Issue 04, Volume 02
Luc Sante on The Third Generation
by Gus Reed
This article is part of an ongoing series of published conversations held between Double Exposure contributors and established film writers. Each installment will be devoted to a single film of the critic’s choice. For this inaugural edition, Gus Reed got in touch with essayist, critic, and avid cinephile Luc Sante––whose wide range of interests also touches on photography, French literature, urban history, and the blues––for an in-depth discussion of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s venomous late-career black comedy The Third Generation.
I seem to remember having trouble following this the first time, at the movie theater they used to have within the Public Theater on Lafayette Street, maybe 1980--I was probably on drugs. Which isn't to say it isn't complex. There's not as much printed text as I recalled--just chapter epigrams from toilet graffiti in Berlin--but the sound of it is overwhelming. Not only are people talking--screaming--throughout, but there's talk blaring from radios and TVs and tapes at all times, as much as three layers of gumflap at one time. I know some German, but not enough to handle that. But Fassbinder is brilliant with sound in general, using it as a pretty overt emotional manipulation device. The seasick music during Gerhard Gast's interrogation of Bernhard von Stein, for example, is effectively anxiety-producing. And he loves deliberate unsynch of music and dramatic action--evident e.g. in The Marriage of Maria Braun, where in big set-piece scenes in which music functions as part of the scene the songs abruptly cut off and you only hear the beginning or the end.
Drugs or not, The Third Generation is disorienting to say the least. I don't speak any German, and relying on the English subtitles, which, in my copy, usually only translated one of the overlapping tracks of dialogue, I felt like I was missing out on a lot-- but not on the intended effect, which seems to have been confusion.
It figures that if Fassbinder was going to make a movie about terrorism, in that fraught time just a year or so after the Baader-Meinhof suicides at Stammheim, when Germany and pretty much all of Europe was still reeling, it was going to be an anxiety-producing farce about terrorism. Also about movies. Fassbinder likes encasing ideas within cover versions. The Third Generation is his version of Godard's La Chinoise, likewise showing silly suburban dilettantes playacting at revolution. The picture is studded with little Godard nods. Paul rubs his mouth with his thumb like Belmondo in Breathless. The contact in Houston is named Mr. Curtiz--Godard was always giving names of directors to characters. The guerilla scenes owe everything to Week End. He even throws in Eddie Constantine (and Bulle Ogier, although she never worked with Godard, instead Rivette--but that's another story). When Petra and Susanne are gushing about the Botho Strauss play at the Schaubühne, though, it sounds like the Situationists parodying Godard.
Because for one thing, Fassbinder is half a generation (15 years) younger than Godard, and the revolutionaries in real life have over that time--the 12 years since La Chinoise--gone from silly/theoretical to silly/deadly. But Fassbinder catches something else: it is the historical moment when would-be revolutionaries begin to reveal themselves as consumers. It is the hinge of the '80s. Of course, these people aren't the genuine radicalized item--forged in riots and street fighting, trained in PLO camps, done time, etc. (If you want the best cinematic idea of what that time was like politically, forget the Baader-Meinhof movie, which is ponderous junk, and instead see Olivier Assayas's Carlos, which is brilliant and completely accurate about the politics involved.) Instead, our friends here are a little bourgeois art gang, acting at 30 like they're 16 with more money. If they lived in LA they'd be starting a band. The one lucid character on the scene is the cop, Gerhard Gast (and isn't Hark Bohm great as always?). When he tells Lurz, "I had a dream that capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better"—uproarious laughter – he’s stating the thesis as broadly as it could possibly be.
