The Baader Meinhof Complex (18)
Terror and confusion
Review by Anthony Quinn
Friday, 14 November 2008
Before a school exam, do you remember how teachers would impress on
you the importance of answering the specific question that was set?
In other words, don't just splurge everything you know about a
subject show the examiners that you can discriminate, and that you
can construct an argument. I'm not sure what questions the makers of
The Baader Meinhof Complex were addressing, but these might have been
among them: how far was Germany's recent Nazi past to blame for the
rise of the Red Army Faction? How did a small group of radical
left-wing students of the 1960s turn into one of the most feared
terrorist units of the 1970s? What was the nature of the disputes
that eventually split apart the RAF, and what resonance does their
legacy have today? Any one of these questions might have been a
useful co-ordinate by which to plot a narrative, and it is perfectly
likely that in the course of writing the screenplay Bernd Eichinger
(who wrote and produced the great Downfall) considered all of them.
But it turns out he hasn't answered any of them. His approach has
simply been to cram everything he knows about the Baader Meinhof
years into a running time of two and a half hours. It is really the
most unhelpful and unenlightening film on the subject you could
possibly imagine. Perhaps film-makers are too easily seduced by the
era itself, when the whole of Western society was teetering on the
edge of collapse. Almost every bit of "spirit of 1968" news footage
is featured at some point the Paris riots, Black Power salutes,
street demos, and, most pertinently, the bombing of Vietnam and
soundtracked by suitably apocalyptic tunes such as Deep Purple's
"Child In Time". It's a bit like watching an extended episode of The
Students in Berlin get their own taste of state oppression when
police attack demonstrators during a state visit by the Shah of Iran,
but what actually lights the revolutionary fuse is American
involvement in Vietnam.
In protest, a group of activists led by Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna
Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) firebomb a department
store in Frankfurt; they are arrested and imprisoned. Meanwhile a
noted left-wing journalist, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), becomes
interested in this incendiary group, and in May 1970 helps to spring
them from prison. This incident, allegedly, marked the birth of the
RAF, at which point the film might be expected to focus upon the two
characters who give the film its name. Even if we aren't primed to be
sympathetic, we would at least like to know a little about their
temperaments and motivations. But the film hasn't the nerve to pause,
to take a breath and consider; it just keeps barrelling through the
gang's early activities, a bank robbery here, an assassination there,
bullets flying everywhere.
Gedeck, terrific as the doomed actress in The Lives of Others, is a
blank as Meinhof. Initially she seems torn between being a mother and
a revolutionary, vowing not to go anywhere without her two young
daughters. Later, however, she forfeits care of them apparently
without a murmur. She is vaguely set up as the cool-headed theorist
of the gang, but the quoted samples of her writing ("The man in
uniform is a pig, not a human being") make one wonder how she ever
got a job as a journalist. As Baader, Bleibtrau is even less
charismatic, a bumptious hothead who seems to champion every
revolution but the sexual one (he frequently calls women by the "c"
word). When the RAF go to a military training camp run by the PLO in
Jordan, Baader is not only seen to be an arrogant jerk, he's also a
casual racist. This seems an intriguing contradiction in someone
renowned for his radical principles, but the film ignores it, as it
ignores every aspect of the gang's psychology.
What it proudly claims to do is feature several of the original
locations, such as the Deutsche Oper in Berlin for the 1967 Shah
demo, and the courtroom at Stammheim Prison for the gang's trial. But
we don't want a facsimile we want a story, with a shape, or a
theme, or even just an angle. The film-makers assume far too much of
their audience: when Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof are put in prison,
the gang's cause is taken up by various disciples, who maim and kill
with even greater ferocity than their leaders. Yet we barely know the
names of these gun-toting desperados, let alone what political ardour
drives them to such appalling violence. Again, the film seems more
concerned with replicating exactly the number of bullets fired at
this or that ambush. Police reports have been studied so that
"realism" has been served. But Eichinger's script has nothing to say
as to why we should care.
In fact, it becomes even murkier as their imprisonment drags on.
