Radical chic goes to the movies
Sep 29 2008
When it comes to movies with a radical political bent, all the talk
for months has focused on Steven Soderbergh's "Che," which has been
getting a rocky reception on the festival circuit for its somewhat
gauzy-eyed portrayal of Che Guevera and his role in the origins of
the Cuban revolution. Now it's time for the German version of "Che,"
which arrived in L.A. on Friday night with the premiere of "The
Baader-Meinhof Complex," a new Uli Edel-directed film about the
infamous West German terrorist group that emerged out of the student
protest movement in the late 1960s. The film has sparked passionate
debate in Germany, where it just opened last week.
Although it doesn't have a U.S. distributor, "Baader Meinhof" will
surely be getting more attention here in the coming months as
Germany's submission for this year's Academy Awards. My colleague
Mark Olsen, who was at the film's first American screening Friday
night at the Aero Theatre, says the film pulls no punches. But is it
a cold-eyed portrait of urban guerillas? Or just another example of
Hollywood radical chic? Here's his report:
"The Baader-Meinhof Complex" is directed by Uli Edel and produced and
adapted by Bernd Eichinger from the book by Stefan Aust. (Edel and
Eichinger previously collaborated on "Christine F." and "Last Exit to
Brooklyn.") Here, they take on the complete tale of the
Baader-Meinhof Group, the collection of middle-class intellectuals
who took up armed, violent resistance to what they saw as the
imperialist tyranny of the West German government as the good-vibes
idealism of the 1960s gave way to the extended bum-trip of the 1970s.
During their campaign of kidnappings, bombings and bank robberies,
the group attained a certain countercultural cache and outlaw cool
though, ultimately much of their leadership would die by suicide
while in prison.
The film is imperfect, compelling, meticulous, draining, unnerving
and more than a little thrilling. The filmmakers have accomplished
the remarkable feat of capturing the gang's glamorous sex appeal --
such details as the way a thigh pokes out of a mini-skirt while
leaping over the counter during a bank robbery or the importance of
just the right sunglasses -- while also getting at their failure and
futility. In portraying a full 10 years of events, with complicated
comings and goings and fast-changing times, the film suffers under
the weight of its own ambitions, at times a prisoner to its own
attention to historical accuracy.
The three central performances by Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu
and Johanna Wokalek as Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader and Gudrun
Ensslin are nuanced and engaging, giving some sense of how these
people became leaders and how their progressive ideals led to
despicable deeds. Alongside certain stylistic tics such as the
too-frequent use of jarring stock footage as establishing shots, one
of the film's weakest spots is the shoehorning in of a character
played by Bruno Ganz, a federal police officer assigned to track and
capture the terrorist-revolutionaries. His scenes never feel
integrated into the overall fabric of the story, and seem to exist to
simply get Ganz -- who played Adolf Hitler with spectacular venality
in "Downfall," also written and produced by Eichenger -- into the film.
Following the screening at the Aero, Martin Moszkowicz, executive
producer of the film, did a short Q&A. (Full disclosure: I moderated
the Q&A but had neither seen the film nor met Moszkowicz until the
event Friday night.)
As to how the filmmakers dealt with the essential conundrum of how to
portray what may have been genuinely radical, or at least groovy,
about the Baader-Meinhof Group without condoning their actions,
Moszkowicz replied, "The idea was not to judge what was done but just
to show it. And just by showing that they were murderers and there
were innocent people killed, we thought this would be strong enough
to show there were no glories about it."
At a moment when films interested in the historical reenactment of
protest and revolutionary action such as "Che" and "Hunger" are
working the festival circuit on their way to distribution, it will be
interesting to see if anyone wants to put out "The Baader-Meinhof
Complex" in America. It will also be worth watching whether it gets
any traction out of the academy, where the nominating process for
foreign language films has been undergoing some amount of retooling.
While in the past a film as rigorous and brutal as "The
Baader-Meinhof Complex" would have been a definite non-starter, this
year there is a conceivable scenario whereby such violent and
politically minded films as "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" as well as
Italy's "Gomorrah" and Denmark's "Flame and Citron" could break into the race.
German Film Transforms Terrorists into Glamour Guys
by Hana Levi Julian
(IsraelNN.com) A new German film has created a glamorous aura around
the most brutal terrorist group in that nation's postwar history, the
Baader-Meinhof gang, also known as the Red Army Faction (RAF).
The "Baader-Meinhof Complex" mega-movie production which opened last
week to rave reviews is based on the book of the same name by Stefan
Aust, the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel magazine.
The film purports to show the German people how the RAF terror group
"really was" but according to the state officials and the families
of its victims, may have managed to create a new pop icon instead.
A full-fledged Hollywood-style action-packed thriller, the two and a
half-hour film spans the gang's ten years of terror, starting with
its genesis after a student was killed in the late 1960's, and ending
with the 1977 suicides of the gang's leaders in a high-security prison.
The film is chillingly accurate in its depiction of the gruesome
details of the 34 murders carried out by the gang, right down to the
number of bullets fired in each and the gory scenes showing
horrifically injured U.S. military personnel in the aftermaths of
bombing attacks on American bases in Frankfurt and Heidelberg.
Most of Germany's top actors and actresses won roles in the film. The
wild success of the film prompted Bettina Roehl, the daughter of gang
founder Ulrike Meinhof, to declare sadly in her blog that "it would
not be possible to top [the] hero worship" that the film has led to.
Victims' families and state officials agreed, slamming the film for
its elevation of the gang members into Hollywood icons.