Apart from what I've gleaned from a few movies (including Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, which didn't do much for me either) I know very little about the political atmosphere in Germany at this time, so I'm wondering how exactly The Third Generation engages with its wider context. To call it a farce or a black comedy seems like making it out to be far more light-hearted than it is. It seems like an invective, dripping with frustration and anger, not only towards its clueless protagonists, but also towards the capitalist system they seem to think they're fighting. Who or what exactly is Fassbinder targeting here? Or, maybe it makes more sense to ask who he isn't targeting. There are moments of bizarre slapstick humor (when Bernhard turns to the wall and wraps his arms around himself as if pretending to make out with someone to avoid being seen, for example) and bitter irony (like the ladies' excitement over finding out that a nice blouse cost only 12 marks) but to me, the tone and outlook on human life seemed so unremittingly grim that it was hard to crack a smile.
I read your response before watching so I was on the hunt for Godard references, and what stood out to me was "Film is a lie, 25 times per second." As tongue-in-cheek as this comment may be, the impression we get of film and television in The Third Generation is certainly not a redemptive one. The passive would-be terrorists-- who have no idea what they're doing and less of an idea why-- seem to be perpetually watching TV and movies on TV (or at least having their TVs blaring in the background). The film opens with a slow zoom out to reveal Susanne watching TV in Lurz's office, and ends in much the same way, except Lurz is now on the screen, reciting his "hostage" statement. Am I reading too much into these visuals or is Fassbinder trying to make a larger claim about film, TV and video? And how should we take such a claim, coming, as it does, from within a film?
As bitter a movie as this is--and really funny, but you can't access its humor without coming to terms with its bitterness--it seems completely justified by the historical moment. It was made just a year after the 1977 suicides--throbbing with suspicions of "assisted suicide" more then than now--of Ulrike Meinhof, Andeas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin in Stammheim Prison. The rage many people, presumably including Fassbinder, felt was twofold. There was the obvious layer of anger at the system that willy-nilly had led to those three deaths, of people who would hardly have been insignificant even if they'd never picked up a weapon. Then there was the rage at their being what we had come to.
All left-wing movements of the '60s crested and broke similarly. The US New Left emerged from the civil rights and ban-the-bomb movements and maybe coalesced with the Port Huron Statement of 1962. Then it became increasingly radical, cresting in 1968, after which it fragmented and parts of it went insane, culminating with the Weather Underground, which flamed out in the late '70s. The German equivalent ran similarly, although it got started later. The spark occurred in Kommune 1 in Berlin ('67-'69), which was wild and creative and good-humored. German youth fell for its spirit in a big way, and the German New Left materialized out of almost nothing. But after the death of Benno Ohnesorg's death at the hands of the police in 1968 and the near-fatal shooting of the leader Rudi Dutschke the next year things hardened, as well as getting more factionalized. Baader and Meinhof and Ensslin and Raspe turned up the volume, sharply, and suddenly ultraviolence was in effect. The same things were happening in Italy (Red Brigades as opposed to Autonomists) and France (Direct Action as opposed to Autonomists there too)--although the French never became as famous because they failed to kidnap a prominent figure and videotape him.
Life was impossible if you weren't a fanatic; you would be harassed by the ultra-radicals, and also harassed by the police. The radicals were out of their minds, not just high on adrenaline but jacked up by ideology--once you start radicalizing, the inevitable dictates that you will eventually explode. So Fassbinder, like many people, simultaneously mourned those BMs and loathed them, and mourned the missed chances, because what measurable change BM had wrought upon society was all expressed in repression, lockdown, censorship, press libels, nuisance arrests, and physical assault.
Meanwhile, because Fassbinder is highly attuned, he can make out the stirrings of something about to replace all that political chatter, the first brush of the wing of the 1980s: consumerism. The characters in the movie--the ones in the "movement" or the "cell" or whatever you want to call it--have not (except maybe for Paul, assuming he's not just making it all up, about the training camps in Africa or whatever) have not gone through the radicalizing process in any classic way: they didn't get the message in a factory, they never lived in a commune--they've only seen the movie, as it were. They got it all from magazines and television, although they're also sufficiently educated to pretend they've read Bakunin. They're young professionals by temperament and taste, they're fully in line for the succession to power in twenty years if they keep their noses clean. They love their big Berlin apartments, they dress with taste and style, they know what's hot and more importantly what isn't. But they're not quite '80s yet--they're insufficiently ambitious. They just want sensation. Revolution looks like a hoot, and they haven't the faintest idea of consequences or larger meanings.
