Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Notes On Fassbinder's The Third Generation

Somehow I missed this when it first came out on DVD in July. How could this happen, since I check the Fassbinder section every time I walk into Scarecrow? I'll preface my very few remarks by referring to Jim Clark's review, which, as usual, is amazingly thorough. I'm not sure what this guy's day job is, but he sure has done some great work writing about movies in his spare time. I enjoyed reading his commentary on the movie more than I enjoyed watching the movie itself, which probably means I should go back and watch it again. Before I do, here are my first impressions.

There is Fassbinder's stated aim, which I'd read before but here quote from Jim:
When an interviewer asked Fassbinder about the storyline, his response was surprising: "On the one hand an industrialist [Lurz], on the other a policeman [Inspector Gast]. Together they decide to form a terrorist cell, the first man because it'll be useful for his business ventures, the second to justify his repressive activities. [The thesis is] very simple: nowadays it's capitalism that brings forth terrorism, to boost itself and strengthen its system of hegemony."
Perhaps I'm thinking too much of the terrorism of today, and I don't know much more about terrorism in Germany after WWII except what I've read in Jim's review, but Fassbinder's idea seems to me patently absurd. It's simple, it might be dramatically compelling, and it has a touch of that whole snake-swallowing-its-own-tail thing, but I think it's a bit much for anyone besides the biggest bug-eyed conspiracy theorist to swallow. Which isn't to say that there isn't plenty of corruption in corporate offices and police departments, or that examples can't be found of collaboration between the two. But to expand this to a generalized observation that "nowadays it's capitalism that brings forth terrorism, to boost itself and strengthen its system of hegemony" is pretty far fetched.

Unless I'm mistaken, this is all the further fetched given Jim's description of the terrorist event referred to by Fassbinder in the title sequence: the RAF's (Rote Armee Fraktion) kidnapping and murder of wealthy industrialist and former Nazi Hanns Martin Schleyer. Another account of these events can be found here. Even if Schleyer were an evil capitalist, let alone a Nazi, no one claims that he engineered his own kidnapping and murder. Very generally speaking, I think an argument can be made for a kind of interdependence between leftist and rightward politics, or that some form of capitalism may lead to totalitarianism through the machinations of a cravenly opportunistic legal community. But something that too few people understand is that the Nazis were National Socialists, which is to say that for all their fetishes for guns and leather, they were left wing. And if there is some connection to be made between Schleyer and the Lurz character's involvement with the terrorist goons in the movie it's that they were all leftist, whether they alligned themselves with Nazi or Communist ideology.

Much of the film verges on chaos. Perhaps this is part of Fassbinder's strategy. Chaos, moral and political and whatever other form you please, is certainly a subject played up in the movie, but there's no question that some of it is the result of the amazing speed at which Fassbinder, Inc. worked. Sure, I'd rather watch Third Generation than just about anything playing at the multplexes these days, but it isn't a masterpiece by Fassbinder's standards, most of which were produced at an equally hectic pace, The layered aural experience that was so interesting in 13 Moons is so constant here that it seems more like undifferentiated noise. Which may have been the intention, but it doesn't make for a compelling movie. It suppose it's interesting to write (and read) about in retrospect (pace Mr. Clark), but that doesn't mean it's fun to hear. One exception: Peer Raben's electronic music, as it was in 13 Moons, is weirdly enjoyable, and perhaps even matches the material better than it did in 13 Moons.

Visually, there is some amazing photography here, and Jim breaks a number of shots down very well indeed. But much of the picture seemed to me uneven. There are the mirrors, the cramped spaces, the views from and of skyscrapers. But there are also angles from above and below that seem out of place, even when they're striking. One example would be the view from the upper floor in the Gast home, another would be Paul photographed from below. The sequence of von Stein cutting a hole through a paper wall in a Japanese restaurant and remaining unnoticed was tough to swallow, and two of the violent death scenes are pretty implausable. Maybe not as implausable as von Trotta's suicide in The American Soldier, but that was the most ridiculous death scene in the history of the dramatic arts. Of course, I hardly know how I'd react while being riddled with bullets in the middle of eating a California roll, laying flowers on the grave of my beloved, or stabbing myself in the gut - but still.

I'm still trying to make up my mind about other aspects of the film. The characters Petra (Margit Carstensen) and Hilde (Bulle Ogier) are shown flirting near the beginning of the movie, but not much comes of it after that. Hilde comically becomes domesticated in short order by the head terrorist, Paul (Raúl Gimenez), while Petra leaves her husband for reasons that seem pretty dubious. Is anything to be made of this? Or should we just accept that life gets pretty weird sometimes, and often seems cruelly ironic. Well, maybe that is enough. What about Lilo Pompeit's character? Made up like a doll ... perhaps she's a puppet of Inspector Gast. And how does Susanne come to have an affair with her father-in-law? What are we to make of the connection between Volker Spengler's character and Lurz? How does von Stein manage to catch on to what's really going on? Does his infatuation with Bakunin mark him as a hero, or an idealistic idiot, or both? It's a tangled web he weaves, but maybe it's just enough to show how everybody in this terrorist cell is utterly clueless and dysfunctional. Well, not quite dysfunctional - they did manage to kill some people.

The viciousness and cruelty of terrorism is pretty easy to see - just turn on the news, and many characters in The Third Generatiion are shown doing just that. And as Mr. Clark writes, Volker Schlöndorff had already made The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum from Heinrich Böll's recent novel (Walker Percy alert: Böll was a one of his favorite German authors, along with Peter Handke), which gave us a psychological portrait of a young woman caught up in events in a way that's hard to determine her culpability, if not her boyfriend's. So why not make a movie about what complete idiots terrorists are? They have know idea what they're talking about when they mindlessly quote Schopenhauer, nor are they aware that they really are clowns, even when they dress up as clowns for the kidnapping. Complete, utter fools. Which German terrorists in the 1970's may well have been. And perhaps all terrorists are, in a way that goes beyond the tired description of "darkly comic".

But they weren't just fools. Nor are the terrorists of today. It's true that there's something vaguely comical about the ineptitude of Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, but that's only because he was inept and his attempt to bring down an airliner was itself brought down by a stewardess or two (sorry, flight attendant). Is there something funny about Mohammed Atta? Somehow that doesn't compute.

There's an awful lot of quotation going on in this movie. Graffiti on bathroom stalls is quoted at the beginning of each section. The terrorists spout Schopenhauer. Fassbinder quotes Chancellor Schmidt. The terrorists play keep-away with a book by Mikhail Bakunin, reading from it each time they go to make the next toss. Here are some Bakunin quotes, supplied by Jim: "I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation." Well, okay. And then "the idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice; it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind." Well, as an enemy of Marx perhaps he ought to be a friend, but is he? Bakunin works in this movie a little like Artaud worked in Satan's Brew. Maybe I should write "is worked", and maybe not quite as well. It occurs to me that Fassbinder was full of a lot of other people's ideas, and perhaps he is making the cinematic equivalent of a "novel of ideas". Which may be why it's more fun to read and write about this movie than to watch it. At least the first time.


Blogger Finn Again said...

I'm not sure about the movie, but there are some truly awful solecisms here. Clean up your act!

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You really think the National Socialists were left-wing? Wow, if you are interested in Fassbinder, you should really brush up on your knowledge of German history.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Quin Finnegan said...

Well, I do need to brush up on German history, but since that will always be true, I'm going all in and standing by classifying the Nazis as leftist. I suspect we're on completely different sides of the ideological divide, but I'd encourage you to read Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, where the case is made pretty thoroughly. I won't say perfectly, but pretty well.

9:15 PM  

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