Fassbinder and the Red Army Faction

As his fellow West German radicals began to embrace violence in the 1970s, legendary filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder decided to celebrate another path for emancipation: class struggle in the workplace.

What accounts for Fassbinder’s political evolution? To understand it, we must trace the arc of the West German New Left.

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is not Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s most renowned work, but it’s certainly the legendary German filmmaker’s most politically sophisticated.

The five-part television series revolves around a cast of working-class characters in Cologne: the young toolmaker Jochen, his coworkers, his family, and his girlfriend, Marion. Over the course of the series, the factory workers, led by the popular Jochen with encouragement from the inquisitive and principled Marion, grow increasingly determined to assert control over the production process and take a bigger share of the profits.

The series aired on West German public television in the fall of 1972. Millions of people who watched it for the tender portrayal of its characters’ personal lives were also treated to debates like the following, in which Marion leads Jochen and his coworker Rolf to a conclusion lifted straight out of the Communist Manifesto.

Rolf: Of course, the company earns money. What about it?

Marion: Okay, then. How did it purchase a new plant?

Rolf: Well, with money.

Marion: With what money?

Jochen: Its own money.

Marion: Okay, but you can’t go buy a new factory.

Jochen: The company just has more.

Marion: And where from?

Jochen: What do you mean “where from”?

Marion: Where from?

Jochen: Where from? Well, that’s a stupid question. From selling the stuff. That’s where it gets it.

Marion: But where does it get the stuff it sells? From you, because you made it.

The original script for Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day culminated in the factory workers going on strike. When a friend suggested that Fassbinder adorn the strike scenes with conspicuous political symbolism like red flags, Fassbinder replied that he wanted “to let people come along slowly.” In any case, the scenes never materialized. The series was canceled without much explanation after only five episodes had been filmed, even though the network had paid for all eight.

Fassbinder always suspected the series was aborted because it became, as he put it, “politically more aggressive” in the episodes that never aired. While unconfirmed, his suspicions were reasonable. West German political life was in rapid flux over the course of 1972. Elements of the Left had begun resorting to violence, and at the same time that Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day was being filmed and aired, the chaos they sowed was mounting.

For that reason, it became difficult to procure public funding for works that seemed to support a far-left worldview. A new law was even passed in 1972, the Anti-Radical Degree, disqualifying radicals from civil service — an explicit response to the escalating violence by the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Group. Eight Hours was likely a casualty of this crackdown.

It wasn’t the first time Fassbinder had crossed paths with this section of the West German left. In fact, he was personally acquainted with several members and associates of the RAF from his days in the avant-garde film and theater scene in Munich. Because Fassbinder usually declined to speak openly about these left-wing radicals, they’ve mostly appeared in passing, if at all, in discussions of his work. But a closer look at the overlapping timelines of Fassbinder’s career and the evolution of the West German left shows he was in dialogue with his militant peers throughout his career.

Addicted to both work and cocaine, the quick-tempered and insatiable Fassbinder made more than forty feature films and television series and wrote or directed thirty plays in just fifteen years. Today, he’s not widely regarded as an explicitly political artist, since most of his output dealt with other subjects entirely. In his enormous body of work, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day stands alone as a testament to the director’s cultivated literacy in socialist political ideas and his optimism that they might be of use in the hands of the German public — perhaps even that their aims might one day be realized.

But this optimism was short-lived. When Fassbinder’s work touched on left-wing politics in the years to come, his perspective tended to be either gloomy and dejected, as in Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven (1975), or cutting and sardonic, as in The Third Generation (1979). These later films angered his leftist contemporaries, creating a rift that hadn’t healed by the time of his early death. The breach was so wide that, at one point, Fassbinder found himself at a screening on the receiving end of boos and jeers by radicals who denounced him as a reactionary, to which he allegedly replied, “All leftists are idiots.”

What accounts for Fassbinder’s political evolution? To understand it, we must trace the arc of the West German New Left, culminating in its embrace of political terrorism.

