Monday, 27 May 2013

Extraordinary Games

The ending is fabulous.  The beginning is even better.  We’re in an office, high up, looking out over Berlin.  There is a computer; and a television set showing a film we can barely see - cops and robbers, heist, thriller; something violent for sure.  Although it could be, and this is not impossible, this movie!  There is a person in the room watching the TV, although they are hidden from us in a high backed chair; the sort favoured by successful executives.  We notice the credits.  Then our eyes become distracted by them.  Typed onto our cinematic screen they look like randomly scattered letters on a computer’s monitor.  It takes time to see the underlying order: gaps are being filled in to form names - of the characters; of the actors; of R.a.i.n.e.r.  W.e.r.n.e.r . F.a.s.s.b.i.n.d.e.r., who now chucks in quotes from the famous and the unknown; stencilled graffiti daubed straight onto the camera lens.  The subtitles add an extra layer of visual data.

These titles are fantastic!  They combine with the TV images, the hidden viewer, and the electronic score that is the aural equivalent to seasickness, to overwhelm our cognitive capacities.  Too much information with too little meaning that overloads our ability to process it, and so we give up trying to work out what is going on.  It is like hearing jazz for the first time: too much music to take in. 

But times have changed since John Coltrane first revolved around our turntable, and we called him a charlatan: “He’s just making noise, man!”  For although once again experiencing cognitive free fall our instincts have been trained; and now we are comfortable with our momentary confusion, trusting this strange German; knowing that he will create sense in the end.  Jazz an old friend, who pops around each evening for a long chat and a funny cigarette. 

The opening scene is brilliant, although we have no idea what it means.  We are excited but tense, uneasily aware that we are lost; and then… we sag under the weight of unprocessed information when another bundle of data is added to our mental burden: on the screen, nestled amongst the film credits, there is a quote from Helmut Schmidt, thanking the legal apparatus for not inquiring too deeply into legal niceties; and thus for allowing such things as Mogadishu.  The reference would have been obvious to his original West German audience, but it is a mystery to us; although we suspect it is to do with a counter-terrorism operation.  Such semi-obscurity is perfect for a film that resonates with our contemporary politics, even though it is depicting a foreign time.  For this is a deceptively familiar world.  The most obvious example of this temporal ambiguity is the computer, a crucial part of the plot.  It looks antique, and is believed by the public to be a threat to civil liberties, the government thought to be using it as a means of social control.  Computers, that is, are associated with the state bureaucracies; one more alienating invention, like filing cabinets and standardised forms.  How different from today!  Two generations of technological revolution separate us from this movie.  Since then the personal computer and the Internet have significantly changed the culture; to become part of the essentials of daily living, as necessary and mundane as freezers and washing machines; they have also replaced the car as the symbol of a largely illusionary freedom.i  So different!  Yet the resonances remain…  For although our governments still want to peek into our lives, it is the large corporations who are today’s most intrusive snoopers; the state not interested in our eating habits or the brand of toilet paper we flush down the loo.

The credits include graffiti from a public toilet.  The first of many that will litter the screen.  There is so much information in this opening scene!   It is a warning of what is to come.

Overload.  There are many scenes where so many things happen at the same time.  There is a group of people in a room; divided into couples they are talking about different subjects, while a girl shoots up, a man reads, and the television broadcasts a political discussion.  Again the TV!  We cannot escape its presence.  It is ubiquitous in this film.  Even when it is malfunctioning, those old fashioned lines rolling across the screen, it remains on: movies, news, and endless discussions, mostly we think about politics and political philosophy, and terrorists, of course – those modern demons who Fassbinder exposes and dissects so mercilessly.  When Ilse picks up her guitar and adds her voice to the mix August looks defeated.  Too much data!  Not even he can handle it.

This is an extraordinary film.  It sums up the 1970s in a few hours, and appears to confirm later assessments of this decade, which argue it was dominated by a culture of protest.  Rebellion was everywhere!