Meinhof, on being arrested, breaks down and weeps from remorse?
from exasperation? Who knows? Angles of potential interest keep
rearing up, like the tenacious and thoughtful pursuit of the gang by
German police chief Herold (Bruno Ganz). At one point he discusses
dealing with terrorism as an extension of war, a moment of
theoretical insight which you hope the film will develop. It doesn't,
The last quarter examines the implosion of the group inside prison,
as Meinhof complains that her courtroom statements have been changed
by her comrades. The precise form of this betrayal is, like
everything else, obscure. The failed hijacking of a Lufthansa plane
by Palestinian terrorists is cast as the Baader-Meinhof
Götterdämmerung, though one feels much more sympathy for the fate of
the kidnapped industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer. A final outrage:
over the closing credits The Baader Meinhof Complex chooses to play
Dylan's "Blowin' in The Wind", as if to decry a waste of lives and a
loss of innocence. Why that song, you wonder why not "I Shot The
Sheriff", or even "Psycho Killer"?
The well-read terror
As a new film about the infamous Red Army Faction relights old fires,
Philip Oltermann charts the cultural impact of a revolutionary
movement that has long fascinated writers, actors and film-makers
November 15 2008
In December 1971, the sculptor Dierk Hoff got an unexpected visit at
his inner-city Frankfurt studio. Two young men were at the door: one
of them was Holger Meins, a student at the Berlin Film Academy; the
other called himself "Lester" - his real name was Jan-Carl Raspe.
After smoking a few joints and talking about "hippies and
subculture", the two men asked if Hoff could help them build props
for a film they were working on. He agreed, in principle. What props?
Meins showed him a picture of a hand grenade. Hoff asked what sort of
film they were trying to make. "Eine Art Revolutionsfiktion," Meins
replied. "A kind of revolutionary fiction." By the time that Meins
and Raspe were arrested as part of the Baader-Meinhof gang in June
1972, Hoff's "props" had been used in five major bomb attacks in West
Germany which left six people dead and at least 45 seriously injured.
Fiction had turned into reality in the most violent way thinkable.
The most detailed account of this episode can be found in The
Baader-Meinhof Complex, Stefan Aust's meticulously researched
chronicle of German leftwing terrorism, originally published in 1985
and now reissued. The story doesn't make it into the film version,
which is about to be released in British cinemas. This is a bit
surprising: the movie's director/producer duo, Uli Edel and Bernd
Eichinger, enrolled at film school (in Munich) a year before the
meeting between Meins, Raspe and Hoff took place. It is not unlikely
that they would have found themselves in a similar situation - faced
with the choice between revolutionary films and revolutionary action.
Yet their film obscures how closely intertwined the paths of
terrorists and artists often were.
We now tend to think of the conflation of terror and art as a
post-9/11 phenomenon. The phrase "terror chic" became popular in the
summer of 2002, when T-shirts bearing the slogan "Prada Meinhof"
popped up on Berlin catwalks. That followed Baader-Meinhof-themed
concept albums and songs by Luke Haines, Brian Eno, Marianne
Faithfull and Chumbawamba. Yet of course this symbiosis between
fiction and politics was fully alive in the late 1960s. All of the
main players of the Baader-Meinhof group were drenched in literary
and popular culture - an idea of terrorists hard to reconcile with
the one we have nowadays. By the time Gudrun Ensslin met her
boyfriend, Andreas Baader, she had set up a small publishing house
and had worked with such writers as Max Brod, Erich Fried and Hans
Magnus Enzensberger. Baader was a keen amateur actor at Munich's
experimental "action-theatre"- a friend characterised him as "a
Marlon Brando type". In the spring of the student riots, Baader felt
that play-acting would no longer do: in April 1968, he and Ensslin
organised an arson attack on a Frankfurt department store.
The group was arrested but managed to flee to Paris and Rome before
being caught again in 1970. In pictures taken in Paris by the early
gang member Astrid Proll, Baader and Ensslin resemble - consciously
or not - the lead actors in A Bout de Souffle. On May 14 1970 Baader
was granted a visit to the library of the Institute of Social
Affairs, to discuss a book project with Ulrike Meinhof, a leading
leftwing columnist. The literary aspirations were a cover: after a
struggle in which a staff member was shot, Baader, Meinhof and three
others escaped through an open window. The Red Army Faction was born.
Despite this title, the group became almost instantly known as the
"Baader-Meinhof gang": there was a neatness to the phrase, even if it
bracketed out Ensslin, whom many now consider the group's true
leader. It pinpointed the internal division that the movement was
never to resolve: between the designated "hands" of the revolution,
represented by the trigger-happy but apolitical Baader, and the
"brains" of Ulrike Meinhof, whom her foster-mother, Renate Riemeck,
would later describe as "straight out of a Dostoevsky novel".