“Papa’s Cinema Is Dead.”

The same month the Nazi regime was defeated in 1945, Fassbinder was born in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Wörishofen.

His parents were middle-class but unconventional, their eccentricities exaggerated by the tumult of war and its aftermath. His father was a self-employed doctor who often worked pro bono in Munich’s red-light district, treating and befriending sex workers who drifted in and out of the family apartment along with a rotating cast of acquaintances. The home was so full that Fassbinder’s friend and biographer Christian Braad Thomsen says the young boy was sometimes uncertain about who his parents were.

His father left for Cologne when Fassbinder was six, and his mother was intermittently institutionalized for mental and physical ailments. Fassbinder subsequently spent long stretches of time essentially raising himself, casually entrusted to subletters who ignored him. His mother was open about her inattention to Fassbinder, saying later:

I was ten years old when Hitler came to power, and that means I had never known anything except the Hitler period and was completely marked by it, and when, in 1945, I saw how we had all been misused and how it had all been wrong, I realized how problematic bringing up anyone can be, and that I really was quite incapable of bringing anyone up myself, and so I rejected it.

Disturbed by his mother’s remarriage, the adolescent Fassbinder grew unruly and was sent to boarding school, from which he escaped to live with his father. As a teenager in Cologne, he wrote passionate love letters to his father’s new wife while also making excursions to gay bars — he had affairs with both men and women for the rest of his life, with an apparent preference for male lovers. Though his relationship to them was unusual and complex, Fassbinder liked both his parents and never resented his upbringing, later casting his mother in several of his films.

Like many other creative and rebellious West German kids during the ’60s, Fassbinder was drawn to cinema, which was emerging as the avant-garde medium of choice. In 1962, a dynamic group of young filmmakers, motivated partly by left-wing ideals, had convened at a film festival in Oberhausen, where they produced a manifesto demanding the creation of a “new style of film” that would be experimental and independent, “free from control of commercial partners.” The group adopted the slogan “Papa’s cinema is dead.”

In 1966, at age twenty-one, Fassbinder sought admission to the brand-new German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB). More than eight hundred candidates applied alongside him — every countercultural youth in Germany, it seemed — and only thirty-five were admitted. Fassbinder applied once more the following year, submitting two films he’d made with the financial support of an older lover, and was again rejected.

In August 1967, Fassbinder stumbled into an underground theater in Munich, established six months earlier as an art house showcasing work primarily by the Oberhausen group. Action-Theater, writes Fassbinder scholar Wallace Steadman Watson, was “fifty-nine chairs . . . and saloon tables in what one critic called a ‘gloomy dive.’” Under the creative direction of its founders, a married couple named Ursula Strätz and Horst Söhnlein, Action-Theater had been transformed into a venue for avant-garde live plays.

Fascinated, Fassbinder joined the loose collective and was quickly jockeying with Söhnlein for authority. It was at Action-Theater that he collided with the student movement, which at that time was reaching fever pitch in cities across West Germany. And it was at Action-Theater that he came to know a few of those who would push the movement into its next, more violent phase — including Söhnlein and his political friends, future RAF core members Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin.

The Oberhausen manifesto was characteristic of West German youth defiance in the ’60s. In prior years, tensions had risen in the youth wing of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), which objected to its parent organization’s rightward drift. By 1961, the entire Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (SDS), or Socialist German Student Union, had been expelled from the party.

Thus, the German SDS was able to chart an independent course as the primary engine for a socialist student movement that was mounted in and morphed throughout the 1960s. It bore no formal relation to the American SDS, but it followed a similar trajectory as the decade wore on, gaining and then losing momentum as sectarian factions earned prominence.

