Film Comment Selects: Fassbinder’s Third Generation (1979)
Fassbinder pulls off a miraculous bit of mischief with The Third Generation (1979) — and who better than Fassbinder for mischief! — he creates a broad comedy about terrorism. And while I imagine creating such a movie in a post 9-11 world would be unlikely, Harold & Kumar notwithstanding, imagine making this film in West Germany with the kidnapping and killing of industrialist Hanns Martin Schleyer by Red Army Faction (RAF) still heavy on the mind of audience.
To say that this film created a stir when released would be putting it mildly. While the film was praised by critics, several audiences engaged in their own cinema-attendance form of “radical politics”: in Hamburg, the film projectionist screening The Third Generation was beaten unconscious, and in Frankfort, angry audience members threw acid on the projection screen.
The thumbnail story of the film: an industrialist (Eddie Constantine, from Alphaville) has difficulty selling his security-related computer systems, so he conspires with the inspector general of the police to create and squash a terrorist cell of inept, superficial middle class leftists. I tell you the simple version of the story to get it out of the way so you don’t miss the chance to take in what is happening in front of you. This film isn’t as abrasive as its close cousin, Satan’s Brew (1976), but it is demanding viewing: unfolding in a densely-layered, high-pitch style that rewards repeat viewing.
Watching this film now, as broad and silly are some of its pranks and physical gags, I find myself as engaged and disturbed by the ideas and questions in this film. I suspect my experience has more to do with the character work in the film than the basic plot: for straw men and fools, the terrorist twits are compelling, realized cartoon-creations by a cast of Fassbinder regulars, exercising a great deal of control and specificity to create this universe. The constant collision of layers of sound, radio, television, and music worked for me far better than I at first expected, far better than it has in other densely layered work — and continues to haunt me while I write this response to the film.
Despite the controversy when this film was initially shown, after 1979 for all intents and purposes the film vanished: lack of television broadcast or other venues kept this film out of the public eye. And yet, it remained one of the films the director was most proud of up until his death (by his own ranking). This film was also one of only two for which he gave himself a cinematography credit. The highly articulate, always moving camera remains one of my favorite elements of this film.
Before writing Fassbinder’s film off as an audicious prank, consider what he said about the film back in 1979 “ . . . that in the last analysis terrorism is an idea generated by capitalism to justify better defense measures to safeguard capitalism.” The implausibility of the film’s plot doesn’t suggest “conspiracy theory” reading to his words, but drawing on the ideas and forces evoked in this film I see a kind of prelude to the use/repurposing of terrorism as a tool for political and military leverage in our own country.
Buy tickets to The Third Generation: Tue Feb 24: 6:15