Meinhof had not only been a successful journalist, she had also
written a screenplay about a reformation home for girls which was due
to be shown on television a few days after she went underground. It
was cancelled. The new film directly equates Meinhof's frustration as
an artist with the beginning of her armed struggle: when Ensslin
dismisses her endless theorising as "intellectual masturbation", she
can't think of a response. Forced to realise the impotence of the
pen, she picks up a Beretta. Perhaps a similar sense of self-doubt
explains why Meinhof, the thinker turned doer, has long fascinated
German writers. Günther Grass told one of the chapters of My Century
from the perspective of the teacher whose tip-off led to Meinhof's
arrest. Her life story inspired Elfriede Jelinek's play Ulrike Maria
Stuart, and she rears her head as an Ophelia-like mythical vision in
Heiner Müller's 1977 play Hamletmachine
None of these pieces was as controversial as an article published by
the Nobel prize-winning novelist and poet Heinrich Böll on January 10
1972, a time when the majority of the group was still on the run.
Böll, who was then president of International PEN, criticised the Red
Army Faction's "war of six against sixty million", but he also blamed
the Bild newspaper's populist coverage for escalating the situation
and demonising a group whose "theories were considerably more violent
than their actions". The counterpunch was quick and fierce. The
conservative press branded Böll a "spiritual sympathiser of
terrorism", there were several calls for his resignation from PEN and
his home was searched by the police. Die Welt carried a cartoon of a
gun-wielding Meinhof, in miniskirt and high-heels, using the writer
as cover. The title of his best-known work served as a caption:
Ansichten eines Clowns ("The Opinions of a Clown").
In the eyes of the Bild-reading public, the links between politically
minded artists and artistically minded terrorists were all too
evident: every writer or film-maker was suddenly a potential
sympathiser. Böll reacted by writing a novel, later turned into a
film by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarete von Trotta. The Lost Honour
of Katharina Blum tells the story of a normal young woman who, at a
carnival party, falls in love with a terrorist who is on the run. The
next morning her flat is raided by the police and she is taken in for
interrogation. A sleazy reporter from "The Newspaper" reveals
increasingly lurid (and entirely fictitious) details from her private
life, until she promises to meet him for an exclusive kiss-and-tell.
She shoots him in the stomach. At the end of the film, a statement
from the makers flashes across the screen: "Should the portrayal of
certain journalistic practices bear similarities with the practices
of the Bild-Zeitung, then these similarities are neither intentional
nor accidental, but inevitable."
The 1962 "Oberhausen Manifesto" which launched the New German Cinema
of Fassbinder, Herzog and Wenders, didn't sound all that dissimilar
to the mission statements of the Red Army Faction: the filmmakers
called for a critical engagement with Germany's National Socialist
past and its ongoing social ills, favoured realism over escapism and
championed the direct action of the auteur over the laboured
democratic process of the studio system. The title of the press
conference at which the manifesto was launched had iconoclastic
swagger: "Daddy's cinema is dead". Yet the idea that all German
filmmakers of the 1970s were somehow "pro-terror" is a myth. If
anything, the opposite is the case.
In June 1972 the core of the Baader-Meinhof group was arrested, but
the bombings didn't stop: over the following five years the faction's
"second generation" resorted to increasingly violent means in order
to get their leaders out of prison. As German terrorism spiralled out
of control, film directors began to resent their former peers. They
were immune to the kind of jibes that had hit home with Meinhof:
unlike writers, they felt that they were "doing things". The second
season of Edgar Reitz's art-house soap opera Heimat (1992), for
instance, looks back at the lives of a group of students at Munich
University from 1960 to 1970. Several of them are wannabe
film-makers: they even hand out flyers with the "Daddy's cinema is
dead" slogan. One of them, Stefan, has an affair with a fierce and
selfish poet, Helga. By the last episode in the series, Stefan is a
successful director while Helga has joined the Baader-Meinhof gang.
When Stefan grudgingly shelters her and other gang members for a
night, the police raid his flat. He is shot, Helga escapes.
The films made in Germany in direct response to the terrorist
atrocities of the 1970s are more reflective, more questioning of the
situation as a whole than more recent movies. Edel's Baader-Meinhof
Complex wants to give us "things as they really were". In the process
it laps up the cinematic potential of Aust's book - the dramatic
turning point of Meinhof's "leap into illegality" and the Butch
Cassidy-esque shootout scene of Baader's arrest - but doesn't try to
analyse (it's very much a "complex" in a military, not a
The most impressive cinematic document of the Red Army Faction
remains the one that was an almost instant response to it. Work on
this film started in the last months of 1977: in September, the
faction had kidnapped Hanns-Martin Schleyer, the head of the
Federation of German Industries, and was demanding the release of
Baader, Ensslin and Raspe from Stammheim prison; Meinhof and Meins
had already committed suicide. When the government refused to
cooperate, a group of Palestinian terrorists kidnapped a Lufthansa
plane and increased the pressure.