But that happened later. In the beginning, as students began to protest at their universities and in the streets, their movement served as the vehicle for the generation’s frustrations with a nation that, rebuilt after the war, failed to live up to the promises of its architects. The left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof, a political radical with a soft, cool, and deliberate manner that disarmed her opponents and won her a wide audience, explained the movement’s perspective and lofty ambitions on a panel televised in February 1967 called “Authority in Decline”:

Parents have lost their credibility due to their association with Nazism. The Catholic Church has lost its credibility by protecting itself behind National Socialism . . . Those representing authority are no longer convincing . . . If one has the desire or presumption to educate a population, one must create conditions of real democracy. Then an authentic authority will be acceptable. The abuse of authority will be annihilated; servility and submission will no longer exist. This is not possible without changing society in concrete terms.

A few months later, in April 1967, a group of anarchists led by the young Fritz Teufel were arrested with great fanfare for plotting to throw bombs at visiting US vice president Hubert Humphrey. When it was discovered that the “bombs” were actually just yogurt and flour, the press dubbed them the “Pudding Assassins.” Later, Teufel would gravitate to the RAF and engage in actual political violence. But for now, the incident only embarrassed the police and popularized the movement further. The youth of Germany were inclined to side with the pranksters and their leader, Teufel — which is the German word for “devil,” enhancing the general aura of mischief — over the clueless authorities.

In June 1967, matters became serious when a student named Benno Ohnesorg was killed by a police officer at a demonstration in West Berlin. A photograph of a young woman protestor kneeling over Ohnesorg’s body — strikingly similar to the iconic Kent State shooting photo from the United States a few years later — flooded the press, generating popular sympathy for the young dissidents. The student movement’s ranks swelled, and its protests increased in frequency and intensity. This was the political context in which young Fassbinder arrived at Action-Theater late that summer.

“Stop the Terror of the Young Reds Now!”

If Fassbinder had been accepted to the film academy in Berlin, he would have crossed paths with left-wing radicals and future militants there as well.

“Instead of proving themselves worthy of a grant, the most gifted students turned out to be rebellious left-wingers,” said film student Holger Meins, who, unlike Fassbinder, was accepted to the DFFB’s inaugural class in 1966. The new institution, to the consternation of its founders, began to produce works like “The Red Flag,” which portrayed film students running through West Berlin traffic waving (naturally) enormous red flags. Meins appeared in that film and later went on to join the RAF.

Instead, Fassbinder’s introduction to the radical left came in the form of Söhnlein, Action-Theater’s first leader, and his friends Baader and Ensslin, who were allegedly known to interrupt the group’s performances to demand that it escalate from confrontational experimental theater to direct political action. Eventually, this trio would make the transition themselves.

Söhnlein and Fassbinder were both intense figures, prone to creative manias and fits of rage. At first, they got along well: sometime in 1967, Fassbinder moved into the apartment shared by Söhnlein and his wife, the theater’s cofounder, Ursula Strätz. As the year went on, though, Söhnlein became jealous of Fassbinder, not only because of his growing influence at Action-Theater but because Söhnlein suspected Fassbinder and Strätz were having an affair.

One night, mad with jealousy, Söhnlein wrecked the theater. According to Thomsen:

Not a single chair, beer glass, or plank of the stage was left in one piece. Söhnlein tried to lend his destruction of the Action Theatre a political justification. It was not exactly correct for a political activist to be accused of such a petty bourgeois emotion as jealousy.

Thereafter, Fassbinder was the de facto leader of Action-Theater, while Söhnlein increasingly spent time with Baader and Ensslin.

Outside the theater, conflict between authorities and protestors was rapidly intensifying. Alongside Ulrike Meinhof, another leader had emerged on the young left: Rudi Dutschke, a member of the German SDS and an outspoken Marxist who studied labor movement history. As Dutschke became more prominent in SDS and in the public eye, he began to take aim at the capitalist press. And the capitalist press aimed back.

