Germany's Righteous Outlaws in The Baader Meinhof Complex
By J. Hoberman
August 18th 2009
Bernd Eichinger, who wrote and produced Downfall, is the force behind
the film version of another German trauma, The Baader Meinhof
Complex. Founded by self-described urban guerrillas Andreas Baader,
Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof, the Red Army Faction was the
Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, and righteous
outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde combinedrobbing banks, planting bombs,
shooting cops, and assassinating judges for the better part of the
decade that followed the convulsions of 1968.
Directed from Eichinger's screenplay by Uli Edel, the movie is a
sweeping, hectic docudrama that would have been immeasurably helped
by the use of informational intertitles. Despite a large cast, only
the three principals are individualized. Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu)
and Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) make a charismatic coupleshe's a fiery
fanatic, he's a crazy hipster. As the journalist gone native, Martina
Gedeck's Meinhof is a tormented liberal who takes the existential
plungeand becomes an object of media fascinationwhen she decides to
escape with the duo after facilitating Baader's 1970 jailbreak.
The events are clear, but the psycho-politics are obscure. Edel's
table-setting use of Janis Joplin crooning, "Oh, Lord, won't you buy
me a Mercedes Benz . . ." suggests RAF crazies were spoiled
bourgeois. But they were also chickens coming home to roost: Most of
the terrorists' parents opposed the Nazi regime; many of the cops and
judges had served the Reich.
The Baader Meinhof Complex lacks the claustrophobic power of Kôji
Wakamatsu's parallel epic, United Red Army, butfrom the early scene
in which Berlin cops allow Iranian thugs to attack peaceful
demonstrators against the Shah to the final corpse-dump of kidnapped
industrialist Hanns Schleyerthe movie has an undeniable sweep,
increasing in intensity once the principals are arrested in June
1972. Subsequent action approaches pure tumult, encompassing the
seven-month Stammheim trial and tit-for-tat madness practiced by RAF
members attempting to free their erstwhile leaders, who would die,
almost certainly by suicide, in prison.
The bloody saga's literary dimension, underscored by the
Baader-Ensslin-Meinhof obsession with Moby Dick, has been elsewhere
explored: The Third Generation (1977) by R.W. Fassbinder, who knew
Baader during his hippie Munich days; Yvonne Rainer's cerebral
Journey From Berlin/1971 (1980); Reinhard Hauff's Stammheim, an
austere dramatization of the trial transcript that won the Golden
Bear at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival, where it was shown under
police guard; and Volker Schlöndorff's haunting The Legend of Rita
(2000), not to mention Gerhard Richter's late-'80s, 15-painting
installation October 18, 1977. By contrast, The Baader Meinhof
Complex is an extended footnote.
"Why do new terrorist units keep emerging? What motivates them?"
someone asks the police chief (Bruno Ganz), to which he answers, "A
myth." The Baader Meinhof Complex dramatizes that myth with
surprising success, even as it fails to illuminate it.
By KYLE SMITH
September 2, 2009
'THE Baader Meinhof Complex" isn't, very: This saga of Communist
terrorists sowing mayhem in 1970s Germany treats a bloody band as a
unit of stouthearted warriors sallying forth to fight for their
principles against impossible odds.
Built by a leftist journalist named Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)
and car thief Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau), the Red Army Faction
set fire to a department store, bombed US military installations and
a newspaper publisher, and assassinated cops, judges, bankers and
All of it was in the name of supporting Communist North Vietnam,
destroying capitalism and the legal system and bringing on an
This repetitive, drawn-out movie, which was nominated for a Best
Foreign Language Film Oscar, barely mentions communism. Amid the
endless urgent arguments about revolution ("All over the world armed
comrades are fighting. We must show our solidarity!") it can't
squeeze in the fact that the group was being trained by the East
German police state.
The group was also vehemently anti-Israel and supported Arab
terrorists, who, according to this movie, couldn't deal with the Red
Army Faction hotties' penchant for nude sunbathing.
The period detail is convincing, and there is some snap to a few
action scenes, but this Bonnie-and-Klaus story never comes close to
making its gallery of interchangeable killers sympathetic or even interesting.
In early days, the gang is shown stealing cars to the strains of "My
Generation." Too bad their wish to die before they get old wasn't
As for the moxie of the ending -- Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind"
backs up the closing credits, as though we have just seen a film
about a circle of peace lovers -- let's just say you don't need a
weatherman to know when it's raining bull droppings.
