Thursday, June 9, 2011

THE THIRD GENERATION (Die dritte Generation, 1979)

The title of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's satirical political thriller refers both to the three generations of the Gast family we see onscreen -- a retired grandfather with aristocratic longings, a police inspector and a terrorist -- and to what Fassbinder elsewhere identified as three generations of German terrorism. The terrorist gang we see here are presumably decadent heirs of the heritage of the Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany's counterpart to Italy's Red Brigades. I'm not sure what the second generation of terrorists was supposed to be like, unless we're meant to take the family as a metaphor for terrorism. What's definitely clear is that the third generation in either case is pretty screwed up.

After an ominous opening in which Fassbinder oh-so-slowly pulls his camera back to reveal Hanna Schygulla watching TV in an upper-floor office, we're introduced to the motley crew who make up a terrorist cell as the trigger phrase "The World as Will and Idea" compels them to converge on Rudolf Mann's spacious apartment. The trigger tips us off a little to Fassbinder's agenda. It's the title of a famous book by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, a writer Grandfather Gast dismisses as one popular with people who feel they have nothing to live for. But it'd be going to far to say that our terrorists are motivated by Schopenhauer or any philosophy. They're polar opposites (perhaps intentionally so) from the devoted young ideologues of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise in that Fassbinder's terrorists spend virtually no time discussing theory. In fact, the only character who seems engaged in ideological reading is a latecomer to the story whose reading of Bakunin makes him the subject of childish teasing. Whether that's because Bakunin was the arch-anarchist of the 19th century, or because the terrorists simply find intellectual aspirations contemptible is hard for me to say. But it leaves you wondering what cause they're fighting for, or if they're out for violence for its own sake.

Rudolf Mann shares his apartment with his girlfriend Ilse (Y Sa Lo), a heroin addict who seems oblivious to the allegedly revolutionary activities being plotted around her. It says something about Fassbinder's social vision that the wretched Ilse is the terrorists' link to the wider, "real" world. We're invited to see the cell through the eyes of Ilse's friend Franz Walsch (Guenther Kauffmann), a half-American ex-soldier who's having trouble joining the civilian workforce, and Franz's sidekick Bernhard Von Stein (Vitus Seplichal), the aforementioned Bakunin fan. These two join the uncomfortable troupe, but while Bernhard seems to be dismissed by everyone, Franz is eventually enticed into the group, being an almost archetypal explosives expert. But Franz isn't ready to be radicalized until he fails repeatedly to find work and Ilse finally OD's herself to death. At that point, he isn't radicalized as much as he's reduced to having nothing to live for.

Heroin is a terrible thing to waste

Franz joins up just as the revolution is about to devour its children. Left to his own devices as the gang fans out on various missions, Bernhard eventually discovers a conspiracy to make any paranoid blissful. The terrorists are planning to kidnap a businessman, P. J. Lurz (Eddie Constantine), for whom the Schygulla character works. Lurz jokes with Inspector Gast that capitalists may have invented terrorists to speed the creation of a more perfect police state -- but it turns out that Lurz wasn't joking -- or else was just toying with an ignorant cop. In fact, Lurz is paying one of the terrorists to keep the cell in operation, and to inform the inspector about their activities, without Gast knowing Lurz's full role in the drama. Now, even as the terrorists finalize plans to kidnap Lurz, dressing themselves up all too appropriately like carnival clowns and fairytale creatures, some members are being wiped out by the police. Can Bernhard catch up to his old buddy Franz and talk him out of walking into a deathtrap? Will the surviving terrorists take Lurz, and if they do, who'll actually be whose captive?...

The Third Generation is set in a world of shit. Fassbinder divides it into acts, each of which has for an epigraph graffiti or overheard conversations from Berlin's public toilets. The director hangs his portrait on an oppressive wall of sound. Nearly every scene has the sound of a TV or radio playing over it, on top of multi-character dialogues, and on top of that Fassbinder piles on Peter Raben's droning score. It actually adds a layer of reality to the cheaply shot scenes -- many of which were clearly filmed in unheated locations -- while furthering the impression that there's nothing but noise in everyone's lives and minds. Fassbinder's terrorists don't stand outside this world to prepare themselves to change it. They're completely immersed in it and embody in themselves all of its corruptions. The result is as complete a deromanticization of revolutionary terrorism as a reactionary could want -- and Fassbinder was no reactionary -- more effective than portraying them as evil masterminds or pitiless fanatics.

P.J. Lurz is ready for his close-up

Fassbinder died not long after his 37th birthday. Had he lived, he would be all of 66 years old today. His early death might be considered one of the tragedies of world cinema -- and could still be thought so -- if not for the fact that in a 13 year career he made 27 films. That's several careers of canonical directors put together, a formidable lifework with which I've just made my first acquaintance. Third Generation seems to have been a reversion to an earlier manner of guerrilla filmmaking after some international arthouse successes, but it shows a directorial eye attentive to the aesthetics of space and the subtleties of both human and camera movement. It combines dispassion and disillusion while touching the depths of Seventies pessimism and paranoia, making it an important cinematic document of its time. Fassbinder himself was arguably one of the most important directors of my favorite decade, so I expect to check out more of his filmography very soon.


Jonny said...

Hey Samuel, I too would like to see more of his stuff. I have seen a few films, like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and The Marriage of Maria Braun. As you've mentioned, there's a lot of films to see that were made in a short period of time.

Michael C said...

Ahhh, Fassbinder. Would you believe a local cinema is playing The Third Generation this week, double-billed with In A Year of 13 Moons? And, just my luck, I won't be able to make it. I saw almost all of Fassbinder's 'major' films 14 or 15 years ago, at one fell swoop, which wonderful havoc with my head, then caught up with his TV-to-film masterworks Berlin Alexanderplatz and World on a Wire in the past couple of years. Genius. Yet I haven't seen this film. You've prompted me to go back to his films - I've missed all of a current short retrospective of his films here in my home city, so I'm fully inspired to immerse myself in his world soon.
Thanks for provoking a desire to delve into work again.