At the time, the newspaper empire owned by the conservative media tycoon Axel Springer controlled 40 percent of all newspaper circulation in Germany. For months, Springer papers had run scaremongering headlines about the student left. Soon, they began to point the finger at Dutschke in particular, running an article entitled “Stop the Terror of the Young Reds Now!” in February 1968, accompanied by Dutschke’s photograph. In March, Springer papers upped the ante by publishing the headline “Stop Dutschke Now,” along with five photographs of him.

On April 2, two large department stores were burned down in Frankfurt as an act of protest against capitalism and imperialism, an event that dramatically escalated the conflict between the student movement and the West German establishment. The people behind the arson were none other than Horst Söhnlein, Andreas Baader, and Gudrun Ensslin, who had used bombs made in Söhnlein’s apartment. If the killing of Benno Ohnesorg was the first shot in a real war between the young left and the authorities, the Frankfurt bombing was the return volley.

Segments of the West German left had begun to show their first serious inclinations toward political violence. It may not have been the student movement’s dominant orientation, but neither was it pushed to the margins. Director Klaus Lemke began work on a feature film, The Arsonists, inspired by the Frankfurt bombing, which centered on a band of left-wing terrorist youth looking glamorous in sultry makeup and leather jackets. Cinema student Holger Meins made an instructional film about how to fashion Molotov cocktails.

The SPD and the trade unions were spooked by this new tenor and began distancing themselves from the student movement. For his part, Rudi Dutschke was avowedly opposed to such tactics. In fact, it was Dutschke — not Antonio Gramsci, as is often alleged — who coined the term “long march through the institutions” to describe his preferred strategy for winning socialism. But that political distinction didn’t prevent a would-be assassin from heeding the Springer papers’ call to stop Dutschke in his tracks.

On April 11, a young anti-communist zealot named Josef Bachmann shot Dutschke in the head three times. Bachmann had a copy of a Springer paper with an article about Dutschke in his bag and, when in custody, divulged that he’d been inspired by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in the United States one week earlier. Dutschke miraculously lived, though he suffered a debilitating brain injury and died eleven years later of complications. The assassination attempt elicited a ferocious response on April 14, Easter Sunday, when demonstrators attacked Springer headquarters, smashing windows and setting cars ablaze.

Action-Theater quickly prepared and staged a play called “Axel Caesar Haarmann,” a mockery of Axel Caesar Springer, which ran starting in April, as the so-called Easter disturbances were still underway. The playbill read: “This has to do with Springer! (and the rotten democracy which allows him to have power).” Per Watson’s account:

The playbill announced that proceeds would be used to help pay medical costs for the wounded radical student leader Rudi Dutschke and to support the [SDS] legal rights fund. At the end of the performance Fassbinder stood on stage with a water hose, recalling police handling of street demonstrators. A voice claiming to be that of the theater management announced over the loudspeaker that the production had been shut down and the audience must clear out; those who did not do so actually got doused.

The Easter disturbances and their aftershocks, combined with the May 1968 youth revolt in neighboring France, inspired a crackdown on protestors and their ideological peers from all levels of government. Dramatic emergency decrees were issued, curtailing civil liberties. Police arrested Söhnlein for his role in the Frankfurt arson on June 6, and Munich authorities shut down Action-Theater that same day. Officially, they cited dangerous electrical wiring, but the timing made it obvious that the move was politically motivated.

Sometime between the Springer play and the shuttering of Action-Theater, Fassbinder slipped off to Paris, where he was arrested during the cataclysmic youth revolt there — “whether as a participant or an observer,” Watson writes, “is not clear.” It was an apt metaphor for Fassbinder’s relationship to the Left for the remainder of his life and career.

“Some of Them Are Friends of Mine.”

In 1972, Thomsen asked Fassbinder what a movie about the RAF would look like. Fassbinder answered, “I would not make a film at all, because some of them are friends of mine.” Perhaps he had closer friendships with Baader, Ensslin, and Söhnlein than the record suggests. After all, the latter may have been his creative rival, but he was also his flatmate.

