Hanna Schygulla, Margit Carstensen, Eddie Constantine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.