World Gone Wrong
by Genevieve Yue
August 21, 2009
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Dir. Uli Edel, Germany, Vitagraph Films
Of all the protest movements that erupted worldwide in the
mid-Sixties, the anarchist Baader Meinhof Complex (better known as
the Red Army Faction, or RAF) in West Germany was among the most
vitriolic, bitter, and enduring, with sporadic urban guerilla
uprisings appearing long after the flames of other revolts had died
out. Like the Weather Underground in the United States, the RAF
mutated out of its broad leftist student base into something
increasingly radicalized and violent, alienating many of its former
sympathizers with bombings, assassinations, and unrepentant acts of
terrorism, including a botched hijacking of a Lufthansa airplane. The
Baader Meinhof Complex, produced and adapted by Bernd Eichinger (who
also wrote Downfall, which chronicles Hitler's last days) from a book
by journalist Stefan Aust, attempts to dramatize the events that led
to the group's abrupt rise and slow but noisy fizzle.
Attempts is the operative word. At a grueling two and a half hours,
the film trades narrative cohesion for a reenacted chronology of West
Germany's postwar anarchist calamity. More an index of Aust's book
than the contents, Uli Edel's film contains a dizzying litany of
dates and locations, and the ever-present blast of gunpowder: like
the simple acting-out of a timeline. Considering that it depicts an
incredibly heady era in recent German history, the film is
surprisingly dull and unimaginative. Gunshots pepper almost every
scene with unrelenting frequency; they're the film's connecting
conceit, stringing together events with their ear-rattling pitch and
leaving no room for thoughtful pause. Instead, we get the constant
rhythm of retaliation exchanged between longhaired teenagers and
stern, slightly pudgy West German police.
Certainly, all this happened; Edel goes to great lengths to include
throughout the film newsreel footage that reminds us that these are
all facts, that West German radicalism happened alongside turmoil in
Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the May
1968 demonstrations in Paris. Regardless of the relation each of
these events had to those in West Germany, they're all presented as
ancillary and edited down to their goriest money shots, reflecting
The Baader Meinhof Complex's own bloodlust and agitated frenzy. The
found footage sometimes doesn't refer to anything at all, with period
film-stock shots of city streets or the side of a rushing train used
seemingly because they were available, making for a kind of wallpaper
véritéa new height of documentary-style indulgence. With this level
of bombastic pretension, The Baader Meinhof Complex inadvertently
captures a sense of the RAF's war of attrition, a vision of history
as something to be endured, but it contains little reflection otherwise.
For the first two-thirds of the film, the focus half-heartedly stays
with the RAF's three leaders: the volatile Andreas Baader (Moritz
Bleibtreu); his girlfriend, the slyly calculating Gudrun Ensslin
(Johanna Wokalek); and the intellectual-turned-revolutionary Ulrike
Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Gedeck, perhaps best known for her role as
the tormented actress in The Lives of Others, is easily the most
compelling figure onscreen. She speaks softly and with obvious care,
even though her words, taken from actual RAF communiqués, are some of
the harshest uttered in the film. Her dark hair hangs in a messy,
no-nonsense bob around a delicately freckled face, and Gedeck
palpably conveys both horror and excitement at the revolution
materializing in front of her. After her suicide, the first of many
false endings, the already unstable film spirals out of control.
While the core RAF members sit out a lengthy trial in Stammheim
Prison (where, today, several al-Qaeda members are being tried),
second and third generation rebels on the outside plot new, more
brutal attacks. They're younger and more dangerous, flitting away to
increasingly distant locations in rapid successiona tarmac in
Mogadishu, a terrorist safe house in South Yemen, a roadside winter
field in Brussels. Even with all the text onscreen, it's hard to tell
where anyone is located, or what's even happening, and that appears
to be a deliberate choice.
This rubbernecked view of the pasthistory at a bluris nothing like
the way Meinhof carefully observed the fallout from Germany's recent
past and its effect on the world around her. In an interview, Edel,
too, recalls his shock over the "suppressed memory" of the silent
generation, that of his parents, who refused to speak about their
complicity in the atrocities of the Third Reich, though it had been
fifteen years since the end of WWII. Sadly, the force of this
repression, and the subsequent generation's riotous response to it,
is almost completely missing from the film. It's strange that the
word "fascist" is uttered only a handful of times, even though the
vehement disavowal of Germany's Nazi past is what energized the
protest movement in the first place. Spoken or not, the fascist
shadow lurks in every real-life location, on all the red spines on
Baader's bookshelf, and chillingly, in the emaciated body of Holger
Meins (Stipe Erceg), who went on a hunger strike in prison and was
left to die. At that time, calling a police officer a member of the
SS was hardly an exaggeration; many that had held Nazi-appointed
positions during the war continued to do so long into the Cold War
era. It's often noted that the violent charge of West German protests
owed much to the nation's recent wartime past, and in this way the
many bank robberies, kidnappings, and bombings are significantly more
calculated than the film presents them to be, less an anarchic
free-for-all than a focused and deliberate revolt against the
apparent hypocrisy of the country's then-current leadership.
In Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), the head of the German police force,
The Baader Meinhof Complex also squanders an opportunity to get at
the complexities troubling the other side. He's the lone official who
understands the RAF's motivations and the systemic nature of the
problem, but too much of his preciously brief screen time is devoted
to tedious sermons wasted on a group of wan, soup-slurping
bureaucrats. Only in rare moments do we see the deep creases of worry
on his face, with those large, sad eyes that so readily recall the
troubled angel of Wings of Desire, another film that looks helplessly
upon the ravages of a bitterly divided Germany.
Stefan Aust, himself closely aligned with several members of the RAF,
has remarked that in his book he wished to refrain from judgment,
neither lionizing nor vilifying the group. Yet however sober, even
pedantic, Edel's adaptation pretends to be, it's also a wildly
sensational mess. The rumbling bass that accompanies every tense
shootout, fast-tracked montage, or police confrontation could have
been lifted from any Hollywood action sequence, and more troubling
still is the film's obsession with violence. Like a horror movie it
capitalizes on every opportunity to revel in the grotesque, such as
an old woman beaten by a wooden signpost or a pretty girl shot in the
face. Sure, the number of gunshots fired might match official police
reports, but that doesn't excuse the film's sensational depiction of
bloodshed. Instead of substantive critique or psychological intrigue
we get a pastiche of folk songs (Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" and
Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" bookend the film), a detailed
shopping list for Molotov cocktails, and Ensslin's dark kohl, which
remains perfectly smudged under her eyes even after months of
solitary confinement. Granted, the RAF leaders were attractive and
charismaticthat's largely the reason later members or other splinter
groups lasted as long as they didbut the film, like its Shepard
Faireydesigned poster, doesn't dig terribly deep beyond the surface
of revolutionary chic.
To some extent this romanticization is forgivable, or at least it's
familiar. The Sixties protest movements, well-documented from the
startranging from Godard's Maoist ciné-tracts to Hara Kazuo's
assaultive documentarieswere deeply connected to film culture, and
it comes as no surprise that The Battle of Algiers and Bonnie and
Clyde were among Baader's favorite films. More recent treatments cast
a nostalgic if fated glance backward, like Bertolucci's decadent The
Dreamers or Giordana's epic The Best of Youth. But The Baader Meinhof
Complex falls within a more recent spate of German movies and
rebel-hero hagiography. Within the past decade, films like The Lives
of Others and Goodbye Lenin!, along with novels such as Rosenfest and
Rot, have emerged in the midst of tension over German reunification
and the subsequent rise of extreme rightist organizations like the
National Democratic Party. The emphatic popular and government
support of The Baader Meinhof Complex, which was Germany's official
submission to the 2009 Academy Awards, points to a more contemporary
trend in celebrating political agitation, no matter how violent, as a
rebuke to a dangerously complacent populace.
As a point of contrast, we can look to Gerhard Richter's October 18,
1977 series of paintings depicting the events around "Death Night,"
the day when the remaining imprisoned RAF leaders coordinated their
suicides. When it was first exhibited in Germany in 1988, only a year
before reunification, it met with immediate controversy, from charges
of glamorizing Baader, Ensslin, and their cohort to outrage over
art's place in exploiting historical events. Despite the same subject
matter, Richter's tableau couldn't be more different from Edel's
film; instead of graphic novellevel theatricality, Richter's
paintings, each taken from newspaper photographs and police records,
are stunningly quiet. All fifteen are washed in muddled grays, even
when the source material originally appeared in color. Here, Meinhof
also undergoes a transformation, from the sharp-eyed girl in Youth
Portrait to the three images of her lying dead, a deep laceration
visible on her neck. Richter's hand is willfully obscure, but not
without cause. In the blurry stillness of these once restless
agitators, the recreations ask us if we ever really knew who these
people were, or what their legacy should mean to us. Such questions
are mostly brushed aside in The Baader Meinhof Complex, though there
is a rare moment of insight. As her comrades weep over the events of
that fateful day, the steely new leader, Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja
Uhl), admonishes them sharply: "Stop seeing them as they never were."