Or perhaps Fassbinder meant that, because he had known them and weathered the intensity of that political period alongside them, he harbored some tender feeling for the wayward young radicals — that they were not, to him, a mere source of fascination and lurid entertainment, as they were for much of West German society. This latter interpretation is supported by an interview in 1974 in which Fassbinder said, per Watson, that “although he would like to make a film about those members of the Generation of ’68 who had turned to terrorism, he could not do so because he did not know how to portray their ‘strength,’ their ‘great intellectual potential,’ and their ‘over-sensitive despair.’”

Whatever affection he may have had for his radical peers, Fassbinder did not follow in their footsteps. By the time the last of the mass student demonstrations occurred in late 1968, Fassbinder had already moved on to writing and directing experimental plays under the title of a new project called “Anti-Theater.” And when, in 1970, Ulrike Meinhof sprang Andreas Baader out of the prison where he was being held for the Frankfurt firebombing, inaugurating what the press dubbed the Baader-Meinhof Group and precipitating the formation of the Red Army Faction, Fassbinder was already emerging as a major presence in German cinema with subversive homages to American genre films.

When Fassbinder returned his attention to political matters a few years into his film career, the result only showed how divergent his perspective had become from that of his erstwhile comrades. While the RAF was ramping up its activities in late 1971 and early 1972 — publishing pamphlets like “The Urban Guerrilla Concept” and putting its principles into practice by robbing banks and killing police officers in shoot-outs — Fassbinder was laying the groundwork for Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day.

Though Fassbinder was no political activist, his pursuits during that time were much more faithful than his counterparts’ to the original animating philosophy of the German youth movement, the socialist commitments that had first propelled them to split from the SPD. As he developed the script for Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Fassbinder held exploratory meetings and conducted extensive interviews with factory workers to get a feel for their home and work lives. It was the type of activity one would undertake if one sought to reflect working-class people’s own condition back to them in order to encourage them to stand up for themselves. His approach, in other words, was more Rudi Dutschke than Baader-Meinhof.

The RAF, meanwhile, heavily influenced by armed anti-colonial insurgencies in the global periphery that mapped awkwardly onto the West German situation, had become wholly devoted to a strategy of ultraleft vigilantism. Despite the fact that the minoritarian RAF was primarily focused on terrorizing enemies at the expense of building alliances with potential friends, the group actually garnered a surprising amount of public support at first. A poll even revealed that one in ten people would be willing to harbor an RAF fugitive in their house.

The RAF was certainly more popular than the Weathermen in the United States — a contemporaneous and analogous organization with a similar philosophy that had emerged from the rubble of the American SDS — despite the Weathermen causing far less death and destruction. Unlike American liberals, German liberals were haunted by regret that they or their parents hadn’t put up a fierce enough fight to prevent the rise of fascism. When the RAF took extreme action against injustice, that group was harder for some to dismiss. Still, popular sympathy dwindled as more people were injured and killed in RAF campaigns.

Ironically, given the probable circumstances of its cancellation, Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day proposed an alternative strategic vision for rectifying injustice, one that didn’t rely on a small but militant faction outfitted with bullets and bombs. Even in its truncated version, Fassbinder’s series gestured down another path: mass participation in class struggle, chiefly in the workplace but also beyond it (there’s a subplot about an effort to establish a kindergarten in a working-class neighborhood), with an emphasis on practicing solidarity across lines of difference (another subplot is about overcoming prejudice against an immigrant worker). But distinctions like these were lost in the conservative backlash to high-profile RAF activities.

Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day is at times shocking in its frank endorsement of Marxist ideas. The series is peppered with lines of dialogue that echo the language of the Left while also sounding perfectly natural in context. “We have more power than we think,” says Marion, urging Jochen to call factory management’s bluff. “You have no idea how much you own,” says Jochen’s coworker Manfred — referring, in a clever double entendre, to Jochen’s possessions as he’s helping Jochen move apartments, and leading to an explicit conversation about work and exploitation.