…the revolt against the ‘throw-away’ society united, inter alia, rebellious Sussex students, Enoch Powell, the campaigners against Covent Garden redevelopment, Sir Alec Douglas Home, US black militants, assorted strikers and preservationists.  Suddenly everyone seemed to be – as Randolph Churchill once said of Harold Macmillan – ‘tremendously on our side’.  (The Age of Insecurity, by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson)

Everyone was protesting, and they were protesting against everything!  It is precisely this atmosphere that this film captures; The Third Generation set in a world of tiny sects where protest exists merely for itself.  A person is a terrorist because it is something to do; a mere reflex conditioned by one’s immediate environment, like learning a few facts at a university lecture or buying a blouse from a store on the Ku’damm.ii  It is a habit like so much else, like the very routines of the ‘system’ these rebels are purporting to overthrow.   Although what they do is less like capitalist work than capitalist advertising: there is little substance in their actions, it is nearly all style.  Thus they act out the rituals of a terrorist cell - the secret meetings, the code words, the vague plans of social transgression - without actually carrying out any terror.  Empty practices that have no real content.  It is a game, whose rites the group use to convince themselves of their own authenticity.  They have created a fantasy which they believe in, but which in practice only operates on the periphery of their conventional middle class existence – family, career, and their consumer desires, are the determining influences on their actions and personalities.

If they had been lucky these characters could have continued living with these contradictions for a very long time, even forever; their nihilist ideas never tested against the realities of their actual experience.  Unfortunately for them their luck runs out.  It is because their dream comes true and a “real” terrorist joins the group.

At last they must act!

When they decide to kidnap a prominent businessman they question the purpose of their actions.  It is the first time they have done so, and they cannot think up a coherent reason for what they do.  They no longer know what they believe in; their ideology dissolved into instinct and reflexive opinion, which has no content, and which is at odds with their mature lifestyles.  After some desultorily discussion they eventually settle on a reason for the kidnapping: “it is the thing to do, isn’t it?”  They are also unhappy about having to behave like the real thing.  Nevertheless, their habits (ritualistic attendance in a communal activity) and self-image are forcing them to act like proper terrorists; although faced for the first time with a concrete action their instinct is to avoid it. 

Circumstances are against them.  Their own received opinion, their “underground” lifestyle, and the machinations of August, who engineers a situation that forces them to go on the run, overcomes their initial reluctance to commit an act of terror.  All the content of their youthful ideas has evaporated under the benign heat of their successful lives, and yet those ideas still control them, so that they have a compulsive force in a crisis (Fassbinder’s key insight).  This group has manufactured an image of themselves that they still believe in, and yet this belief has no purchase on their current ways of life.  They are conventional members of the middle class, a place where ideas are treated merely as sign posts to situate people within the social world.  A homely place where ideas are not taken very seriously – their content is superficial, and mostly ignored.  It is why the decision to act is so hard for this group, who discuss and argue, and finally convince themselves that they must do something, eventually deciding to kidnap P.J. Lurz; because Susanne works for him.  It is the only thing they can think of!   And only then can they decide on a reason: the release of all political prisoners in West Germany.  Because it is expected of them.  Obviously.

When I read The Age of Insecurity I felt that the authors were exaggerating, for the anti-business culture couldn’t have been that strong in the 1970s, as it recovered very quickly in the following decade; while the mainstream parties were never captured by either the anti-capitalist Left or Right.  Their analysis is indeed superficial, and depends on a media version of the period, which reflects the hysteria of an age when the corporate state cracked; and the existing methods of industrial production and social democracy appeared to be failing.  The culture wasn’t anti-business so much as despondent and critical about the establishment’s ability to manage the economy, which many people believed was irredeemably breaking down; largely, it seemed, because of the inefficiencies of the liberal state (the Left wanted to increase its power to remove those inefficiencies, while the Right sought to reduce its size and influence).  Social democracy was in crisis.  There was “too much democracy”, to quote a celebrated think tank, and there followed the inevitable reaction, which started in the middle of the decade; with a rebalancing of the society away from state control of industry towards “private” control by large corporations and the multi-national institutions that support them.iii  By the time of Elliott’s and Atkinson’s book the balance had changed massively, and society itself was at the service of these corporations, who have come increasingly to structure it; manufacturing the culture and producing its ideologies; humans now viewed as competitive individuals who can only thrive in a market environment; creatures of instinct who reflexively respond to stimuli, such as adverts and glass windows full of fancy objects...