Fun fact: My first week at Columbia, September 1972, I eagerly went to the announced meeting of the College chapter of SDS, only to have it turn out to be the meeting at which the chapter voted to dissolve itself. Politically, the rest of my four years at old CU were exceedingly weird – but then, the 70s were simply insane.
I think my unawareness of the history that The Third Generation is in dialogue with made it even more puzzling a viewing experience than it already would have been, but looking back over certain scenes now, I'm finding that Fassbinder's frustration with his main characters and with the system they're lashing out against makes a lot more sense.
Watching Week End for the first time was also eye opening, and I now understand why it's so apparent that Fassbinder must have had Week End in mind while making The Third Generation. Both films share a bitter sense of humor and an almost suffocating sense of futility. Week End, with its roadblocks, choppy cuts and jarring soundtrack of honking horns, screeching brakes, sirens, explosions and perpetual shouting matches makes Fassbinder's film seem like a much more conventional and accessible narrative-- and after seeing it the first time, I never thought I'd be calling The Third Generation accessible or conventional.
But Week End and The Third Generation were made more than ten years apart, and I think they reflect the historical changes that went on in those ten years. The protagonists of Week End are unabashedly bourgeois, cultured and money-grubbing. Towards the end, the wife, Corinne, starts to side with the revolutionaries holding her hostage-- until the final shot, in which she has no qualms about eating her husband's barbequed flesh. It seems like The Third Generation portrays the opposite process-- its protagonists fancy themselves revolutionaries, but more and more, they reveal their truly bourgeois natures. And like you said, this film seems to foreshadow the booming consumerism of the 80's.
Week End definitely has some key points of intersection with TTG, but I really think you should see La Chinoise, which is even more obviously related: four young people decide to start a Maoist cell. They are clueless and ridiculously playacting, of course, and three of them are privileged and happily unaware of the contradictions, while the fourth (played by Juliet Berto) is working class, and she is condescended to and treated as a servant by the others. They are exactly like a 10-years-earlier version (before violence, before disillusionment) version of the cell in The Third Generation.
It’s changing the subject a bit, but I wanted to broach the complicated and infinitely problematic subject of women in Fassbinder's films, and sexuality in general. From what I've seen in the first two parts of Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Third Generation, rape seems like a pretty commonplace occurrence. In The Third Generation especially, the women are essentially doormats. Even Hilde, who declares herself independent from men, morphs into a doting housewife who puts up with Paul's abuse and diligently waits on him after he moves in and rapes her. Susanne is probably the most active of the female characters, but she's also having an affair with her cop father-in-law, though she tells him (regularly, we can guess) that she finds him disgusting and will never touch him again. Franz seems to feel tenderness for Ilse (who is also totally useless, but at least has an excuse- heroin) but uses her for little more than sexual relief, oblivious to her deterioration. I guess I should have been prepared for these kinds of relationships from the dedication at the beginning ("Dedicated to someone who truly loves. So to no one- probably.") There are no explicit depictions of homosexuality here (Hilde brushes off Paul's question about her being a lesbian as "ignorant") and sexuality is never quite in focus, so I know The Third Generation may not be the best Fassbinder film to use to discuss these issues and his treatment of human sexuality in general – but it certainly raised a lot of questions.
Fassbinder was always showing women's suffering at the hands of men. Look at Effi Briest, Martha, The Stationmaster's Wife, Lola. And he is making a point here, which is that the women are supposedly being defiant and such but really capitulate to the men--look at how Hilde, who plays "empowering" tapes made by a suicided teenage girl and pretends to be a lesbian--immediately rolls over for Paul, and will be signing up for a gift registry very soon. There's no homosexuality on display here, maybe because it would distract from the point being made, given the time--if you were going to feature homosexuality even as late as 1979 it would just overwhelm anything else about a picture. Fassbinder used it judiciously, if you look at his career.