The series shows Fassbinder in rare idealistic form. Its existence alone is an expression of genuine hopefulness; there’s really no reason to go to all the trouble if resistance is futile. Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day marks a moment in time when Fassbinder’s political perspective had matured and when it still seemed possible for that perspective to shape the world. Over the next few years, however, Fassbinder would come to feel that the window of possibility had closed.

The last episode of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day aired in March 1973. Later that year, a US-backed coup in Chile overthrew Salvador Allende’s socialist government, while an international oil crisis provided the pretext for a global financial restructuring in Western capital’s favor. As the ’70s continued, the entire world came to recognize the cold sovereignty of incipient neoliberalism. In West Germany, the RAF became the public face of resistance to it, overshadowing the rest of the Left — which, in any case, had been diminished by two successive waves of repression in 1968 and 1972.

By 1974, the so-called first generation of the RAF — including former popular journalist Ulrike Meinhof and former avant-garde theater scene mainstays Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin — were all imprisoned. Former film student Holger Meins was dead, having perished during a hunger strike behind bars, and the others weren’t long for the world.

“All Leftists Are Idiots!”

Fassbinder’s Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven was released in 1975. It was quite plainly a film about the Left, and the Left hated it. Thomsen describes its reception this way:

The audience at the premiere consisted precisely of the groups at whom the film was aimed, that is, journalists and militant students. The atmosphere was so volatile that the film’s dialogue could not always be understood, and a planned discussion between Fassbinder and the audience was completely drowned out in abuse and insults. To the angry question, why the film only dealt with the idiots on the Left and not with its more constructive tendencies, Fassbinder replied bad-temperedly, “All leftists are idiots!” At that there was a deafening commotion in the auditorium, and the discussion had to be broken off.

Mother Küsters is indeed rough viewing for a socialist. The film revolves around an old working-class woman, Mother Küsters, whose husband kills his manager at a factory and then kills himself. The vulnerable Mother Küsters divulges details about her husband’s personal life to a tabloid journalist, who twists her words to portray him as a terrible brute. Desperate for understanding, she is befriended by two members of the Communist Party, a man and a woman who are clearly of a higher class. They suggest that her husband’s actions actually sprang from egalitarian impulse, but that he expressed his frustrations in the wrong way. He should have taken collective political action instead.

Mother Küsters is persuaded and joins the party herself, even speaking in public at a left-wing political event. But the communists drop her when election season rolls around, their focus quickly shifting from publicizing the abysmal lives of factory workers to electoral campaigning. Bereft and adrift, Mother Küsters is taken in by a young man she’d met at the political event, whom the communists describe as an anarchist. The anarchist explains that the communists are members of a bourgeois party and lack revolutionary courage. If her objective is to convince the world of her husband’s decency, to exonerate his character by indicting the system that ground him down, then what she needs is direct action.

The anarchist talks Mother Küsters into joining him and his comrades in staging a direct action at the tabloid office. When there, the anarchists pull out their weapons and take the office workers hostage, phoning the authorities to demand the release of all political prisoners in West Germany. The police arrive, and Mother Küsters is killed in the crossfire. All told, it’s admittedly difficult to see Mother Küsters as anything other than the story of how members of a crazed left neglect and exploit a grieving working-class woman and ultimately get her killed.

Fassbinder should have predicted that Mother Küsters would offend the Left, but, despite the obvious interpretation, he apparently didn’t mean it as an insult. According to Thomsen, who spoke with him afterward, he was taken aback by the harsh response. The episode calls to mind something that happened the year prior: Fassbinder had written a play that sought to explore the heady and challenging notion of how domination binds people in a complex relationship of mutual dependency, a point he made by subverting the categories of oppressor and oppressed. Drawing on a previously published novel, his play featured a Jewish character who oppresses Germans — knowingly and intentionally, as retribution for the Holocaust. He was subsequently roundly accused of antisemitism.