Germany in Autumn brought together the leading directors of the New
German Cinema: eight camera teams and nine directors, including
Fassbinder, Reitz, Schlöndorff and Böll, contributed a short segment
each. A voiceover by Alexander Kluge held together the scraps of
documentary and fiction. Watching it again now, it's the contribution
by Fassbinder - who had been a director at the "action-theatre" and
had known Baader and Meins - that leaves the most lasting impression.
Set in a dark, bare apartment that looks more like an interrogation
cell than a home, it starts with Fassbinder, played by himself,
having a violent row with his boyfriend Armin, who says: "I would
just blow up the whole plane."
The film cuts to Fassbinder lying next to his lover in the early
hours. There is a news item on the radio: the police have stormed the
plane and released the prisoners; Baader, Ensslin and Raspe have been
found dead in their cells. Still undressed, Fassbinder calls his
ex-wife Ingrid to discuss the situation: the camera shows him sitting
on the floor chain-smoking, sweating, pale and bloated, legs wide
apart, playing with his penis while he talks. It makes for
uncomfortable viewing. But it also drives home that the
Baader-Meinhof complex had a real place in the psyche of a nation: in
Fassbinder's case, it's like a virus that has caught hold of his system.
In 1979, three years before Fassbinder's death of a drug overdose, he
made another film about the Red Army Faction, The Third Generation,
which mocks the terrorists as vain hipsters. The promotional posters
carried the message: "I don't throw bombs, I make films."
Rebels with a cause
November 06 2008
November, 2038. Picture yourself in the cinema, sipping mineral water
and sucking on a tube of pure oxygen (popcorn having been outlawed
due to the worldwide obesity crisis), when the trailers strike up.
Gravel-voiced trailer guy begins to do his stuff.
"In a world lacking faith, he was to prove the ultimate believer. One
man, born into privilege, who took on the might of Russia and the
power of America. Despised by nations, hunted by vast armies, forced
to hide in a cave, the world would never know the real Osama bin
Laden until now."
Like governments with official documents, the movie industry tends to
adopt a 30-year rule when it comes to certain events and individuals.
Next week sees the release of The Baader-Meinhof Complex, a portrait
of the Red Army Faction's leaders and their murderous exploits
between 1967 and 1977. Hunger, the critically-acclaimed drama about
the last weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, is in cinemas now.
In January, the first part of Che, Steven Soderbergh's four-hour look
at Guevara's life, goes on release.
Popular culture has always been drawn to what Tom Wolfe dubbed
"radical chic", whether in fashion (the so-called Prada Meinhof set),
pop (a beret-clad Madonna looking like Wolfie Smith on the cover of
American Life) and novels (Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl).
Martina Gedeck, star of the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others, plays
Ulrike Meinhof in Uli Edel's film. She believes audiences are drawn
to the image of the outlaw, largely because they know nothing of the
reality. "Most of them have no experience of terror and the horror of
someone taking your personal freedom and killing your loved ones.
Anyone who has had these experiences hates these films." Gedeck was
herself at the centre of a kidnap scare when, aged 11, her father
received a phone call from someone claiming to be from
Baader-Meinhof, demanding a ransom. The young Martina, knowing
nothing of the panic, turned out to be safe and well in, of all
places, a cinema.
"In movies you can be attracted by the evil, by the abyss, by people
who take the risk of being violent. You see kids who are lovely and
sweet and pretty and they become monsters. That is an interesting
process to a lot of people. How can it happen?" Portraying the
process in movies is one way to stop it occurring again, she believes.
Hitchcock was the first to look at terrorism through a movie camera
with Sabotage (1936), an adaptation of Conrad's The Secret Agent.
Thereafter, the treatment of terrorism moved with the times. Shady
radicals from a pre-war patchwork Europe were replaced by dastardly
Nazi spies and sympathisers. Then came a red army of Soviet
revolutionaries, with appearances from IRA-type groups, Middle East
factions and the odd home-grown psychopath. Since 9/11, terrorists
either spring from the box marked "al Qaeda/Arab/Middle East in
general", or are in it purely for the money, as in Die Hard 4, in
which a cyberterrorist launches an attack on the world's money markets.
