Of all the voices to emerge from the New German Cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s critique of West German society was the one most firmly rooted in the lives of those residing outside the walls. Fassbinder was the most intent on picking at the wounds of the past, to effect a cathartic bloodletting by privileging the views of those without power and prestige. There were none more marginal in the post-war formulation than the Red Army Faction (RAF); a revolutionary cell whose kidnapping and murder of industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer in 1977 was the defining act of the so-called German Autumn (named after the 1978 compendium film Germany in Autumn, to which Fassbinder contributed).
Germany in Autumn was an attempt to address the aftermath of the Schleyer killing in West Germany without clarifying it; its directors sought merely to chart the progress of “the phenomenon of resignation” by locating the vestiges of the old mindset. Fassbinder’s segment traced a terrain in which history’s thorny complexities have been tamped into a flat horizon, upon which institutional certainties are relative and a mythic self-perception is revivified by the prospect of “an authoritarian who is benevolent and kind and orderly.” Fassbinder’s passage from Germany in Autumn to The Third Generation (1979) is a curious one, underlining the course of many who sought to break the stultifying national silence.
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In The Third Generation, the initial anger at “extraordinary measures” has dissolved into anomie; reportage has given way to a defiant irony. Fassbinder twists the German Autumn into absurdist shapes; Hegelian ideals sink into a media-saturated morass; revolution is absorbed into leisure. To emphasize this transition from action to consumption, Fassbinder begins by showing Suzanne (Hanna Schygulla) — the secretary of industrialist P.J. Lurz (Eddie Constantine) — sitting in Lurz’s upscale high-rise office watching a videotape of Robert Bresson’s The Devil, Probably (1977). It is an apt reference; The Devil, Probably is another work in which the radical impetus of the late 60s collides with the objective conditions of the late 70s; Bresson tracks a creeping malaise that will seek out violent remedies.
In contrast to Bresson’s austere treatment, Fassbinder draws broad humour and heated melodrama from his story of a hapless terrorist cell being secretly bankrolled by Lurz in order for him to sell his preventative tech to the state apparatus. Fassbinder is concerned with physical, emotional, stylistic and political extremity; he turns up the volume on Berlin until it resembles the dissociated dystopias of Philip K. Dick. The city is remodelled as a blinking neon simulacrum which reminds Inspector-General Gast (Hark Bohm) of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1976). Multiple characters are stricken by this cineaste’s affliction. Lurz grasps the obfuscating potency of the moving image, averring that “As long as films are sad, life isn’t,” and asserting that “Film is a lie, 25 times a second.” Lurz embraces the logic of this artifice, theorizing that “Because it’s all a lie, it’s also truth.” Lurz understands that viewers are equally apt to become informants; everyone is watching somebody, honing their perceptual acuity.
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The members of the terrorist groupuscule find themselves trapped in a lethal LARP, donning costumes that paper over the rupture at the core of their endeavours, requiring constant sensory stimulation to keep the dread at bay. They regard guerrilla training as “one of the last great adventures left to us,” a chance to cast off their bourgeois lassitude and practice a form of self-surveillance in which sincerity is evaluated. They no longer have the ability to distinguish between the map and the territory; adrift in a media-saturated landscape, seeking refuge in an eternal present, a liminal region in which the war never ends or begins, locked in combat with an onerous past and an intolerable future. The conditions are ripe for the production of willing participants in this spectacle of terror; the “overburdened” citizen seeks the decisive silence which can only be brought to bear by their extirpating energy.
In Fassbinder’s world, homes become courtrooms wherein everyone is constantly putting forward their best defence; rooms are partitioned into planes of understanding; the artist and the assassin can occupy the same table, but the fissure between them is always understood. Technique is crucial to achieving this: Fassbinder’s use of long lenses lends his subjects a strange stature that is paradoxically disempowering; they are monumental yet adrift; even in intimacy, distance is engendered. Deep focus is also implemented to create levels of meaning within a single frame; multiple narratives unfold simultaneously, inundating the senses in the same way as the immersive, and often oppressive, sound design. As if in imitation of its characters’ strained perceptions, the soundtrack of The Third Generation is a montage in which dialogue becomes merely one facet in a continuous skein of emotive music, TV blare, white noise and ambient sound. Everyone becomes an extension of the spectacle, never able to disengage from a larger voice, valuing interaction to the degree that it is transmitted.
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The discourse in The Third Generation takes place on multiple levels: Franz (Günther Kaufmann) states that “I don’t understand why this crap is constantly on,” bemoaning the relentless noise from multiple TVs that fills the hideout of the groupuscule. Even Franz’s grief at the heroin overdose of his girlfriend, Ilsa (Y Sa Lo), is occluded by the means of communication; the shot is composed for the close-up of his crying face to be partially obscured by a telephone. Scenes are introduced by passages of text transcribed from the walls of bathrooms around the city. These epistles from the city’s id communicate that even in our moments of greatest privacy, we are reaching out, seeking validation, confirmation of our existence — just at the allusions to Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation and Mikhail Bakunin’s God and the State speak to the groupsuscule’s desire to construct aesthetic human value, however much this may be circumscribed by the imperatives of overarching power.
In Fassbinder’s conception of West Germany following its chaotic autumn, terror takes on the tenor of performance art; like addicts lusting after a fix, the groupuscule seeks ennobling sensation; they must be satiated by “Something symbolic… exciting, spectacular.” Citizens become instruments in a carefully orchestrated seduction; identity is reduced to a litany of positions and a series of facts that can be remembered and recited, externally viable yet laden with insoluble contradictions. Fassbinder conceives this impulse as an interplay of intentions, coagulating into blunt theory and “market conditions.” By the conclusion of The Third Generation, the revolutionary zeal of the RAF has descended into costumed pageantry and bickering over the production values of the hostage video Lurz has manufactured. The threat has been nullified, but its shadow remains politically useful. Inspector-General Gast recounts a dream he had in which “Capitalism invented terrorism to force the state to protect it better.” The characters in The Third Generation find themselves trapped in this dream as it begins to cave in on itself; the videotape has been replayed to the point that the image is degraded.
D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.
Categories: 1970s, 2020 Film Essays, Crime, Drama, Featured, Film Essays