It was the worst controversy of his career, and it took a toll on Fassbinder, who was as sensitive as he was provocative. His substance abuse problems intensified as the dispute wore on. His mental state was already fragile when he began working on Mother Küsters, and it appears he immediately made a version of the same mistake, expecting his audience to take things allegorically rather than literally and giving himself no leeway if they failed or refused. That the cinematic style was familiar and popularly accessible, rather than obscure and avant-garde, didn’t help matters. It wasn’t at all obvious to viewers that they were supposed to be joining him in a thought experiment.

A careful viewing of Mother Küsters, especially in light of everything else we know about Fassbinder’s political views and encounters, suggests that it’s not an indictment so much as a lament. After all, the communists are presented as quite rational; the viewer is just as convinced as Mother Küsters by their line of reasoning. Their crime is that their rationality burdens them with certain bourgeois practical obligations, which they attend to dutifully while doing nothing for the poor woman. The anarchists, meanwhile, are able to intervene swiftly and dramatically where the communists can’t, but only because their irrationality leaves them totally unburdened.

This is a rather profound meditation on the dilemma of the Left: to act decisively, one must risk insanity, and to act sensibly, one must risk inaction and irrelevance. Mother Küsters isn’t a sympathetic portrayal of the Left, but neither is it a condemnation. It’s a contemplation of the limitations of these two available options, delivered at the precise historical moment when both strategies had proven disastrously ineffectual.

The film’s title is a callback to a 1929 German film, Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness, a favorite with the ’68 generation for its revolutionary optimism. Mother Küsters is the dose of pessimism served by that generation’s total failure to stop the advance of neoliberalism — or, indeed, to change much of anything. “All leftists are idiots,” then, not because some other political ideology was superior, but because the Left refused to appreciate the bind it was in.

When the film made it to America in 1977, the New York Times called it a:

witty, spare, beautifully performed political comedy that, according to an early synopsis I have, was supposed to end with Mrs. Kusters being gunned down by the police. Nothing so wild happens — which makes me wonder about the system of checks and balances that is at work within the artist.

Fassbinder had changed the ending for American audiences. Instead of dying in a hail of bullets, Mother Küsters is abandoned when the anarchists lose interest in their half-baked plan. She meets a sweet, elderly night watchman and leaves the tabloid office with him, no longer under any illusions that politics can change her life but also no longer desperately alone. There was no studio or distributor pressuring him to make this alteration. Fassbinder simply decided to soften the blow.

“One of Us?”

As the decade went on, the RAF continued making mayhem, culminating in what was known as the German Autumn in 1977. Ulrike Meinhof had hanged herself in her cell the year before, but the remainder of the first generation were still alive in Stammheim Prison, including Baader, Ensslin, and their comrades Jan-Carl Raspe and Irmgard Möller, who had been living in an urban commune with old Pudding Assassin Fritz Teufel. In April 1977, the first three were sentenced to life in prison.

Two months later, the “second generation” of the RAF killed the head of a major German bank in a failed attempt to kidnap him. In September, they successfully kidnapped Hanns Martin Schleyer, the president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations — also a former SS officer, a testament to the inadequacy of denazification — and held him hostage as they demanded the release of eleven RAF members, including the four at Stammheim. The authorities created a well-resourced crisis committee to handle the matter but had no intention of giving a single inch to the RAF.

From the beginning, the RAF had a close relationship with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). Many of the first generation had fled to Jordan and received paramilitary training from the PFLP after they were briefly paroled following the Frankfurt firebombing nearly a decade earlier. Now, that close relationship paid off: in October, four PFLP members hijacked a flight from Majorca to Frankfurt with eighty-six passengers aboard.

The hijackers flew the plane to Rome to refuel. While grounded, they echoed the original RAF demands and issued a few of their own. The plane then bounced around the Mediterranean and the Middle East, landing in Cyprus, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Yemen, a member of the German crisis team boarded the plane to negotiate. The hijackers then flew it to Mogadishu, Somalia, where German authorities were waiting to ambush them. The hijackers were all either killed or arrested, and all passengers were rescued.