The first three Die Hards were typical of Hollywood's glossy approach
to terrorism. A lone cop, played by Bruce Willis, armed with little
more than a vest, native cunning and a conveniently situated arsenal
of weapons took on all-comers, sinister Europeans a speciality.
The real horror of 9/11 destroyed the myth of the lone ranger being
able to halt evil on his own. Nothing Hollywood came up with could
compare with the hellish visions that played out across the world's
television screens that September day. A new and solemn attitude
towards terrorism was in order, and it arrived in the form of Paul
Greengrass's United 93, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and Stephen
Today, film-makers either pile on the action and inject serious star
power to bring audiences through the doors - see Russell Crowe and
Leonardo DiCaprio in the forthcoming Body of Lies - or they take the
arthouse, realist track, as Soderbergh has done with Che. These two
films, significantly, look to recent history for their subjects
rather than deal with terrorism as it is now. A certain distance from
events is essential in telling what remain controversial stories.
Even then, not everyone agrees with the result. The Baader-Meinhof
Complex caused a huge stir when it was first released in Germany.
While admired for tackling a subject that had been largely ignored,
some of those intimately involved with events attacked Edel's film.
Bettina Roehl, Meinhof's daughter, criticised it as simplistic and
borderline sympathetic. "In non-verbal but very suggestive ways, the
film insinuates that their motivations for terrorism are
understandable. That is 100% wrong," she told the LA Times.
Roehl interviewed Corinna Ponto, whose father was one of 34 people
murdered by the group, for Die Welt. "There were never any images
from the group's assassination of my father until now," said Ponto.
"That always provided a degree of comfort and solace for us. I find
the film's willingness to wrongfully invade our privacy particularly
Others have wondered whether the portrayal of terrorists as hip young
gunslingers with a cause glamorises violence. Bernd Eichinger, the
writer/producer of the Baader-Meinhof Complex, now Germany's official
Oscar entry, understands the complaint but disagrees. Eichinger
endured a similar storm when he made the brilliant Downfall, an
account of Hitler's final days.
"People said the same with Downfall, that by giving Hitler so much
screen time I was making him big again. That's nonsense, it would
mean you couldn't deal with very important aspects of our history.
You might say there's a certain danger with Baader-Meinhof because
they were young people, good looking. In the beginning they have a
cause, they feel themselves to be avant garde, they want to be
special, maybe not rock stars but they have that rock star feeling."
But, after a while, he says, the film reveals them to be "absolutely
crazy", and definitely not examples to follow.
Moritz Bleibtreu, who plays Andreas Baader, didn't admire his subject
on any level. "Everybody I talked to who knew him hated him," he
laughs. Despite his research, portraying Baader proved to be a tough
task. "You are standing in front of a myth. This guy is more a
projection of thousands of ideals, sentimental thoughts and ideas
than he is a human being."
Will they say the same in 30 years if Bin Laden: The Movie is
green-lighted? It seems impossible to imagine any actor fond of his
career taking on such a role. Then again, few might have imagined
Soderbergh being able to raise $58m to make a movie about a man still
demonised by sections of American society. Cinema, like the rest of
us, lives in interesting times.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex is released on November 14.
Terror at the movies - the top 10
1. True Lies (1994).
Arnie battles"the Crimson Jihad" and the man wooing screen wife Jamie
Lee Curtis. Worldwide gross: $378m 2. Air Force One (1997) Harrison
Ford v Russians.
WG: $315m 3. The Sum of All Fears (2002) Ben Affleck unravels
neo-fascist skullduggery. WG: $193m.
4. Patriot Games (1992) Harrison Ford v the IRA. WG: $178m.
5. World Trade Center (2006) Oliver Stone's salute to the ordinary
heroes of 9/11. WG: $162m.
6. Swordfish (2001) A computer hacker tries to delete cash from
government accounts. WG: $147m.
7. Spy Game (2001) Brad Pitt languishes in a Chinese prison. WG: $143m.
8. Executive Decision (1996) Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell tackle a
plane disaster waiting to happen.
WG: $121m 9. Syriana (2005) The oil industry in the dock. WG: $93m.
