October 11 2008
"Better late than never," sceptics cry as modern German cinema chases
down its country's history, writes Nigel Andrews. Showing a zeal for
self-examination on screen that was missing for some 30 years after
the second world war, the nation has recently given us Downfall (last
days of Hitler), The Lives of Others (surveillance heyday of East
Germany) and now The Baader Meinhof Complex, a headlong gallop
through the days of the Red Army Faction.
If you were alive and sentient in the 1970s you will remember the
bombings of newspaper offices, the murders or kidnappings of
politicians, the hijacking of a plane by new-generation RAF loyalists
hoping to free their mentors from jail. For close on 10 years, with
guns and bombs, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof led or inspired an
anarcho-Marxist resistance against western imperialism (America in
Vietnam, Israel in former Palestine) and the perceived connivance of
Germany. At times, much of Europe shook in its boots. Who would be
gunned down next or blown up? What had happened to Flower Power and
the hippy dream? Had its holistic togetherness morphed into this
youth culture bent on tearing us all limb from limb?
The story is almost certainly too complicated to tell in a single
feature, but director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn, Christiane F)
and screenwriter-producer Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) have a go
anyway. For the first half of the 2½ hours, it is like being attacked
by a riot squad of plots and subplots. The rush of reportage is
sometimes invigorating, more often maddening in its determination to
cut corners or to screech around them on one wheel. Character is
simplified, as are character changes. Moritz Bleibtreu's Baader is a
ranting pocket demagogue with sexism issues, who assails Ulrike
Meinhof and her political sisters with the C-word or German
equivalent. Martina Gedeck's Ulrike [pictured] comes from another
gene pool: learned, logical and motherly, at least until she agrees,
in a sudden peripateia typical of the film, to orphan her children
for the greater revolutionary good.
Everything improves when the pair and their main comrades go behind
bars. In Stuttgart- Stammheim prison they and the film stop running
about. Tensions and fallings-out are introduced more subtly, more
illuminatingly, in the white laboratory-like spaces. Voiceovers drawn
from the gang's diaries lend a breath of authenticity. The deaths in
custody of the group's leaders - suicides or state-ordered killings?
- are left properly ambiguous. Although the film's last word is left
to a character insisting that Meinhof, Baader and the others took
their own lives, that gesture towards demythologisation is
countervailed by the wail of Bob Dylan behind the final credits.
So were the RAF a menace to western society? Or were they part of the
60s/70s freedom movement? Pay your money, make your choice. German
filmgoers have paid their money, storming turnstiles and stoking
debates in the national newspapers. Good, bad or indifferent - and
The Baader Meinhof Complex is sometimes all three at once - the
autopsies on its history that modern German cinema is beginning to
undertake are overdue. These films should be required viewing from
Bremen to Bavaria. They should also be set cinema for Europeans
anxious to know how a population can fall victim - in any age - to a
viral minority with a passionate cause. At heart and at mind, Baader
and Meinhof were Fascism redivivus: brutal, simplistic, messianic.
Their mistake as a movement was to forget to accompany their bomb
offensive with a charm offensive. If they had, it might have been
back to the Third Reich, or forward to the Fourth, for all of us.
'The Baader Meinhof Complex' is showing in London on October 26 and 28.