To Fassbinder this image of a prevailing radicalism was a myth.  Stop.  Walk back to the film, sit down and watch it…  These characters are living inside a myth that they believe to be real; although they only adhere to its outer forms.  Trapped by this myth they make the mistake of enacting it; the reason why they look absurd.  It is as if Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse appeared on our streets and started behaving like you and me.  Indeed, forced by the pressure of circumstances, this is exactly what happens to this group.  A fantasy has invaded their lives, a fiction has suddenly become reality, and they can no longer tell the difference between it and social fact; a delusion marvellously captured in the last few scenes, when the characters step out of their make believe world to kill real people.  Their radicalism is a myth, but it is a myth that has been made to come true.

Fassbinder knew his fellow citizens too well.  Until the crisis their terrorism is only an act, and has very little to do with the concrete reality of their daily lives.  They would prefer it to remain this way.  But they have made a mistake… they have dipped a little too deeply into the radical waters, and have exposed themselves to the machinations of the powerful, who can, when the occasion demands, pick them up, and take them back to the television studios, where they will make them look like real terrorists.

The film starts in the Berlin office of a businessman whose wealth relies on the social panic caused by left wing terror.  This fear can overcome the public’s resistance to computer processing of personal data; seen as a threat to individual liberties.  In fact, it is because of concerns about government intrusion into privacy that there is currently a slump in the market – you won’t sell a single computer in Germany he tells an American colleague.  However, a new terrorist outbreak would remove these worries… 

Protest can be good for business!  And the more extreme the better.  Terrorism a game the establishment plays best, for it will decide how we should interpret public events, being by far the most powerful manipulator of image and message.

The terrorists also like playing games – chess, monopoly, familial melodrama, piggy in the middle…  They behave like adolescents, but no longer have the adolescent’s intense seriousness.  So many of the things they do go nowhere.  Edgar is a composer, but makes music that no one will hear.  Petra pretends to suffer from domestic violence.  Susanne has an affair with her father-in-law so as to feel the authenticity of self-loathing – she is playing the role of the fallen woman.  Hilde plays at being a lesbian; Rudolf a good Samaritan; and August?  He plays so many roles: terrorist, government stooge, transvestite and chameleon.  He plays just to play.  His whole life is a performance.

When they are not working, or shopping, or living inside their own imaginary fantasies, these characters get together in their terrorist cell.  They meet up, play games, suffer from paranoia (every knock on the door they believe is the police), talk about new members; and recruit an innocent (without the least scrutiny!); because he was in the army and can make bombs.   It is like a group of old friends who regularly meet through a shared common interest; such as the local tennis club.  Here is terrorism as leisure activity.

And so, no doubt, this merry go round would continue until they retire – Rudolf & Co. the first terrorists to get a pension from the state.  Then their luck leaves them.  Lurz needs an upturn in business, and he has contacts in the left wing underground – August.  He desperately needs some terrorist activity, believing, rightly, that the images they generate will increase sales; knowing that the threat itself will be illusionary.  A panic is good for business, providing the authorities can control it.  Profit (and power) relying on a series of fictions whose authors are now the corporate executives… Musing philosophically Lurz says that he loves movies because they tell the truth through lies.  The lie is the truth, he proclaims, and the truth the lie.  His colleague is surprised: “I didn’t think someone like you thought like that.”  Exactly!  This is a new kind of capitalist class, which seems to have grown out of the 1960s.  Images and old ideologies will tell us very little about them, or about anything at all, if we want to be scientifically accurate.  Yet everywhere in this movie there is abstract political discussion and the ubiquitous television set.  Ordinary life is being colonised.  The TV an occupying power in the private spaces of these characters; transforming reality even as it retails it: the code words, the bank robbery, the final kidnapping, are all lifted from its omnipresent screen.  These are media terrorists who are saturated with this fabricated world which will eventually take on its own reality and explode onto Berlin’s streets.  Lurz is a seer.  Fictional characters are walking out of television shows to cross roads and catch buses; travelling to Germany's cities to act like typical citizens in their squares and cafés.  The TV is manufacturing its own strange truth.