10. The Kingdom (2007) The FBI investigates bombings in Saudi Arabia. WG: $86m.
German filmmakers tackle nation's dark past
November 17, 2008
By Marco Woldt
LONDON, England (CNN) -- Speaking during celebrations to commemorate
German Unity Day last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the
importance of historical awareness. Young Germans in particular need
to learn more about the country's communist past, Merkel said.
Fortunately, German screenwriter and producer Bernd Eichinger is a
reliable source of inspiration in this regard. His latest historical
drama "The Baader Meinhof Complex" has recently generated a wave of
interest in one of the darkest chapters in Germany's past.
The movie tells the story of the Red Army Faction (RAF) -- a group of
radical anti-imperialists which terrorized an unstable German
democracy for nearly three decades. Beginning with the student riots
of 1968, the film traces the RAF's gradual evolution from resistance
It is the latest in a series of German productions that deal with
difficult periods in the country's history.
Eichinger's previous film, "Downfall," which was directed by Oliver
Hirschbiegel portrayed Hitler's final days in a bunker, while Florian
Henckel von Donnersmarck's "The Lives of Others," was set against the
backdrop of an East German state monitored by secret police.
Coming to terms with the past
Like its highly-acclaimed predecessors, "The Baader Meinhof Complex"
has enjoyed some box office success. During its first month in
theaters across Germany, the film attracted over two million viewers
and it has grossed more than $20 million so far.
Undoubtedly, the enormous budget and cast of well-known actors
including Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck and Alexandra Maria Lara,
partially account for the film's popularity. But for many Germans the
movie's main appeal lies in its gripping depiction of a turbulent
time. Germany's media is also reflecting this fascination with
history: the film has inspired a string of televised discussion
rounds, examining the legacy of the RAF.
In the week of "The Baader Meinhof Complex's" release in Germany,
distinguished current-affairs publication, "Der Spiegel," devoted its
front-page to the film. Former "Spiegel" editor-in-chief, Stefan
Aust, wrote the book on which the film's screenplay is based. He
thinks the time is right for Germans to explore the more difficult
periods of their past.
"German people are very aware of the country's history. Now that
several decades and generations have gone by we can make these films.
You always need about 30 years to let the wounds heal," Aust told CNN
But for many Germans the RAF-era remains a sensitive subject. Some
older members of the crew on "The Baader Meinhof Complex" became so
overwhelmed with emotion while filming that they had to leave the set.
Like his colleagues, Bernd Eichinger was also forced to confront his
suppressed emotions while working on the film. "I was a young student
when all this happened and still I kind of rushed over it in a way, I
didn't let it come close to me," Eichinger told CNN. "Only now I
suddenly thought 'I want to do this movie, I want to write about my
Getting history right
In order to prevent his personal views and emotions from seeping
through, Eichinger approached the script much in the style of an
historian. Throughout the production, Eichinger and director Uli Edel
were meticulous about accuracy.
"When you are dealing with historical events where people have been
killed, you have a responsibility as a filmmaker to be as precise and
thoroughly researched as possible," Eichinger explained.
While preparing the shoot, the pair consulted a number of
eye-witnesses and former terrorists. Whenever possible original
documents, photos and news footage were used as visual cues for the
film's set design. The resulting level of precision is remarkable.
Minute details, down to the license plates of the cars are
Even the number of bullets fired during action sequences was derived
from official police reports. Eichinger and Edel were also keen not
to glamorize the characters -- a trap other Baader Meinhof group
films have fallen into.
Consequently, the film has no protagonist. Instead, it follows the
violent chain of events, while RAF group members veer in and out of
the narrative, often remaining unnamed. "I hate the characters,
they're obnoxious. I didn't want the audience to identify with them,"
Eichinger told CNN, "I wanted to throw the facts at the audience and
let them deal with it."
The downside to this unconventional approach is its assumption of
background knowledge on the part of the audience. Critics have
maintained that without a basic understanding of the events, one
quickly gets lost in the intentionally disjointed narrative. While
this has not hindered the film's success in Germany, it remains to be
seen how international viewers will react.
The film's two co-writers are optimistic that audiences will respond
well. Stefan Aust is convinced that "real stories" such as "The
Baader Meinhof Complex," are appreciated the world over. The film has
been selected as this year's German Academy Award entry, Aust and
Eichinger hope it will emulate the success of "The Lives of Others"
-- the German Oscar-winner from two years ago.
They have reason to be optimistic -- after all, history has been
known to repeat itself.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is playing in selected UK cinemas now.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, Uli Edel, 149 mins, 18
A German terror tale that suffers from too much fashion and not enough politics
By Jonathan Romney
Sunday, 16 November 2008
One really hates to stereotype people, especially German terrorists.
Still, you won't be surprised to learn that there's very little
humour to be found in The Baader Meinhof Complex, either in the film
itself or its protagonists. One line, though, might provoke a titter.
It follows the shooting of a banker by members of the Red Army
Faction (RAF), including a young relative of his. In the getaway car,
the young woman in question simpers about things getting out of hand:
"How will I explain this to my parents?"
You might think that humour would be out of place in a film about the
wave of extreme-left terrorism that swept West Germany in the late
Sixties and Seventies; in which case, take a look at Rainer Werner
Fassbinder's blackly satirical The Third Generation (1979), which
contributes far more to the understanding of the RAF and its
contradictions than The Baader Meinhof Complex. This earnest,
decidedly mainstream epic is directed by Uli Edel (best known for
Last Exit to Brooklyn and the Berlin-set Christiane F), and produced
and written by Bernd Eichinger, who did the same honours on the
Hitler drama Downfall.
Covering a period of about 10 years, the film seeks to document the
acts of the Baader-Meinhof Group and their acolytes. The story's not
easy to follow: there are some 20 principal characters, not all
identified. You quickly get confused by the proliferation of
shaggy-faced, leather-jacketed men and intense women, many of the
latter weirdly stuck in mid-Sixties Carnaby Street drag, as if they'd
pulled a heist at Granny Takes a Trip before clocking in for duty. In
Germany, Edel and Eichinger have been accused of glamorising their
subjects. Pillaging the Radical Chic dressing-up box doesn't itself
constitute an apologia for the RAF's crimes, which are hardly
whitewashed; but it does make their members look very dashing.
The key figures are Baader, Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin. Ulrike
Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) was a journalist who became the RAF's den
mother and resident ideologue, and it's her radicalisation that is
most meaningfully evoked here. The film is particularly effective
early on, tracing Meinhof's apprenticeship, beginning with a
dynamically re-enacted 1967 demo against the Shah of Iran, with
German police launching a bloody attack on protesters. Gedeck's
troubled Meinhof, her increasingly callous communiqués heard in
voice-over, is the closest thing to a real characterisation.
Her comrades, however, come across as strident hipsters, or as
cartoons. Johanna Wokalek's Ensslin is seen lolling in a hot bath, a
volume of Trotsky in hand, looking like the centrefold in the May '68
issue of Anarcho-Syndicalist Babes. Equally glamorous is Andreas
Baader, played by Moritz Bleibtreu as a Belmondo-style master of
fag-in-mouth insolence. On trial, Ensslin and Baader bewitch the
courtroom, slipping on aviator shades to taunt the judge. Even so,
the film is at pains to depict Baader as a petulant jerk. At a
Jordanian training camp, he complains at having to shin his way
through sand and rocks: "We're urban guerillas we don't have any
As the film progresses, individual militants ever more numerous and
hazily defined become less important than their actions. The
robberies, bombings and summary executions are strung out in a series
of caper-movie vignettes, while an odd leitmotif has German citizens,
mostly elderly, cautiously peering out of curtained windows.
Essentially, the film sets a group of sexy outlaws, however
misguided, against the authorities, represented as violent, faceless
militia or as bumbling, flabby middle-aged men. It is made clear that
RAF's extremism was a response to international right-wing
repressions, and to the brutality of the West German police and their
political masters. But the makers are at pains to present some
sympathetic "parent" figures. In particular, Bruno Ganz, of the
lovely folded face, plays police chief Horst Herold as a gentle,
pensive man who plies his aides with lobster soup. He gets the worst,
wordiest scene, musing that maybe it's time to be less rigid, to try
and understand the RAF's motives: after all, these young people are
protesting against the problems in the world, and "these problems
But The Baader Meinhof Complex barely gives itself time to think in
any depth about the context that spawned the RAF, or the reasons why
their motivations became so horribly distorted. It makes little of
its gestures at present-day resonance: there are hints at a parallel
between the RAF and contemporary Islamist terrorism, but it goes no
further than that. It would take a much more measured, analytical
approach to properly pursue such themes. Instead, Edel and Eichinger
zip with Bond-film breathlessness between glamorous locations
(Jordan, Sicily, Rome, Baghdad), and rely for historical context on
clumsy newsreel montages cramming together Martin Luther King, Nixon,
Vietnam, Prague, Paris, the 1968 Mexico City massacre (now that's
what I call Sixties unrest). There's also an intriguing theme being
squandered, in the suggestion that Herold's enthusiasm for
computerised detection methods signals the advent of the modern
surveillance state. Herold comes across as a figure right out of
Fritz Lang, and you only wish that German old master had been around
in the Seventies: he really could have done this story justice.