When news of the failed hijacking reached the second generation of RAF members, they killed their hostage, Schleyer.

When the first generation in prison heard about it, they killed themselves — supposedly with guns smuggled into Stammheim by their lawyers, though many still suspect that Ensslin, Baader, and Raspe were murdered by German and international authorities in an act of retribution (Möller survived stab wounds and denies having attempted suicide). Fassbinder reportedly believed that his old acquaintances were murdered.

The next year, Fassbinder was asked to submit a short film to the omnibus work Germany in Autumn. It was German cinema’s response to the actions of the RAF. If the Berlin film school project “The Red Flag” featuring Holger Meins announced the beginning of a particular era of West German left politics, Germany in Autumn marked its completion.

Fassbinder’s contribution is dynamic and strange, consisting of scenes in which he, playing a caricature of himself, argues with both his real-life mother and his lover, berating the latter for his complacent liberalism while browbeating the former into confessing a longing for the strong hand of a führer. This was a far cry from the political lucidity and optimism of Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, or even the misunderstood melancholy of Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven. By now, it was well known that Fassbinder had a serious substance abuse problem and that he would frequently devolve into temper tantrums and even violence. He satirized his own inner turmoil in Germany in Autumn, depicting himself using drugs, drinking to excess, and crying.

Fassbinder’s final political film, The Third Generation, was released in 1979. The opening sequence features a quote from the West German chancellor thanking “the legal experts of Germany for not challenging the constitutional legality of everything. I refer to the operation in Mogadishu, and maybe other things related to Mogadishu,” an apparent reference to covert actions the government took to neutralize the RAF.

The Third Generation finds Fassbinder at his most cynical. The film is more experimental than his earlier political works, with a disorienting soundtrack that often makes the dialogue difficult to discern. The plot concerns an industrialist displeased that demand from the West German police for his computers has tapered off with the decrease in left-wing terrorism. With police support, he sends his former secretary to infiltrate a cell of disaffected would-be radicals, animated more by boredom and malaise than revolutionary zeal, and inspire them to violence. The film culminates with the group, dressed as clowns, kidnapping the industrialist himself, unaware of his role. As they make a hostage video, the industrialist smiles.

As Watson points out, The Third Generation is not an oblique reference to the student left, nor even to those disposed to political violence who emerged from it. It’s about “come-lately West German terrorists” who were “active at the end of the 1970s and who, according to Fassbinder, knew little of what had motivated their forebears of his generation.”

“It’s precisely those people who don’t have any reasons, any motivation, any despair, any utopia, who can easily be used by others,” Fassbinder said about The Third Generation. The film was not a damning portrait of Fassbinder’s old bedfellows, then, but a darkly comedic jab at their offspring and imitators, as well as a bleak reflection on the pitiful remnants of a movement that sought to transform the world. Snippets of Rudi Dutschke speeches play in the background of the film, twisting the knife in a collective wound.

Most of what is written about Fassbinder takes little interest in his relationship to the Left. This is understandable, since his vibrant and provocative films were primarily concerned with other subjects altogether. But when today’s socialists watch Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven, Germany in Autumn, and The Third Generation — or catch the tendrils of leftist rhetoric and political commentary in many of his other films — they will no doubt be inclined to ask, quizzically: “Was Fassbinder one of us?”

The answer, without a doubt, is that he was. The mixed messages we receive from these works are explained not by fickle political commitments but by Fassbinder’s swelling and then waning optimism as it became clear that his side had definitively lost the battle, if not necessarily the war.

Many on the West German left at the time thought that the director, who by then had become one of the most internationally celebrated figures in Germany, had abandoned them in his pessimism. But perhaps not. Rainer Werner Fassbinder died in 1982 at age thirty-seven from an overdose of cocaine and barbiturates. In his apartment, surrounding his body, were notes for a new film project: “Rosa L.,” about the life of the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg.