Lost in the Movies: The Baader-Meinhof Complex

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

“Shooting and f*cking are the same thing.” – Member of the Red Army Faction, a German left-wing terrorist group, in response to a Jordanian guerrilla who tells them to stop sunbathing nude at the training camp.

Of such surreal juxtapositions is 1960s radicalism made, at least in the Western world. Behind the Iron Curtain, the revolutionaries were trying to breathe the fresh air of the Prague Spring – and though the response was an incursion of Soviet tanks, few fired back. In the Third World, on the other hand, guns and bombs were not in short supply, while libertine sexuality and pop cultural acumen were regarded as bourgeois conveniences: serious revolutionaries had no time for the counterculture. Yet in relatively liberal democracies like France, West Germany, and the United States the New Left was drawn mostly from student ranks, from young people who had grown up for the most part in comfort, in the paradoxical postwar atmosphere of hope and fear. They dreamed of fusing the libertarian ethos of the hippie counterculture, the badass attitude of urban outlaw culture, and the heady exuberance of Marxism (sans the dead weight of the USSR) into a Molotov cocktail of youth revolution. Their credo was, in Jim Morrison’s words, “We want the world and we want it now.”

That "now" was crucial - however incoherent, hypocritical, and destructive, the impatience and privilege of the more militant 60s radicals made them charismatic in the extreme; one could disagree with them and regard them with awe at the same time. Which is pretty much where the based-on-a-true-story Baader-Meinhof Complex, an entertaining if flawed German film (which will be playing locally for at least another week, and possibly further into October), finds itself. At times the filmmakers step back to regard the protagonists' foolishness with a wry sense of humor or grim shock - they neither obfuscate the revolutionaries' silly self-regard nor minimize their rampant violence against civilians and government officials. Yet the movie can't help but titter excitedly when the gun-wielding "gang" rolls up in black leather and sunglasses, robbing banks to finance mad urban guerrilla warfare. A stronger filmmaker could locate the heart of the film in this ambivalence (Jean-Luc Godard did just that with his 1967 masterpiece La Chinoise) but unfortunately, screenwriter Bernd Eichinger is unable to set the film's moral or political compass, while director Uli Edel's stylistic vision is not unique enough to impose a point of view on the material.

Still, if you like this sort of thing then, well, you’ll like this sort of thing. I do, so I enjoyed the movie - and would recommend it to others. But it is rather incoherent – and not just because the filmmakers can’t decide if the terrorists are hypocritical examples of radical chic, cool badass icons, pathetic wannabe middle-class guerrillas, or ideological dead-enders trapped in their paranoia and hysteria. The Baader-Meinhof Complex also struggles with several structural problems, foremost among them how to keep track of its overweening narrative - which stretches across a decade and includes hundreds of characters - without losing the audience's interest. The film compromises by mostly throwing exposition out the window (how the characters arrive at one location from another, never mind from one ideological position to another, is often overlooked). Nonetheless, the screenplay is burdened by obligations to set the tone and send its characters on their merry, apocalyptic way.

The film begins in late sixties West Germany; trouble is brewing, but student protests are still peaceful and older, intellectual leftists like journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) still feel like they can have a place, however critical, within the establishment. That begins to change when police brutality and political assassinations shift the mood into desperate militarism: into this zeitgeist bursts the shaggy Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), a swaggering hoodlum-cum-Maoist who sets off bombs more as personal expression than political action - though the two causes seem increasingly hard to separate. Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), a lithe and hot-tempered young woman, is his lover and partner in crime; together the two are sent up for bombing a department store, but they flee to Italy where they talk hyperbolic (and hypothetical) revolution while daring their radical-me-tooist lawyer to steal an old lady's purse.

When they return to the Fatherland, Baader is recaptured and so Ensslin cajoles Meinhof to take part in a bloody rescue operation, after which the trio go into hiding, train with weapons, and begin a war against the state. Meinhof's transformation from public scold to underground bomb-thrower goes relatively unexplained. We sense her guilt but guilt is only gunpowder; whatever lights the fuse remains resolutely interior. Until the moment she officially joins the gang, she appears to be the main character; after that, we no longer understand her enough to identify with her as the heroine, so she slips into the background. Mind you, Gedeck looks lovely throughout (Joseph Jon Lanthier's description of her as "gorgeously plaintive" hits the nail on the head), and as an excellent actress - see her bewitching turn in Summer '04 for further evidence - she tries to spin gold from Meinhof's straw. Yet the character remains a cipher. Perhaps Gedeck's taciturn performance style is the wrong match for Meinhof's withdrawn cool. Would a more intense actress suggest the requisite fire beneath the journalist/terrorist's analytically icy exterior?

