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.





Effi Briest (1974)

2 05 2020

Theory is, at its core, a practice this requires citation. It would be exceedingly difficult in 2020 to write an essay without referencing a past work. It’s like thinking of a new number or color. It is necessary to quote. Among the many celebrated figures in the Frankfurt School, Walter Benjamin was especially remembered for his quoting. He equated his database of quotes to a collection, and he speaks of such a collection with a tacit understanding of its absurdity. Many would consider cinema’s equal to be Jean-Luc Godard. After all, his aesthetic is often shaped by the interjection of quotes. Although often lacking attribution, such quotations (be they intertitles or voiceover) work as cinematic footnotes to the image, rather than simply reinforcing or re-describing it. Fassbinder’s earliest films bear traces of Godard’s influence, but as his career progressed into the middle part of the seventies, Douglas Sirk took over as the guiding influence. The melodramatic conceit in Effi Briest reflects this shift but quoting informs the aesthetics. It is a film made entirely “in quotes” distanced from the source material. It is beautiful and compelling, but also maddening.

A teenage Effi Briest accepts a marriage proposal from the older and wealthier Baron Geert Von Instetten. Upon moving into his mansion in a secluded town she is immediately confronted with a sense of loneliness. The moments of social interaction she is treated to is anything but stimulating as the Baron’s social circle consists of individuals who find her primitive and uninteresting. She instead finds comfort in the companionship of Major Crampas, who is much closer to her in age than her husband. This infuriates the Baron who expects complete devotion from Effi and sees Crampas as little more than an opportunistic Lothario.

Much of what happens in Effi Briest can be described as “melodramatic.” The tension in the film itself is the fact that we don’t see much of the stuff that does happen. Fassbinder is (intentionally) at odds with “the text” of the film. The excitement that could come from such a narrative is stifled, artfully underlying the literal restriction placed on Effi herself. In a sense, she is given everything materially. She has the Baron’s wealth, access to his servants, and his unwieldy estate. Yet, she also lacks any personal mobility. Her predicament informs Fassbinder’s construction of the film. His compositions are exquisite, but he refuses to give us any of the juice in the narrative’s drama.

I should emphasize that I greatly admire what Fassbinder does here. Two of my favorite filmmakers ever, Mikio Naruse and Yasujiro Ozu, did something extremely similar. At the risk of reducing the complexity of their work, I would also say that their films were also driven by characters. There is, of course, theoretical undercurrents in all of their work (if you want an elucidation on this, I’ve written considerably about both filmmakers on this website) but it situates itself differently than it does here. It pains me to say this and I know I undoubtedly sound like a rube in doing so, but Effi Briest is simply too stiff. When Fassbinder withholds the drama in say, Love is Colder than Death, it works. In that film, I am profoundly moved when he deprives us of the sensations one expects in a crime drama. When he attempts something similar with a period melodrama, though, it feels too much like the stuffy chamber piece that is the foundation for the abstraction.

As it stands, I find myself more fascinated by this particular experiment than anything else. I can even go back to the certain sequences and pinpoint their brilliance. Effi’s frustration with the Baron’s social circle gets expressed not in Fassbinder’s perfect compositions but in a brilliant and descriptive inter-title that follows: “An artifice inspired to calculate fear.” The stuffiness of upper crust society paradoxically describes the film’s own aesthetic aspirations. There are endless films that quote from a literary source, but there are very few that use a quote to actually inform the film’s actual syntax. Fassbinder’s absurd productivity suggests that he treated each film as a new experiment. Many of these experiments work for me, and I can’t even fault the ones that don’t. They offer something new and fascinating even as they fail to stimulate. Watching Effi Briest is a frustrating experience, yet it is entirely unique one as well. It reflects the genius of its filmmaker.