Thursday, January 29, 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1979
Starring: Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Eddie Constantine

A group of ineffectual terrorists hatch a plan to kidnap an industrialist, P.J. Lurz, whose business selling computer security systems is suffering. His secretary, Susanne, is one of the terrorists and sets off a plot with her friends – a ragtag group of middle-aged, middle-class wanderers including their leader, August Brem, Susanne’s husband Edgar, a feminist history professor, a housewife, and a record store clerk, among others – to set in motion his kidnapping. But Susanne’s father-in-law, with whom she is having an affair, is a police inspector and has Lutz put under protection, and it seems that Brem, the leader, is a double agent.

Closest in style to Fassbinder’s underrated triumph of the absurd and the abject, Satan’s Brew, The Third Generation has much in common with it: they are both anarchistic black comedies with plenty of the grotesque and these are really the only two Fassbinder films to focus on an ensemble – most of his other works focus on an individual protagonist. This incredibly fast-paced and often hilarious film is packed with actors from the troupe Fassbinder used throughout his career, including Hanna Schygulla, Volker Spengler, Margit Carstensen, Harry Baer, Gunther Kaufmann, and others, namely international star Eddie Constantine (Beware of a Holy Whore, Alphaville) as the industrialist with a plan of his own.

Though The Third Generation was initially negatively received, it has become regarded as one of his best films. The controversy is likely due to the fact that Fassbinder effectively made an irreverent comedy about terrorism at a time (much like now) when the issue was at the forefront in Europe, Germany in particular. The RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion) was a violent terrorist group that killed more than 30 people in ‘70s Germany. When some of their leaders were arrested, the remaining members of the group kidnapped and murdered a wealthy businessman (and former Nazi), and also hijacked a Lufthansa flight in order to free their compatriots. The three leaders allegedly committed suicide in prison, though it was believed to be murder (two of them were shot to death). While this subject matter was covered in the omnibus film Germany in Autumn (with Fassbinder’s participation), it obviously deeply affected him.

His treatment of the terrorists in The Third Generation is both tragic and comical, a farcical look at armchair politics and the consequences of impulsive action without thought. The different members of the group are portrayed as stupid, cruel, and even bored. As with the communists in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, they are middle class and have never suffered or starved. This emotional and intellectual immaturity blended with pseudo-philosophy and armchair politics is a dangerous combination. Like his earlier works, he bitterly pokes fun at bourgeois society, but also at the aimless leftists, careening into German life like a bull in a china shop.

This is also one of Fassbinder’s key explorations of crime, something he investigated throughout his career in Love is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, The American Soldier, Jail Bait, Nora Helmer, Fox and His Friends, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Despair, Berlin Alexanderplatz, and others. As opposed to his films about violence in domestic spaces, these combined works represent a complex thesis about the origins of crime in society. In his early films, clearly influenced by American film noir and Jean-Luc Godard, crime is cool. It’s a viable alternative to bourgeois society, a way to rebel and to fulfill one’s dreams without entering into the capitalist grind. Middle period films like Jail Bait and Nora Helmer posit that crime is somehow inevitable, despite the perpetrator’s good intentions. In Despair, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Lola, and Berlin Alexanderplatz, it is simply a product of living in bourgeois society, where citizens are driven to private acts of fascism and exploitation, violence, and even murder.

The characters of The Third Generation exploit each other relentlessly and, like Fassbinder’s early characters, their attempt at crime and clumsy and bumbling. They remain out of prison because of the equal ineptitude of the police (this law enforcement failure was actually the real reason that the RAF’s kidnapped business man remained imprisoned). No members of the group are trained in combat, except for one new arrival that turns out to be a rapist and is soon killed. But Fassbinder suggests that the worst crime is betrayal, which occurs twice. The group’s leader, Brem, has been working for the police the entire time and not only leads members of his group to certain death, but seems to delight in framing them. Worse yet is the fact that Lurz, the industrialist they plan to kidnap, is in on the scheme (without their knowledge) and willingly participates in the hopes that it will be a successful marketing strategy for his company. This sort of icy avarice – which lacks regard for human emotion and even life – is a theme that developed throughout Fassbinder’s career from The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant through to Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Marriage of Maria Braun.

Somewhat of an acquired taste, the anarchic black comedy and cruelly political satire of The Third Generation is a relative rarity among Fassbinder’s works. Though similar themes are found in Satan’s Brew, these two films represent some of Fassbinder’s most daring work and might appeal to anyone who dislikes his sojourns into melodrama, madness, or domestic strife. Available on DVD, it is well worth watching for anyone interested in political art house cinema, though you’re unlikely to find anything to compare it to. It's an incredibly rich film -- one of Fassbinder's most layered -- and there are many elements I didn't have the space to discuss, such as his use of bathroom stall quotes, philosophical pondering, games, costumes, and much more. It certainly remains fresh and thought-provoking when compared to current debates about democracy, capitalism, terrorism, and protest.

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