The Baader Meinhof Complex - the Sunday Times review
The Baader Meinhof Complex is an earnest history of violence, but
fails to show what motivated it
November 16, 2008
The late 1960s and early 1970s was a time when revolution was in the
pot-filled air of Europe and America. Stories of underground cells of
young revolutionaries waging war against the "fascist" state
dominated the headlines of the day, and the hearts of many on the
left. Americans were gripped by the story of Patty Hearst and her
induction into the Symbionese Liberation Army; the Italians had the
blood-chilling tales of the Red Brigades; and the Germans the rise
and fall of the Baader-Meinhof group.
The relevance of their story to our own times may seem obvious, for
we too live in the shadow of terrorism. But you quickly realise that
the Baader bunch had little in common with the suicide bombers of
today. As the film shows, their targets at least in the beginning
were department stores and banks, not people. When they finally
committed suicide, they took nobody with them.
There are no lessons to be learnt from this film, nor do we get any
great insight into the mindset of the terrorist. Directed by Uli Edel
(Last Exit to Brooklyn) and written by Bernd Eichinger (Downfall),
this is a well-researched and energetic history lesson that tells the
fascinating and moving story of how a respected left-wing journalist
such as Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) winds up joining two
terrorists Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and her boyfriend
Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and forms the Red Army Faction to
fight the German state. It's an unlikely combination: imagine The
Guardian's Polly Toynbee joining Al-Qaeda. Through the bombing and
robbing of banks, the group become famous and a formidable threat.
Once in prison, they soon fall out with each other.
The film has provoked plenty of controversy in Germany. Some have
claimed it promotes "terrorist chic" and gives the group a glamour
they don't deserve. But isn't everyone being a little po-faced about this?
Movies always glamorise bad people who happen to be good- looking.
And there's no doubt that if the handsome Andreas Baader had looked
like Arafat and the sexy Ensslin didn't resemble a gun-toting Anita
Pallenberg, they wouldn't have captured the imaginations of young
Germans and been the subject of a film.
I mean, it's certainly not their revolutionary politics that is so
intriguing. Baader never seems to have a thought in his head;
revolution was just an opportunity for him to break rules and tear
apart taboos. In one scene we see him joyriding a car and shooting
his gun at highway signs, like some drunken teenager.
Then again, he, like so many others, was captivated by the
anti-authority and liberationist ethos of the 1960s counterculture.
The film, though, shies away from suggesting that the removal of
taboos and bourgeois restraints might have helped create a mindset
that made violence more acceptable. Anyway, Andreas and Gudrun are
shown as spoilt brats who are unable to submit to revolutionary
discipline. This takes on a wonderfully comic turn when the Red Army
Faction turn up in a revolutionary training camp in Jordan, and their
nude sunbathing and "liberated" ways anger the Arab hosts.
At times the film plays like a farce, but Edel says the story of the
Baader-Meinhof group "was the greatest tragedy in post-war Germany",
and I suspect he doesn't just mean the numerous innocent people the
Red Army Faction killed, but the group itself.
It's only a tragedy, and not a farce, however, if you accept the
early premise of the film that here were a group of young idealists
who took up arms against the repressive and violent German state.
(The film begins with the police brutally beating up a group of
students demonstrating against the Shah of Iran.) In fighting for
humanity, they lost their own humanity or so we are led to believe.
Yet as the film develops we see that they were fighting the ghost of
the old German fascism and not a new form. What we actually see is
just how, on the whole, incredibly liberal and tolerant the German
state was back then. The one sympathetic character in the whole film
is the police chief, Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), whose job it is to
catch them, but who still bends over backwards to try to understand
Unfortunately, the film tries to cover too much ground a full 10
years and it starts to sag in the final quarter. We are given a
thorough account of the group's history, but what's missing is the
role of human psychology. We never really get inside their heads. Was
it a sense of moral duty or the absence of morality that led them to
take up arms? The film gives us the complexity of a terrorist cell
and how it operates, but the Baader-Meinhof complex itself remains a mystery.
Killing to be cool
Published 13 November 2008
Black-leather glam over-romanticises the real story of this 1970s
The Baader Meinhof Complex (18) dir: Uli Edel
The mythology surrounding Baader-Meinhof has long appealed to the
fashion-bible aesthetic and the rock 'n' roll sensibility. A style
magazine currently on the news-stands marks the release of Uli Edel's
film The Baader Meinhof Complex with an article that trumpets the
group as "West Germany's coolest killers". There isn't an
accompanying picture spread on terrorist chic - "What the swankiest
guerrillas are wearing over their explosives belts this season" - but
it wouldn't be incongruous if there were. Baader-Meinhof also remains
the only terrorist outfit to have inspired an entire concept album
(by Luke Haines), and will remain so until we get to hear Gareth
Gates's song-cycle about the Red Brigades.
This rock/terrorism interface is largely a matter of fashion. There
are few sights as stylish as a morally haywire socialist freedom
fighter in a leather jerkin, as Edel well knows. Barely 30 minutes of
The Baader Meinhof Complex have elapsed before an impressionable
young recruit turns admiringly to Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu),
and purrs: "Cool leather jacket." He's sharing a bath at the time
with Andreas's girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), and
Andreas responds to this tableau by leaning forward and cupping
Gudrun's breast while the pop-eyed lad gazes on like a choirboy who
has just woken up on tour with Led Zeppelin circa 1973. Well, this
was Seventies West Germany - to not fondle openly a naked female
would have been an unforgivable faux pas.
Andreas has recently been sprung from jail by Ulrike Meinhof (Martina
Gedeck), a left-wing journalist disillusioned with peaceful
opposition. "There's no use in praying for a better world," she
reasons. "You have to fight for it." She senses a kindred spirit in
Andreas and his cohorts, who are serving time for their arson attack
on a Frankfurt department store in protest at the Vietnam war, and
from this union the Baader-Meinhof group, known formally as the Red
Army Faction, is born, launching its long campaign of bombings and
The challenge for Edel is how to render this story of idealism
curdling into carnage without making it a Hammer of the Gods-style
account of the wildest rock band ever to wield Kalashnikovs instead
of Rickenbackers. It's one he doesn't overcome. Until now, he has
been the go-to guy for sane studies of traumatic experiences
(Christiane F., Last Exit to Brooklyn). The problem with The Baader
Meinhof Complex is not just that every shoot-out or bank heist is
brilliantly choreographed, but that the accompanying material does
nothing to complicate or question the thrill we derive from those sequences.
The DNA of any film lies as much in what isn't shown as what is, and
Edel and his writer Bernd Eichinger (whose script is based on the
book by Stefan Aust) exclude anything that might undermine the
Baader-Meinhof brand. Andreas is constantly saying things like
"Sexual revolution and anti-imperialism go together - fucking and
shooting are the same!" But even terrorists make small-talk, or wash
their socks, or burn the toast. When you deny this humdrum context,
and focus exclusively on montages of gang members striding away,
catwalk-cool, as buildings explode behind them, you blur the line
between art and PR.
The odd ray of deprecating realism does break through the fog. When
the RAF undergoes military training at an El Fatah desert camp,
Andreas loses patience with being machine-gunned while crawling
through barbed wire. "We're urban guerrillas, we don't have any
desert!" he whinges, bringing to mind Nigel Tufnel (Christopher
Guest) objecting to tiny bread and irregularly stuffed olives in This
is Spinal Tap.
But The Baader Meinhof Complex shies away from bringing the
characters alive as people rather than purely ideologues. There is a
haunting image of Ulrike's daughters staring out to sea after she has
abandoned them - this, remember, was an unenlightened era when women
were forced to choose between motherhood and a career in
international terrorism. If the picture had explored even briefly how
Ulrike could excise her children from her life as neatly as snipping
them out of a family portrait, an invaluable gain could have been
made in our comprehension. But faced with the choice between truth
and fiction, Edel has taken John Ford's advice and printed the
legend. In terms of honesty, his portrayal of the revolutionary
lifestyle lags some way behind Citizen Smith's vision of the Tooting