By now the film has dispensed with preparations and embarked on its this-is-why-we-came-here middle, largely devoted to capers and arguments. The gang, calling themselves (without explanation) the Red Army Faction, split their time between robbing banks, setting off bombs, and fighting amongst themselves while hiding out in apartments commandeered from bourgeois sympathizers. In these scenes, the Bonnie and Clyde coupling of Baader and Ensslin move to the fore, but their undeniable charisma cannot replace Meinhof's audience-surrogate observation; we can watch and even enjoy, but never identify with them. As the ostensible heroes take ideological flight, the filmmakers look elsewhere for logic. In an attempt to express a nuanced perspective on the situation, Bruno Ganz is inserted as a government official who doubles as the film’s moral conscience. Ganz is a wonderful actor so he almost pulls it off, and it's fun to see him relaxing after playing the histrionic Hitler in writer Eichinger's earlier Downfall (and the million and one You Tube spoofs thereof).

But the scenes which feature him lecturing cops on how we must “understand the terrorist mentality” remind one of the censor-inserted show-stopper in the 1932 Scarface, with a generic Italian wagging his fingers at the camera and saying of the gangster hero, “He disgrace-a his people!” Ganz seems to be in the film only so it can include some liberal talking points about the Bush war on terror; the situations seem forced. Besides, since Ganz's official is the one imposing the policies of surveillance and repression (albeit without Bush's self-assurance), the message remains muddled. At any rate, the draconian tactics work and soon the RAF leadership is behind bars - in maximum-security prison, away from the action, but with the Baader-Meinhof cause and name still in the air. What follows are hunger strikes, bitter feuds, disruptions of the high-profile trial, and finally suicides disguised as political murder. Meanwhile, in the outside world, actions by the remnant RAF become increasingly grisly and hard-edged: the group takes (and kills) innocent hostages, hijacks an airplane, and assassinates a government official in his own home.

This final section of the film is its strongest; the tension is ratcheted up, the stakes suddenly seem quite high, and we can identify a bit with the once-mad Baader as he curses his successors in the RAF ("What a f*cked-up operation," he mutters to himself after watching an embassy bombing go haywire on the TV). Still, the film has never resolved the question of how to view its terrorists. Part of the problem is that context is missing. We hear much about the Vietnam War and conformist elders, but West Germany was not the United States and these radicals had a generational conflict all their own to push them over the edge. The dark history of the Third Reich hovered in the background: many in the government had served under Hitler, some even in the SS. The suspicion that the "democratic" regime disguised a lingering and latent Nazism was pervasive on the German left. The youth movement was in part an attempt to exorcise the parental demons of Hitlerism and genocide (although certain tendencies of the extreme left, from a latent anti-Semitism in the hatred of Israel, to a penchant for brutal violence and a fondness for fanaticism, showed that the apples had not fallen far from the tree).

Meanwhile, fascism wasn't the only historical force to be reckoned with: communism was not a near-whimsical alternative to middle-class respectability as it was in America; it was a viable force breathing down one's neck so to speak, with the totalitarian socialist state of East Germany just next door. Thus, given the recent history and haphazard geography of 1970 West Germany, the possibility of instability was not merely wishful thinking, but a real, tangible possibility - and memory. One wishes the filmmakers had stressed this point more, contextualizing the country's unique situation; this would have made the gang's ideology seem less generic and its violence more desperate and less crazy.

Still, flaws and all, the film offers a riveting look at this semi-forgotten world, and that alone is worth the price of admission. The Baader-Meinhof Complex take us on a journey which begins with nude bathers lying in the summer sun and ends with bloody corpses sprawled out in solitary confinement cells. The Molotov cocktail has exploded, consuming its creators, and the "now" has passed into history; personal liberation gave way to destructive violence, and it turned out they were not the same thing after all.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner - hence the censorship of expletives. Comments appeared on Wonders in the Dark, where this piece was linked.

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