Die dritte Generation / The Third Generation (1979)

4 05 2020

There is a critical premium often placed on works of art that manage to “capture what life is like in the present.” The truth is, our present reality is often elusive. Literature and cinema that gets praised for this accomplishment often boils down our present conditions to a dramatically relevant narrative. Fiction that is intentionally and specifically bound to the time of its creation lacks the chaos and illusiveness. To me, The Third Generation is not only one of Fassbinder’s greatest achievements but is also a film that speaks to both its present (1979) and ours. It is this way because it is stubbornly non-specific. It is a film in flux. Its characters grasp at multiple identities but fail to grasp any. The narrative shifts incomprehensibly and wildly. This over-stimulation of information in The Third Generation is its greatest strength, though. It pounds us into submission, stumbling upon a sensation that is far too familiar.

“Terrorism was invented by capitalism to justify better defense measures for capitalism.” So begins The Third Generation as industrialist Peter Lutz looks out at a snowy West Germany from his high-rise office. Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, a film about politically apathetic youth, plays on a television and offers a temporary distraction for him. His secretary, Susanne Gast, remarks that the film is so sad. He retorts, “As long as the movie is sad, our lives can be happy.” Over the phone, Susanne sets a political plot into action by quoting Schopenhauer, “The world as will and representation.” This message gets relayed to the other members of the cell that includes her husband Edgar, schoolteacher Hilde, the organization’s leader, August, as well as a married couple in Petra and Hans. The group hunkers down in their hideout, an apartment inhabited by heroin addict Ilsa, who is later joined by a former lover, Franz.

The group, we discover, lacks a cohesive plan, not to mention a guiding political purpose. It would not be inaccurate to describe all of them as 30 something bourgeoise leftists. Unlike the characters in Bresson’s The Devil, Probably they are not lacking in urgency, but in ideology. This sounds absurd on paper, but Fassbinder made a career out of obfuscating details in his characters. Their lack of politics is not a cynical strike at a generation, but instead a clever depiction of its inconsistencies. There are no political good guys in The Third Generation because such a didactic approach would completely go against the grain of the overstimulated world that has been built. Some critics have correctly identified the film’s resemblance to Godard, but Fassbinder’s distance is directly opposed to Godard’s impassioned didacticism. Fassbinder has much to say here, but he never speaks in absolutes. An audience intent on finding the “point” here is already doomed to miss it, perhaps there isn’t one at all.

The many moral contradictions posed in the film is reflected in the film’s style. The terrorist cell’s apartment hideout acts as the perfect set for the camera’s choreography. It is often static and depicts drawn out hallways whose corridors layer the composition. Throughout the film, there is always more than one thing going on. Multiple conversations become intertangled in each other as the anodyne hum of a television or radio continues on unabated. The individuals in the terrorist cell are constantly stimulated. They interact with the media, with art, with each other, but their inability to detach from this steam has not made them energetic, but inert. They are disoriented by this landscape, and this disorientation is reflected in their inability to understand themselves.

A lot of what I’ve described about the film feels vague and imprecise, perhaps an inevitable side effect of analyzing a film that functions through characters with opaque motivations. This tends to be the case with Fassbinder, but he ramps this sensation up a notch in this film because it is specifically concerned with capturing the dizzyingly imprecise experience that is modern life. The overstimulation works for me, brilliantly, but it is easy to see someone overwhelmed and frustrated by a film that lacks not only a “plot” but any political conviction. The apathy does not obscure its ideology, but instead interrogates the idea that one ever be necessary to begin with. Fassbinder might be as numb as his subjects, which is why he observes, but provides no insight on where he’d place them morally. As disoriented and confused as the terrorists are, he is no better than them. And, of course, neither are we.


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