How the Baader Meinhof film feeds our terror complex
Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex both sates our latent lust for
violence while courting our sympathy for terrorists
by David Cox Monday
November 17 2008
We all abhor terrorism so much that we hardly need say so, don't we?
Of course not. We love it. And why not? Nothing else offers such a
heady cocktail of sanctimony, cruelty and glamour. Civilisation
requires us to repress our latent lust for violence; how satisfying
to be suddenly licensed to release it in the name of the oppressed.
The recent association of terrorism with unattractive religious
fanatics has obscured its underlying appeal. Nonetheless, that appeal
persists, even if the response it prompts in most of us remains only
vicarious. The continuing ubiquity of Alberto Korda's image of a
messianic Che on bedroom walls and T-shirts bears witness to our
sneaking sympathies; as do many of the films that we go to see.
Screen terrorists have enthralled us from The Battle of Algiers to
Die Hard. Last month we had Hunger and Bullet in the Head. After
Christmas, we'll be expected to make two separate cinematic
pilgrimages to pay homage to Che as exalted by Steven Soderbergh. And
this week, we have The Baader Meinhof Complex.
Like Patty Hearst, this is a film calculated to expunge any idea that
terrorists can simply be dismissed as an alien breed. Baader,
according to this (apparently accurate enough) account, is a familiar
kind of racist, misogynist thug. Meinhof is a victim of the
all-too-recognisable confused guilt that besets so many of Europe's
privileged young. As such, the pair make ready surrogates for our
own, darkly unacknowledged selves.
Not that Uli Edel, the director, feels much need to probe the souls
of either of them. Instead, he wallows for two and a half hours in
the butchery in which they and their comrades engaged. Fat, ugly
capitalists get their satisfyingly bloody comeuppance. The
proceedings are accompanied by much flashing of the miniskirted
female thighs that were such a notable feature of the period being
depicted. An unexpected amount of nudity is somehow shoehorned in.
It's terror porn, good terror porn and, of course, just what we want.
Should we feel anxious that our appetite is somehow abnormal, we're
assured that, at the time, one in four young Germans openly expressed
their support for the Baader-Meinhof gang.
Yet, this film also reflects and feeds a countervailing fancy, namely
our thirst for peril. Threats such as impending environmental
catastrophe and economic meltdown might be thought enough to keep us
awake at night, if awake at night is what we want to be. Somehow,
however, grand but insensate hazards such as these don't satisfy our
innate desire for endangerment. We crave a more animate bugaboo.
Confederacies of violent zealots seem able to meet this need, at the
same time as they continue to captivate us. In recent decades,
terrorists have wrought carnage on a scale that comes nowhere near
matching that caused by road accidents. Far from being dispirited, we
will them to do better, limning helpfully the chemical, biological,
cyber and nuclear opportunities that have so far seemed so stubbornly
beyond their grasp.
Their under-performance doesn't inhibit us from transforming our
lives to combat them. We cheerfully invade other people's countries,
throw away our liberties and put up with extraordinary inconvenience
in pursuit of our "war on terror". This struggle has a glamour of its
own, also fuelling and fuelled by cinema. Next week, hot on the heels
of Batman and James Bond, will come Leonardo DiCaprio's Roger Ferris
in Ridley Scott's Body of Lies.
Of course, neither our sympathy for the devil nor our crusade against
his acolytes is altogether misplaced. Edel's protagonists ask whether
terrorists might have destabilised the Nazis, who had held sway over
their country just a few decades earlier and showed signs of
re-emerging in what, to them, appeared almost as ugly a guise.
Equally, however, The Baader Meinhof Complex tells us that if you
really do want to defeat terrorism, then you've got to be prepared to
meet it with a total jihad of your own. To stamp out their enemy
within, the German authorities created a full-scale police state,
complete with Gestapo-style surveillance and blanket stop-and-search.
Islamist bombers may have succeeded in instilling deference to their
creed, but Jacqui Smith, it seems, is also on the right track. Each
of their enduringly symbiotic enterprises will doubtless continue to
fascinate, and therefore to spawn many a further cinematic gorefest.