Rainer Werner Fassbinder Richard Combs - Essay

Richard Combs

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mood of The Third Generation, one might assume, is rampaging cynicism. The film looks in two directions, at the modern capitalist state of West Germany and at the terrorist radicals who bedevil it, and seems to pronounce a curse on both their houses. Such a feat is possible, however, not because the film is two-faced but because the situation it describes is so complex….

In cut and dried terms, this is the message of Fassbinder's latest film. But it does not account for some of its most curious features, not least of which is that it is more emotionally than politically painful. Although some historical long view of the German experience is implied, the film actually works as a claustrophobically intense soap opera, a black farce of political mannerisms or, as an opening title puts it, "a comedy in six parts, about party games, full of suspense, excitement and logic, horror and madness …"…

It is no wonder, then, that the film seems such a riotous kammerspiel, since all the generations have been let loose in it….

The film's action, too, is all in the family. The members of the cell are domestic monsters first and political actors second, and reserve their scorn for the new member who is still burdened with his suitcase of revolutionary theory. What the discussion of ideology boils down to in the end is the old Fassbinder problem of victimization: his peculiar sense of doom about personal and social relations in which everyone alternately plays out the roles of victim and victimizer….

If the characters' personal situations are vicious circles, then their chances of changing anything politically are even more remote. It is a stagnation which one often feels has overwhelmed the film itself, although Fassbinder actively denies morbid introspection even as his characters sink into it. It is difficult in the end to reduce The Third Generation to a single message, simply because it squeezes in so much contradictory "communication."…

Richard Combs, "Dilettantism and 'realpolitik'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4042, September 19, 1980, p. 1020.