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New German Film Picks at Yet Another Old National Scab

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Constantin Film

Bloody hell – that about sums up the life of a terrorist on the run, whether today or in post-war Germany. The Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, orchestrated a reign of terror from the early 1970s to really not very long ago. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau, the boyfriend in "Run Lola Run") liked to smash things up, while Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck, the heroine in "The Lives of Others") was the respected lefty journalist who crossed over into terrorism under the thrall of Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, the sensible friend in the under-appreciated "Aimee & Jaguar"), who provided the theoretical justification. These three very real people gave up their children and any semblance of a normal life so they could – and I find myself unable to sum up what they wanted to achieve in a polite little sentence. What they really wanted to do, under a whole heap of fancy justifications, was fuck shit up.

Uli Edel co-wrote the script with his longtime collaborator Bernd Eichinger based on a book by Stefan Aust, who worked with the real Meinhof and knew many of the actual people involved. This closeness to the subject matter doesn't distort the film's point of view; it sees these pretty young terrorists clearly. For them, terrorism wasn't just a chance to demonstrate to their parents, the Nazi generation, that Germans were going to stand up to imperialism rather than submit in silence. The film understands why their initial attempts to protest the Vietnam war were the lame excuses for violence and mayhem that they were. Mr. Edel also shows what was going on in Germany at the time that caused terrorism to appear as a viable alternative lifestyle, and how the group found it easier to justify increasing violence as time went on.

Despite a 140-minute running length, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" doesn't dwell on their theories and justifications for their behavior, although perhaps the events that bring them together are too carefully depicted. We all know what was in the air of the late 1960s and early 1970s, so it may not be necessary to lay out the spirit of the times so carefully. Then again, I'm not a kid, and I know my history. Once the scene has been set and Baader has been sprung from prison, the movie barrels along though years of history and many different appalling acts – kidnappings, bank robberies, murder, bombings of crowded offices, embassy sieges and even the hijacking of a plane – as the original noble intentions get swallowed up by the slaughter. The original leaders are captured and thrown into solitary confinement as newer recruits up the levels of mayhem.

Perhaps every action is so familiar to a German audience that there's no need for identification of the people involved. Messrs. Edel and Eichinger were also careful not to single out the majority of the characters, with the exception of Baader, Ensslin and of course Meinhof. It's a fine line between glorifying terrorists and enabling your audience to know who the people onscreen are, and the lack of clarity is quite frustrating. For example, Meinhof, Ensslin and Baader are brought together for a lengthy trial with a fourth comrade; I had to consult Wikipedia to learn his name was Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels Bruno Schmidt, who was born to wear a handlebar mustache). How did they recruit? How did they manage their money? How did they get their significant terrorist contacts in the Middle East? The answers aren't here.

This lack of clarity or willingness for clear identification extends to the people leading the fight against them. Again, perhaps this is too obvious to a German audience, but others might have liked to learn more about the thoughtful bureaucrat who understood early how technology was a useful tool of control (Horst Herold, played by Bruno Ganz, who was Hitler in "Downfall"). It would be preferable to have a clearer demonstration of Baader and Ensslin's famously powerful charisma which enabled them to recruit such a devoted band of followers, and not one, but two (!) of their lawyers to run guns for them. It would have been nice to be able to understand what was the appeal for many women of the R.A.F., especially as Baader seemed to view women – even his devoted partner – as mere sexual playthings.

The period detail of the '70s – in Bernd Lepel's production design and Birgit Missal's costumes – is impeccable as one would expect. The clear bright lines of Rainer Klausman's photography avoid nostalgia and soft-focus without being clinical, either. And the editing by Alexander Berner keeps on top of the action; when the film drags a little, it mirrors when the R.A.F. lost its town way. It's almost tempting to discuss "The Baader Meinhof Complex" as if it was a documentary. Mr. Edel has very carefully recreated a distantly removed time and actions hard to sympathize with and in doing so has created a riveting and remarkable film.

The film could not have been made in America. For a start, the establishing scene of Meinhof and her family on a beach has a startling amount of nudity. But more importantly, the movie's view of history is from an entirely non-American perspective. Never mind that the opening song is Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" – a German car, come to think of it. It's fascinating to see how different ways of thinking and clashing perspectives exist in every culture, and how clashes between cultures can be even more dangerous. It doesn't matter if those different cultures are as separate as the Germans sunbathing naked in their Muslim training camp, or as close as Ensslin and her parents. But it also clearly demonstrates how indifferent America is as the dominant global power, to the effect our actions can have on others. Did anyone in America know or care that a firebomb in a German department store was meant to stop the war in Vietnam? Or has anti-Americanism just been an excellent catch-all excuse for two generations of angry young people?

What Messrs. Edel and Eichinger demonstrate is how pathetic and meaningless any of the excuses terrorists use are. Meinhof was a smart woman, passionate about injustice and determined to take action to prevent it happening. "The Baader Meinhof Complex" demonstrates how her good intentions degenerated into fascist slaughter, exactly of the kind she spent her early career denouncing. She wasn't smart enough to see that the person who has a gun to their head doesn't much care who is holding it there, or why. And if you're the person who is holding the gun, no excuses will ever justify what you have done.

It's taken until now for Germany to begin making movies which examine its past. "The Baader Meinhof Complex" has been a success in its home market, demonstrating an appetite for openness and discussion about the past which had not always been evident. This cinematic resurgence, which has included "Good Bye, Lenin!," "Sophie Scholl: The Final Days," and the upcoming British co-productions "The Reader" and "Pope Joan," will hopefully go further than historical examinations at which Germany currently excels. Tom Tykwer and Fatih Akin have made consistently interesting and fresh movies, but their depictions of modern Germany shouldn't be the only ones we see. "Last Exit to Brooklyn" is the only Hollywood feature on Mr. Edel's resume. When will he get the chance to make another?


Opens on Aug. 21, 2009 in New York and on Nov. 14 in Britain.

Directed by Uli Edel; written by Bernd Eichinger, based on the book by Stefan Aust and in consultation with Mr. Aust; director of photography, Rainer Klausmann; edited by Alexander Berner; music by Peter Hinderthür and Florian Tessloff; production designer, Bernd Lepel; produced by Mr. Eichinger; released by Vitagraph Films (United States) and Momentum Pictures (Britain). In German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Martina Gedeck (Ulrike Meinhof), Moritz Bleibtreu (Andreas Baader), Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin), Nadja Uhl (Brigitte Mohnhaupt), Jan Josef Liefers (Peter), Stipe Erceg (Holger Meins), Heino Ferch (Dietrich Koch) and Bruno Ganz (Horst Herold).


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