always the remain dependent on the vagaries of socio-economic and historic forces that are more or less (today, less) beyond his control. We end on his smile – multiplied between the man himself and his monochromatic video-monitor double. The longer we stare, the more it looks like a smirk.
But does Fassbinder give Lurz the last laugh?
This film is literally and metaphorically dark, but is it – as some might claim – hopeless? For the characters, yes; but don’t forget – as Fassbinder never did – us in the audience. I don’t think this or any Fassbinder film is bleak… unless you consider yourself incapable of breaking out of the vicious cycle of disconnection and exploitation which it depicts.
Fassbinder reveals – below the darkness and despair – a great, and too often overlooked, humanity. It is even more poignant, in light of the personal demons he fought and overcame, at least long enough to make 41 films. He saw deeply into human nature, and he was never afraid to expose the exploitative interrelationships, the many roads to self-destruction, and the endless halls of mirrors which seduce and deceive us, both individually and collectively. Equally clear in Fassbinder’s work is his utopian vision (which he discussed openly in his essays); but he knows that it can only be achieved by people scrutinizing themselves, their ideas, their motivations, and always the society which they perpetuate. Paradoxically, Fassbinder is the leader as anti-leader, the one who wants us to set ourselves free. He points the way, with razor-sharp precision: the rest is up to us. That is the source of the radically compassionate humanity at the heart of even his darkest works, like this one.
He’s shown us how and why the Third Generation is a total botch. Now, you can almost hear him ask, what are we going to do to make the Fourth Generation a lot better?
- Written & Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
- Produced by Fassbinder
- Executive Producer: Harry Baer
- Cinematography by Fassbinder (also his own camera operator)
- Assistant Camera: Hans-Günther Bücking and Alexander Witt
- Edited by Juliane Lorenz
- Production Design by Raúl Gimenez
- Art Direction by Volker Spengler
- Original Music by Peer Raben
- Assistant Director: Juliane Lorenz
- Harry Baer as Rudolf Mann
- Hark Bohm as Gerhard Gast
- Margit Carstensen as Petra Vielhaber
- Eddie Constantine as Peter Lurz
- Jürgen Draeger as Hans Vielhaber
- Raúl Gimenez as Paul
- Claus Holm as Grandpa Gast
- Günther Kaufmann as Franz Walsch
- Udo Kier as Edgar Gast
- Y Sa Lo as Ilse Hoffmann
- Bulle Ogier as Hilde Krieger
- Lilo Pempeit as Mother Gast
- Peer Raben
- Hanna Schygulla as Susanne Gast
- Volker Spengler as August Brem
- Vitus Zeplichal as Bernhard von Stein
- Rudi Dutschke as Himself (archive footage)
- Juliane Lorenz (uncredited) as Job Placement Counselor
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Tango‘s DVD offers brilliantly vivid image and sound. It looks like Fassbinder shot the film yesterday.
- In the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (full frame)
- Optional English subtitles
- Interview with Juliane Lorenz, who edited all of Fassbinder’s films from 1977 until his death in 1982
- Photo Gallery
- Trailers for The Third Generation and two other films
- $24.98 suggested retail
Reviewed October 6, 2007 / Revised October 13, 2020