World Gone Wrong
by Genevieve Yue
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Dir. Uli Edel, Germany, Vitagraph Films
Of all the protest movements that erupted worldwide in the mid-Sixties, the anarchist Baader Meinhof Complex (better known as the Red Army Faction, or RAF) in West Germany was among the most vitriolic, bitter, and enduring, with sporadic urban guerilla uprisings appearing long after the flames of other revolts had died out. Like the Weather Underground in the United States, the RAF mutated out of its broad leftist student base into something increasingly radicalized and violent, alienating many of its former sympathizers with bombings, assassinations, and unrepentant acts of terrorism, including a botched hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane. The Baader Meinhof Complex, produced and adapted by Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote Downfall, which chronicles Hitler’s last days) from a book by journalist Stefan Aust, attempts to dramatize the events that led to the group’s abrupt rise and slow but noisy fizzle.
Attempts is the operative word. At a grueling two and a half hours, the film trades narrative cohesion for a reenacted chronology of West Germany’s postwar anarchist calamity. More an index of Aust’s book than the contents, Uli Edel’s film contains a dizzying litany of dates and locations, and the ever-present blast of gunpowder: like the simple acting-out of a timeline. Considering that it depicts an incredibly heady era in recent German history, the film is surprisingly dull and unimaginative. Gunshots pepper almost every scene with unrelenting frequency; they’re the film’s connecting conceit, stringing together events with their ear-rattling pitch and leaving no room for thoughtful pause. Instead, we get the constant rhythm of retaliation exchanged between longhaired teenagers and stern, slightly pudgy West German police.
Certainly, all this happened; Edel goes to great lengths to include throughout the film newsreel footage that reminds us that these are all facts, that West German radicalism happened alongside turmoil in Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris. Regardless of the relation each of these events had to those in West Germany, they’re all presented as ancillary and edited down to their goriest money shots, reflecting The Baader Meinhof Complex’s own bloodlust and agitated frenzy. The found footage sometimes doesn’t refer to anything at all, with period film-stock shots of city streets or the side of a rushing train used seemingly because they were available, making for a kind of wallpaper vérité—a new height of documentary-style indulgence. With this level of bombastic pretension, The Baader Meinhof Complex inadvertently captures a sense of the RAF’s war of attrition, a vision of history as something to be endured, but it contains little reflection otherwise.
For the first two-thirds of the film, the focus half-heartedly stays with the RAF’s three leaders: the volatile Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu); his girlfriend, the slyly calculating Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek); and the intellectual-turned-revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Gedeck, perhaps best known for her role as the tormented actress in The Lives of Others, is easily the most compelling figure onscreen. She speaks softly and with obvious care, even though her words, taken from actual RAF communiqués, are some of the harshest uttered in the film. Her dark hair hangs in a messy, no-nonsense bob around a delicately freckled face, and Gedeck palpably conveys both horror and excitement at the revolution materializing in front of her. After her suicide, the first of many false endings, the already unstable film spirals out of control. While the core RAF members sit out a lengthy trial in Stammheim Prison (where, today, several al-Qaeda members are being tried), second and third generation rebels on the outside plot new, more brutal attacks. They’re younger and more dangerous, flitting away to increasingly distant locations in rapid succession—a tarmac in Mogadishu, a terrorist safe house in South Yemen, a roadside winter field in Brussels. Even with all the text onscreen, it’s hard to tell where anyone is located, or what’s even happening, and that appears to be a deliberate choice.
This rubbernecked view of the past—history at a blur—is nothing like the way Meinhof carefully observed the fallout from Germany’s recent past and its effect on the world around her. In an interview, Edel, too, recalls his shock over the “suppressed memory” of the silent generation, that of his parents, who refused to speak about their complicity in the atrocities of the Third Reich, though it had been fifteen years since the end of WWII. Sadly, the force of this repression, and the subsequent generation’s riotous response to it, is almost completely missing from the film. It’s strange that the word “fascist” is uttered only a handful of times, even though the vehement disavowal of Germany’s Nazi past is what energized the protest movement in the first place. Spoken or not, the fascist shadow lurks in every real-life location, on all the red spines on Baader’s bookshelf, and chillingly, in the emaciated body of Holger Meins (Stipe Erceg), who went on a hunger strike in prison and was left to die. At that time, calling a police officer a member of the SS was hardly an exaggeration; many that had held Nazi-appointed positions during the war continued to do so long into the Cold War era. It’s often noted that the violent charge of West German protests owed much to the nation’s recent wartime past, and in this way the many bank robberies, kidnappings, and bombings are significantly more calculated than the film presents them to be, less an anarchic free-for-all than a focused and deliberate revolt against the apparent hypocrisy of the country’s then-current leadership.
In Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the head of the German police force, The Baader Meinhof Complex also squanders an opportunity to get at the complexities troubling the other side. He’s the lone official who understands the RAF’s motivations and the systemic nature of the problem, but too much of his preciously brief screen time is devoted to tedious sermons wasted on a group of wan, soup-slurping bureaucrats. Only in rare moments do we see the deep creases of worry on his face, with those large, sad eyes that so readily recall the troubled angel of Wings of Desire, another film that looks helplessly upon the ravages of a bitterly divided Germany.
Stefan Aust, himself closely aligned with several members of the RAF, has remarked that in his book he wished to refrain from judgment, neither lionizing nor vilifying the group. Yet however sober, even pedantic, Edel’s adaptation pretends to be, it’s also a wildly sensational mess. The rumbling bass that accompanies every tense shootout, fast-tracked montage, or police confrontation could have been lifted from any Hollywood action sequence, and more troubling still is the film’s obsession with violence. Like a horror movie it capitalizes on every opportunity to revel in the grotesque, such as an old woman beaten by a wooden signpost or a pretty girl shot in the face. Sure, the number of gunshots fired might match official police reports, but that doesn’t excuse the film’s sensational depiction of bloodshed. Instead of substantive critique or psychological intrigue we get a pastiche of folk songs (Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” bookend the film), a detailed shopping list for Molotov cocktails, and Ensslin’s dark kohl, which remains perfectly smudged under her eyes even after months of solitary confinement. Granted, the RAF leaders were attractive and charismatic—that’s largely the reason later members or other splinter groups lasted as long as they did—but the film, like its Shepard Fairey–designed poster, doesn’t dig terribly deep beyond the surface of revolutionary chic.
To some extent this romanticization is forgivable, or at least it’s familiar. The Sixties protest movements, well-documented from the start—ranging from Godard’s Maoist ciné-tracts to Hara Kazuo’s assaultive documentaries—were deeply connected to film culture, and it comes as no surprise that The Battle of Algiers and Bonnie and Clyde were among Baader’s favorite films. More recent treatments cast a nostalgic if fated glance backward, like Bertolucci’s decadent The Dreamers or Giordana’s epic The Best of Youth. But The Baader Meinhof Complex falls within a more recent spate of German movies and rebel-hero hagiography. Within the past decade, films like The Lives of Others and Goodbye Lenin!, along with novels such as Rosenfest and Rot, have emerged in the midst of tension over German reunification and the subsequent rise of extreme rightist organizations like the National Democratic Party. The emphatic popular and government support of The Baader Meinhof Complex, which was Germany’s official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards, points to a more contemporary trend in celebrating political agitation, no matter how violent, as a rebuke to a dangerously complacent populace.
As a point of contrast, we can look to Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 series of paintings depicting the events around “Death Night,” the day when the remaining imprisoned RAF leaders coordinated their suicides. When it was first exhibited in Germany in 1988, only a year before reunification, it met with immediate controversy, from charges of glamorizing Baader, Ensslin, and their cohort to outrage over art’s place in exploiting historical events. Despite the same subject matter, Richter’s tableau couldn’t be more different from Edel’s film; instead of graphic novel–level theatricality, Richter’s paintings, each taken from newspaper photographs and police records, are stunningly quiet. All fifteen are washed in muddled grays, even when the source material originally appeared in color. Here, Meinhof also undergoes a transformation, from the sharp-eyed girl in Youth Portrait to the three images of her lying dead, a deep laceration visible on her neck. Richter’s hand is willfully obscure, but not without cause. In the blurry stillness of these once restless agitators, the recreations ask us if we ever really knew who these people were, or what their legacy should mean to us. Such questions are mostly brushed aside in The Baader Meinhof Complex, though there is a rare moment of insight. As her comrades weep over the events of that fateful day, the steely new leader, Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), admonishes them sharply: “Stop seeing them as they never were.” It would have helped if Edel and Eichinger had also stopped to listen.