As the Baader Meinhof Gang, Carlos the Jackal, Farc freedom fighters
and Che Guevara get the big screen treatment, Geoffrey Macnab reports
on a new wave of films that aim to tell the terrorists' side of the story
Friday, 30 May 2008
"He wore Italian shoes and silk shirts and, as tight trousers were
not in fashion at the time, he made his own. He wore no underpants,
'to show off the arse and everything else,' he said. He wore make-up,
sometimes wore false eyelashes and often doused himself with perfume."
No, this is not the description of an androgynous Seventies pop star
or a rebellious young actor. It is how the author Stefan Aust
describes the terrorist Andreas Baader, one of the most notorious
figures in post-war German political history, in his book, The Baader
Baader's story is shortly to be brought to the screen by the
producers of Downfall, the German box-office hit about the last days
of Adolf Hitler. Baader is being played by Moritz Bleibtreu, the
charismatic young German star recently seen in Speed Racer. The
Baader Meinhof Complex, as the film is called, is one of a growing
number of terrorist-themed features and documentaries currently being made.
[See URL for trailer.]
In Cannes last week, Steven Soderbergh unveiled his two-feature film,
Che, starring Benicio Del Toro as Che Guevara. On release in the UK
at the moment is Barbet Schroeder's documentary Terror's Advocate,
about lawyer Jacques Verges (who represented such figures as Klaus
Barbie and Carlos the Jackal). Schroeder has described his film as an
account of the rise of "blind terrorism" – a story that starts with
freedom fighters placing bombs in cafés by the sidewalk in Algeria
and goes on to take in everything from Black September to the Stasi
and Pol Pot.
Meanwhile, award-winning French director Olivier Assayas is shortly
to start work on a film about Carlos the Jackal. Billed by its
producer as an "an action film", the story follows "the rise and fall
of the world's greatest international terrorist".
The new wave of terrorism-themed movies isn't just confined to
Europe. In Colombia, the acclaimed director Victor Gaviria is about
to start work on Black Blood – the Hour of the Traitors, a new
feature about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc,
guerrilla group. The film is based on a true story about a young Farc
leader betrayed by his own family. Gaviria has recruited former Farc
members who have laid down their weapons to play the leading roles in
his film. Gaviria acknowledges that there is added interest in Black
Blood in Europe because of the plight of Ingrid Betancourt, the
former Colombian presidential candidate who was kidnapped by the Farc
six years ago and has been held hostage ever since.
[See URL for trailer.]
Of course, the interest in terrorism-themed films is nothing new. In
the 1970s and 1980s, there were many movies that pitted heroic cops,
soldiers and politicians against villainous terrorists. Films such as
Fred Zinnemann's The Day of the Jackal (1973) and John
Frankenheimer's Black Sunday (1977) set the template for one style of
Meanwhile, film-makers who were contemporaries of the terrorists made
personal and reflective films, for example Germany in Autumn (1978)
or Margarethe Von Trotta's The German Sisters (1981), exploring the
background to the terrorism.
The difference about the new batch of films is that they don't simply
demonise the terrorists. They aren't score-settling political tracts
either. Instead, they aspire to be mainstream movies.
Jens Meurer, the German producer of Assayas's forthcoming film about
Carlos the Jackal, describes the project as cathartic. A teenager
growing up in the 1970s, Meurer remembers vividly the hostage crisis
after Carlos' raid on the 1975 Opec Conference in Vienna and the hunt
for the Baader Meinhof Group terrorists. Thirty years on, he
suggests: "It's a natural time to revisit not the heroes of our youth
– I won't call them that – but the great events of our youth. And
it's very pertinent today. Somebody like Carlos almost
single-handedly invented international terrorism with the
collaboration of the Red Army Faction [the Baader-Meinhof Gang] and
with Palestinian terrorists. It [terrorism] has become a real
industry today. It is quite fascinating to investigate – and it's
very charged territory." As he points out, it's not hard to trace a
through-line from Carlos to Osama bin Laden.
