A recent book review asks: “There are Herzog memes, but no Fassbinder memes. Why is that?” The answer, I think, lies in the scowling, gleeful sardonicism of his movies. His work is always prophetic, topical, and utterly alien. Form and content coil around each other, comingling even as they snap at each other’s underbellies. Inevitably, they turn on themselves too. All is soon strangled. Even more-straightforward works like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) and Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972) befuddle otherwise typical subject matter. In the latter, for example, workers win a labor dispute at their factory only to realize that, in a way, they’ve made themselves do the bidding of their masters.
Nowhere is this melodramatic Verfremdungseffekt clearer than in 1979’s The Third Generation, a film about an ineffectual cadre of Marxist terrorists who spend most of their time arguing, bullying, and carrying out what today we’d call “e-mail jobs.” Susanne Gast (Hannah Schygulla) is secretary to P.J. Lurz (Eddie Constantine), a wealthy businessman in the computer industry. Petra Vielhaber (Margit Carstensen) teaches high-school history and meets her radical students’ questions with mealy-mouthed declarations of scholastic objectivity. The group’s leader is August (Volker Spengler), a fugitive who runs from apartment to apartment, imposing himself and giving directions. Their plan seems to be some kind of robbery or kidnapping; they even bring in a gunman, Paul (Raúl Gimenez), who doesn’t do much but domestically abuse Petra. In their off time, they play Monopoly. Everyone rushes everywhere and nothing happens.
Matters are even worse than they seem. August, their leader, is actually in cahoots with Mr. Lurz, who seems to be encouraging terrorist activity to boost sales of surveillance technology. We glean this early on when, assigned a police escort, Lurz and an officer joke about corporate leaders creating terrorism to drive up profits. The truth, however, only comes out when August, clad as a woman, arrives at his boss’ office, looking for money to kidnap the boss himself. Lurz hands it over, financing his own abduction. The cadre, of course, succeeds, dressing as (literal) clowns for the occasion. “Patty Heart heard the burst of Roland’s Thompson gun and bought it!”
We close on Lurz, surrounded by annoyed terrorists trying to get the lighting and sound just-so for a ransom video, repeating the same message over and over again. He seems entirely unperturbed, even happy. I wonder why?
That all sounds, I suppose, like a tight, if goofy political thriller. It is not. The film cannot bear silence, with radios, TVs, songs, singing, talking, and more often overlaid to the point that it all begins to feel a bit like an MK Ultra experiment. Fassbinder’s camera is cold and distant, even though the action is often quite funny. So, for example, we get a scene of long shot of a game of keep-away, the cadre tossing around a book by Bakunin, reading its heterodox prose and giggling as they stiff arm the text’s owner and maintain him at arm’s length. No one ever interacts with an actual worker of any kind. Each section is prefaced by quotations of bathroom graffiti from around Berlin. Topics include a submissive man looking for a master, a back-and-forth about foreigners and Nazism, and bragging about sexual prowess. The team’s code word, so that they know the operation is about to start, is “The World as Will and Representation.” One member asks his far-right grandfather if he knows what that means. Answer: something old nihilists used to say before the wars. Every generation needs a war.
Fassbinder’s war, it seems, was on his society then and ours now. He understood, based on this movie anyway, programs like Gladio before they were even made public. His alienated camerawork and constant din suggest a world dominated by screens, mediated always by inescapable groupthink and ironies invisible to those too deep in the game. At the same time, he doesn’t stake out some other political position here or in his other movies. His cynicism runs deep, but emerges from romantic sentiment, a defeated hope staggering on. I find that position appealing, sure. But it all seems a bit ruthless for memes, even by Herzogian standards.