At regular intervals graffiti taken from public toilets appears on our screen.  Here is the detritus of sexual intrigue and vicious prejudice; as well as mass pointlessness.  They are a running commentary on the action; suggesting the cynicism and falsity that underlies these manufactured worlds – the private one of the terrorists, and the public one of Lurz.  The group’s “political” actions and the state’s propaganda the equivalents of a quick fuck in an underground loo – both are a conditioned response to outside stimuli.  Ideological opinions little more than sexual invites; crude and banal, and repetitiously formulaic.  Rudolf & Co. are copying a public world that exists inside their living rooms but from which they are excluded; the television screen an impassable barrier between them and the professionals who actually run the country.  Here are spectators who have become inauthentic by copying a simulacrum of real life; although they are unaware of this obvious truth, as their fictional roles are completely severed from the reality of their ordinary lives.  They are children playing at adult politics.  Then the grown-ups arrive, and suddenly the group takes on an actuality it never had before; because political professionals, by using them for their own purposes, inject real life into their activities.  It is the corporate state that gives them authenticity!  Although it cannot control all the consequences of its intervention: Lurz unable to foresee those last brilliant scenes where reality is turned into a TV studio and he is transformed into the show’s central character.

Hilde breaks down when she hears Paul is dead.  We are shocked.  Paul was a boorish tyrant who raped her; shattering her own illusions about independence and personal choice – she thought she could freely choose her sexual partners.  Was she in love with him?  Her reaction suggests this is so, although their affair fulfils a different kind of fantasy: Hilde needs to feel degraded.  It is part of her quest for authenticity.  Humiliation removes all the social constructs; and so by stripping off her social fictions she is able to suffer her naked (thus truthful) pain.  Her conversation with August is revealing: Hilde says that she is jealous of Paul’s death, which releases him from this painful and pointlessness life.  It is ennui.  Surfeited with themselves they need regular injections of purpose and excitement; whether it be a terrorist act, sexual intercourse or a consumer hit.  Tellingly Rudolf takes in a junkie.  Ilse yet another comment on the spiritually impoverished nature of these characters: they are drugged up on radical politics; the middle class’ heroin.

We can read too much into events.  Fassbinder knows this.  He knows everything!  He is especially sceptical about the corporate press.  Is all the TV talk simply media silliness; the experts’ views cheap materials to fill up broadcasting time?  Are the toilet obscenities a satire on this commentary; which is little more than debased opinion?  I think they are.  People will always find reasons to justify they actions; when mostly there is no reason to them at all.   This offers rich possibilities for the press, allowing a few specialists to earn a good living by making up simple meanings for events whose truth is either very complex or utterly banal.  Meanings can be elusive or non-existent.iv  Things can just happen, Susanne can decide to kidnap her employer, because it follows from the logic of the situation which crystallises the bad habits acquired over decades.  A group of friends fall into radical politics, probably during their student years, but are unable to climb out of them because it has become a way of life.  They have been rutted into an instinctive routine; the content of their politics withering away with time, until they are like those Catholics who have no faith but still attend every Sunday service.  On the threshold of middle age Rudolf & Co. are similar to any other group of long time friends, except instead of hill walking or squash they play the terrorist game.  This gives them kudos: providing they don’t act they can feel superior to the rest of their generation.  They are quite the dandy!  Here is the significance behind the first part of the film, and the reason we found it strangely aimless: their kind of terrorism is just another domestic routine; social clutter filling up an uninspiring and purposeless life.  All camouflaged, of course, by the meaning they give to it.  

They are easy meat for the authorities. 

Lurz and August need each other.  August is the actor who needs a theatre.  Lurz is the capitalist whose fortune depends on political violence.  The police commissioner is the useful tool, “protecting” Lurz, even when he doesn’t need protection, because it creates the perception of a terror threat; increasing the population’s unease.  But the commissioner is only one of this executive’s instruments.  This group of middle class terrorists is another.  With no ideology and no coherent purpose they are the raw material that will be processed by the establishment’s political machine.  Big business rules, and the state is its junior partner, and both need large profits to function efficiently.  Anything that can produce a return will do.  Even terrorism.  It is thus inevitable, given the personalities of these characters, that it is Lurz who is the only real terrorist in this film.  Because only he can make things happen; the police raid that kills Paul – the first act of (public) violence in the film – arising from his need to destabilize public opinion.  Here is the secret of the 1970s: concrete acts, a terrorist attack or a union strike, are less important than the images and discourse, the media atmosphere, that can be created out of them.  Power residing in the ability to manufacture appearances; and where nearly all the film crews are employed by the corporate state.  Even this group’s own ransom video will be broadcast on mainstream television, who will translate it into the establishment dialect.  Believing themselves authentic Rudolf & Co. turn out be characters in someone else’s TV show.