I also think I was unfair to Fassbinder the first time around (with Berlin Alexanderplatz, too)-- and made the same mistake that a quick search of the internet seems to suggest a lot of contemporary critics made-- in condemning him as misogynistic when really he's just pointing out, but not endorsing, the ways in which men abuse women. His intimations (or flat-out statements) that women are complicit in this oppression may come off as exaggerated to the point of being offensive, but I can see now how he has just as much contempt for the way men treat women in this film as he does for the hypocrisy of its “revolutionaries.”
As a way of concluding (or almost concluding) our conversation on The Third Generation, I was hoping to open it up a little from the more specific analysis and comparisons we've been doing and get your more personal thoughts on the film and Fassbinder in general. Are you primarily drawn to Fassbinder because of the historical/political impressions that are preserved and refracted in his films? What I'm getting at, basically, is: what's your way into these films? Why should someone who's never heard of Rainer Werner Fassbinder check out The Third Generation -- or maybe even venture into Berlin Alexanderplatz?
Originally I saw Fassbinder's movies because there they were, in the theaters, and they sounded interesting, and eventually everybody started talking about them. The first one I saw was The American Soldier, which I kinda thought was imitation Godard, but crazier by far. When I saw Chinese Roulette I immediately went and bought the record by Kraftwerk--whom I'd barely heard of then--which contained "Radio-Activity," used to major effect in that picture. After I saw Fox and His Friends (at first called Fist-Right of Freedom here, a literal translation of the German title), I had a huge, knock-down-drag-out argument with my closest friend about it; he's gay and I'm straight, and our attitudes toward the picture had everything to do with our respective persuasions. I saw many if not most of Fassbinder's movies as soon as they hit NYC screens in the '70s, many of them at the NY Film Festival, for which you could then just go buy tickets, sometimes on the night of. Maria Braun I saw on an incongruous pairing with some forgotten B-picture at the old St. Mark's Theater when it adhered to that early-'80s phenomenon, the $1 double feature.
I didn't always immediately get his movies. Sometimes they were chilly or mystifying or maybe I wasn't old enough or experienced enough. Beware of a Holy Whore and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and Martha all hit me hardest the second time around. And then, seeing them in near-chronological order, there was the whiplash effect of the vast differences in tone of successive movies--the abrasively anti-naturalistic Martha followed by the rapturously beautiful Effi Briest, for example. You get a crowded package with Fassbinder: his complex and layered personality, the high-low dialectic, the way he uses his repertory company like instruments in an orchestra, the contradictory approaches to psychology and realism and history and the possibility of love. You can't just see one Fassbinder movie, but have to commit to at least a dozen before pronouncing--although if I were asked which one to start with, I'd say The Marriage of Maria Braun, which contains all his crotchets and preoccupations within an apparently (but just apparently) seamless movie-movie carapace.
Filmmakers often tend to be jammed into one of two slots: entertainment or art, popcorn or seminar. We know that, e.g., Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang can all be consumed empty-headedly or not according to inclination--they have normal-seeming stories and characters and approaches, but with a takeout reserve of complication for anybody who wants to keep chewing after the lights have come up. Fassbinder falls into a category all his own; he plays with genre and plot sometimes almost sadistically. You can't just coast--he keeps shoving the subtext up into your field of vision. There are parallels between him and Godard, Herzog, Straub/Huillet, many other filmmakers of the late 20th c., but he's also truly unlike any of them in major ways. You see Fassbinder movies because it's the only way you'll ever get the experience of Fassbinder movies, if you'll pardon the tautology. His body of work is irreducible. His movies aren't easy and they may not teach you about life and they definitely won't make you a better person, but asking why you'd see his movies is like asking why you'd see movies at all.