It is easy to see, too, why Bernd Eichinger's Constantin Film,
Germany's most powerful film production company, should want to tell
the story of the Baader Meinhof Gang. As chronicled by Stefan Aust,
this is a riproaring (if often sinister and even tragic) yarn,
complete with unexplained deaths, conspiracy theories, suicide and
sexual intrigue. The producers will have noted the extraordinary
success of The Lives of Others (2007). If a lengthy, complex and
lowish budget feature focusing on the inner workings of the East
German secret police can make $75m, The Baader Meinhof Complex begins
to look like a box-office winner.
[See URL for trailer.]
"Normally we are prevented from becoming extreme in the terrorist
sense – by relatively intact social and economical systems, by the
fact that the police are responsible for establishing law and order
and no one wants to go to prison," Aust reflected in an interview
last summer with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. As he pointed out,
the members of the Baader Meinhof Gang became "caught up in the
delusion that the society in which they lived was fascist and that
the Federal Republic of Germany differed only slightly from the Third
Reich. They plunged themselves into a situation that allowed them to
fabricate a state of emergency." In other words, they waged their own
private war against their state.
If you forget the politics, the death and the bloodshed, the
Baader-Meinhof story reads like a student's wish-fulfilment fantasy.
The gang members were charismatic, highly intelligent rebels,
fighting their own private war against what they dubbed the Auschwitz
generation – that's to say, the world of their parents. They had a
knack for phrase-making. Gudrun Ensslin, the pastor's daughter who
became one of the key members of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, called
post-war consumer society "the raspberry Reich."
In Aust's book, a contemporary likens Baader to Marlon Brando. Baader
is said to have been a keen fan of cult American literature – of
authors like Thomas Wolfe and Jack Kerouac. There is an obvious
temptation to romanticise his story – to lapse into terrorist chic.
It will be intriguing to see just what angle the new film takes and
whether it provokes the same controversy as Downfall (attacked by
some for being overly sympathetic to Hitler).
As Meurer points out, there was a strong element of absurdity to the
Baader Meinhof story. Despite their Utopianism, Baader and his gang
invariably preferred to steal Porsches rather than Volkswagen
Beetles, and the men did the driving, not the women.
"I grew up in 1977, what they called German Autumn, when there was a
nationwide hunt for the Baader Meinhof terrorists. They had kidnapped
[industrialist] Hanns-Martin Schleyer and they had killed lots of
people. There were these 'wanted' posters everywhere... [but] even as
a teenager, I felt it quite hard to take them seriously," Meurer
recalls. They claimed to be at the vanguard of the proletariat but
they could never quite escape their bourgeois backgrounds.
The screenplay for Carlos the Jackal (which is yet to be cast) is
based on court transcripts and the testimony of eye witnesses. It
will be very violent – but only because it reveals the reality of the
times. "Olivier Assayas's approach is to tackle this very bluntly. It
is not action as entertainment. It is action as a relevant testimony
of our times," says Meurer.
What will younger audiences make of the story? Meurer concedes that
there are elements of Carlos that are strangely alluring. "He was
such an enigma and he was also for a while so successful at what he
was doing... his demise, when he became a bit more of a bloated man,
hanging out at fashionable swimming pools bringing in a lot of
prostitutes, is less tempting. But all of it is going to be an
absolute eye-opener to younger audiences in terms of what went on in
Europe in the 1970s."
Gaviria insists that his film about the Farc won't idealise the
guerrilla movement. He describes his film as being "like a Western",
but says that it will reflect "the reality of what is going on [in
Gaviria plans to shoot in the Colombian jungle. ("But obviously we
don't want to be too close to the Farc.") Unlike The Baader Meinhof
Complex or Carlos the Jackal, his film isn't set in the 1970s but
looks at events that are still going on. "Why am I interested in the
Farc? It's the major reality of my country other than drugs," he
replies. "I want to investigate the process that turns these people
into bandits who are going around creating almost a genocide."
It remains to be seen whether the new wave of terrorist-themed films
will come to constitute a mini-genre in their own right. At least,
though, there is growing evidence that film-makers are moving away
from mindless action movies. These are films that are setting out not
only to entertain audiences but to provoke them, to make them
uncomfortable – and to jog their memories, too.
'The Baader-Meinhof Complex' will be released in the UK in November