Paul, who looks like a gangster from a 1940s Hollywood movie, and behaves like stupid peasant, is idealised by the group because he has returned from Africa.  We assume he has been training with real guerrillas; and so combines two contemporary myths in one: the flight to a Third World paradise and international Revolution.  These were the drugs of choice for many left wing intellectuals of the 1970s; addicts not politicians, shooting up on dreams of authenticity.

The police are the terrorists?  Yes, I believe this is so.  For Fassbinder has uncovered another truth about radical politics: random acts of violence need a trigger; and this often comes from the authorities, because they have particular instrumental reasons to act; like Lurz’s need to sell computers in a depressed market.  In contrast the terrorist cell lives rather aimlessly.  Too freighted with ideology, and with no coherent political plan apart from carrying out some spectacular atrocity, they float through the days as they wait for the perfect moment to commit their act of terror.  The result?  It is they who tend to be pushed by events.  Passive creatures dependent on someone else to shout: “do it now!”v  

In an extraordinary scene the police raid Rudolf’s flat.  Bernhard, who has learning difficulties and reads Bakhtin, explodes into repetitive verbal patterns as he is overwhelmed by the arrogant presence of the officers, and their disrespect for personal property.  Order is disintegrating, and the cause is the all too organised authorities.  Here is the truth at the core of this work, which is counter-intuitive, and seemingly insane.  It accounts for the tincture of madness that is attached to Bernhard, a member of the aristocracy, and the one person who knows the whole truth and condemns it.  But he is impotent, a West German Cassandra.  In contrast: Lurz, August, and the Police Commissioner are specialists of manipulation, amoralists who can make people believe that fiction is fact.  All the rest are innocents. 

The final scenes are brilliant.  A real hold up is disguised to look like a fake one.  And we are left with Lurz talking straight to camera, seemingly a prisoner, yet in reality selling his own business…  Illusion has become reality, and the computer market is about to take off to the moon.

[i] See the excellent article in the TLS about the potentially totalitarian nature of the Internet.  One of the interesting things about this piece is that demonstrates how many present day commentators have forgotten what was the main liberal critique of the Soviet Union: it became an authoritarian state because of its utopian ideology.
[ii] In one scene Hilde tells a student that she can only teach objective facts; subjective interpretations must be left at home.  It is her way of avoiding a discussion about the political nature of modern Germany.  This scene can be read in many ways… 
·     She is an obedient member of the state.
·     She agrees with the extreme leftism of the student, but is wary of exposing herself. 
·     His political position is one that no longer excites her; and a discussion could make her uncomfortable – she would have to confront her own indifference.
·    All ideas, outside the official liberal democratic consensus, are subjective.  Thus all thought and action against that consensus is portrayed as individual preference; a kind of ideological shopping trip. 
The latter interpretation is the most interesting, and suggests an explanation for the violent reaction against the mainstream culture: people no longer own the public space in which they live.  It is an impersonal, an “objective”, environment which we can enter only if we leave our personalities behind.  To be credible actors in public life we have to perform the role of the “objective” liberal.  Once inside this “system” such impersonality can cause resentment amongst those few who retain their individuality.  Outside, where there is no restraint, the ideologies can grow like exotic fauna, though they exist without any public significance.  This creates resentment of a different kind.
[iii] The best book on this phenomena is Harold Perkin’s The Rise of the Professional Society.  He argues that this period saw a battle between two kinds of professional: the public and the private; the latter resentful, at a time of falling profits, of the taxes raised to pay for the former.  The mistake Elliot and Atkinson make is to equate the public professional with an anti-capitalist attitude.  For sure, there is a different ethos, but at the same time these professionals (civil servants, local authority administrators, solicitors, doctors, journalists etc) are both part of capitalism – they help make it work – and dependent upon it. 
[iv] Gus Van Sant’s great movie on Columbine captures this brilliantly.  Often there is no meaning to events.  They just happen.  In one scene we see a documentary about the Nazis; an obvious explanation for the actions of these kids.  But they are not interested in it.  The TV simply background noise as they concentrate on unpacking their guns.
[v] We saw the same thing with the London riots two years ago.  The evidence appears to be that it was police provocation that started them; after which they took on their own independent life.


  1. Many thanks for your thoughtful review. One point; the film playing through the credits sequence is The Devil, Probably, Robert Bresson’s 1977 tale of disaffected Parisian youth.

  2. You are right. I've just read Christian Baad Thomsen's book, Fassbinder; The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius, and he confirms it.