Mega-star Moritz Bleibtreu, who played the lead role of Baader, in
fact made a special effort to enhance the macho image of his
character. He deliberately avoided including his well-documented
speech disorder in his portrayal of the terrorist ringleader, who was
said to be a "Marlon Brando type," saying it would have caused the
film to appear inappropriately comical.
Relegated to a Bloody Past
The RAF, which existed from the late 1960's to the early 1990's,
opposed Israel as an arm of American "imperialism" and equated
Zionism with racism. The group also justified the Nazi genocide of the Jews.
Most of the group's bombings and assassinations were carried out in
the 1970's and 1980's; The people murdered by the RAF included 30
prominent Germans as well as a number of United States military personnel.
The group cooperated with Palestinian terrorists but a common
misconception notwithstanding was not involved in the 1976 Entebbe
hijacking. In 1977 Palestinians hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 737 to
Mogadishu and threatened to blow it up if members of the RAF were not
released from German jails. The hijackers were killed in a counter-terror raid.
The group committed its last murder in 1991. Seven years later, the
RAF issued a statement to the Reuters news agency that it had
formally disbanded, noting that it had neglected to form a political
organization alongside its murderous guerilla group, which was
eventually relegated to the annals of history.
Analysis: RAF terror revisited
By STEFAN NICOLA (UPI Germany Correspondent)
Published: October 02, 2008
BERLIN, Oct. 2 (UPI) -- The Baader-Meinhof gang that caused havoc in
1970s Germany with its brutal terror campaign is the star of one of
Germany's biggest movie productions ever.
The "Baader-Meinhof Complex," based upon a book by Stefan Aust,
former editor in chief of the German magazine Der Spiegel, opened
last week and aims to show Germans how the far-left terror group Red
Army Faction "really was."
The 150-minute film is not a documentary, however, but a
Hollywood-style action movie detailing a decade of terror -- from the
RAF's launch, sparked by the killing of a student in the late 1960s,
to the suicides of the gang's key members (Andreas Baader, Gudrun
Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof) in a high-security prison in Stammheim,
near Stuttgart, in 1977.
Victims' family members and state officials have harshly criticized
the film, which is replete with violence, for elevating the RAF
terrorists to Bonny and Clyde-style movie stars.
Bettina Roehl, Meinhof's daughter, wrote in a blog, "The
Baader-Meinhof Complex is the worst-case scenario -- it would not be
possible to top its hero worship."
When the machismo ringleader Baader, played by hugely popular German
actor Moritz Bleibtreu, drives through Frankfurt, firing his gun into
the night sky, the car stereo blaring The Who's "My Generation," he
comes pretty close to the Marlon Brando image he has always tried to portray.
Critics say the film, which includes the entire creme de la creme of
German actors, follows a selective reality: Baader, it surfaced,
suffered from a speech disorder that Bleibtreu didn't include in his
acting. In a TV show, he argued that the disorder would have made the
film unfittingly comical. What he didn't say was that it would have
made Baader look a lot less cool.
Michael Buback, the son of Germany's chief prosecutor Siegfried
Buback, who was gunned down by the RAF in 1977, complained that
victims' families were kept in the dark over what they would have to
relive in seeing the film: Buback, in his case, had to watch how a
pair of terrorists on a motorcycle empty their Heckler & Koch machine
guns into the bodies of his father and his bodyguards.
Yet these same gruesome scenes have also been praised: They show the
RAF's 34 cold-blooded murders how they really were, down to the
number of bullets fired, the camera shooting from the angle of the victims.
Moviegoers will see U.S. soldiers deprived of extremities after
bombing attacks on U.S. military facilities in Frankfurt and
Heidelberg (the RAF intended to protest the Vietnam War), and they
will look into the terrified face of Hanns Martin Schleyer, the
industry official who was kidnapped and executed by RAF terrorists
trying to free their leaders from Stammheim prison.
They also can see some fine acting: Martina Gedeck, who starred in
Germany's last Oscar hit, "The Lives of Others," is impressive as
Ulrike Meinhof, the star journalist turned extremist. The real star
emerging from the film, however, is the young Johanna Wokalek, with
her powerful performance as Gudrun Ensslin, Baader's lover, who
experts say was the fiercest of them all. That Ensslin was a
breathtakingly attractive woman only underscores the RAF's
post-terror chic that continues today, with "Prada Meinhof" T-shirts
and accessories sporting the gang's infamous Heckler & Koch machine-gun logo.
The film has been nominated as Germany's entry for the foreign
language Oscar, and it is the latest in a series that deals with the
country's 20th-century past. Apart from "The Lives of Others,"
another huge German hit film was "The Downfall," about Hitler's final
days hiding in a bunker in Berlin.
Yet it seems it is the RAF that still haunts Germans: A debate last
year over whether to pardon some of its members still in prison got
President Horst Koehler had to decide whether to grant clemency to
Christian Klar, who was a key figure in the killings of Buback,
Schleyer and Juergen Ponto, the Deutsche Bank chief who was murdered
in his home. After significant pressure from victims' families and
the conservatives, he decided not to do so.
Klar was also instrumental in the final grand coup of the German
Autumn, as Germany's biggest security crisis since World War II is
called: Together with a Palestinian group, the RAF in September 1977
hijacked a German Lufthansa passenger plane in order to blackmail the
government into releasing Baader, Ensslin and nine other terrorists
When the plane landed in Mogadishu, Somalia, the German government in
a high-risk mission sent an elite unit of the German federal police,
the GSG9, to storm the aircraft. All four hijackers were shot; three
of them died on the spot. Not one passenger was seriously hurt.
The remaining terrorists in prison, hearing of the failed kidnapping,
committed suicide. It was the beginning of the end for the RAF.