It would have helped if Edel and Eichinger had also stopped to listen.
Baader Meinhof Complex Director Uli Edel on Living Through Terrorism,
and His Favorite Rapper
By: Amos Barshad
The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany's nomination for last year's Best
Foreign Film Oscar, finally hits American theaters today. The film
tells the story of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, a group of young leftist
radicals led by Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof
who terrorized West Germany throughout the seventies with a series
of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations, in a tragically
misguided attempt to topple a government they believed was a
continuation of the Nazi regime. The movie tracks the events between
the June 2, 1967, murder of Benno Ohnesorg, a university student shot
by a policeman while protesting the state visit of the Shah of Iran,
which was the trigger of the movement, and the 1977 simultaneous
suicides of the Baader-Meinhof high command deaths made to look
like they were perpetrated by prison guards while in custody at the
Stammheim prison. Vulture spoke to director Uli Edel.
I understand you paid a great deal of attention to detail, including
even how many bullets were fired in various assassinations …
I mentioned the number of bullets in an interview, and now it's
always brought up. I did that specifically in relation to the
Schleyer assassination, to really understand the scale of the
massacre. At the time we saw the photos of the aftermath, and years
later when I did the research, I saw they fired 119 bullets. I mean,
are these really people like me and you? This was a massacre. And
these were students, some at the same university as me I could have
been at the same discotheques as them.
How did you view the Baader-Meinhof gang while you were in school?
You couldn't help but be curious what they gonna do. Especially a
person like Ulrike Meinhof, who was at that time 1967, '68 a very
prominent left-wing figure in Germany. So, we students, 18-, 19-,
20-year-old students, you had a kind of leftist thinking. You read
her columns she wrote in these magazines, leftist magazines, every
two weeks religiously, and followed her ideas and her analysis of
the politics at that time. She was an established figure, a mother of
two kids, she was married, and all of a sudden 1970 when basically it
got quiet in the universities in Europe again, they all of a sudden
vanished in the underground. And then you heard the first bank
robberies it was connected [in our heads] with a lot of, yeah,
Bonnie and Clyde, romantic.
Did you identify with their ideology?
You have to know that, 1969, Willy Brandt came to power, so we had a
Social Democratic chancellor. Before that, we had a former Nazi. You
know that. It was teasing us. There were a lot of reasons for us
young people, the postwar generation we didn't trust our parents at
all. We accused them of having supported the Reich. We have to
resist, we cannot allow that something like fascism finds a new
rebirth in Germany again. And that second of June, when Ohnesorg was
shot, when the Shah arrives, and the few people were protesting it
was just a ruthless attack of the Berlin police. So, I'm just saying,
I followed them with interest till the first bombs exploded. That was
two years later. All of a sudden, you stepped back and said, are they
nuts? The first innocent people were lying in the street. This cannot
be Ulrike Meinhoff! It can not be her. Maybe it's Andreas Baaden,
who's a nuthead.
The gang was officially known as the Red Army Faction, and it was the
newspapers that dubbed them the Baader-Meinhof Gang. How effective
was the media in shaping their image?
Ensslin and Baaden very well knew how to sell things to the media.
They kind of played with the media when you look at the pictures,
when they appeared, wherever, they looked like young rock stars. The
young rebels, sitting with sunglasses in the courtrooms. And having
their supporters, giving them coverage in the all the kind of leftist
medias. I'm talking now again about the time before the bombs
exploded. They were really treated like rock stars.
What do you say to criticism from the families of the people
portrayed, especially the widow of Jurgen Ponto, who claimed the
movie was inaccurate in its depiction of Ponto's assassination?
We approached most of the people before I knew, who wants to see
his father killed in a movie again and again and again? I tried to
contact, through some friends, Mrs. Ponto. There was no way she would
let me talk to her. Especially that case, what happened in that
living room, I wanted to hear it from her. I wanted to really hear it
again, what she remembers. [But] I think I did it pretty close, what
happened there. And I even think that she does not remember it right.
But when a movie like this is done, sure, for the victims, it's hard
for them. I would never argue against the wife of Mr. Ponto.
It was revealed, after you completed your film, that the policeman
who assassinated Ohnesorg was a Stasi agent.
It was the most amazing news for a lot of people in Germany after so
many years. Now, so many years later, we find out that the killer,
the shooter at the second of June was a Stasi agent … now that is
really news! [Laughs] I still cannot believe it. And you know that
even Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the student movement in Berlin
they tried to assassinate him too, and ten years later he actually
died from the later effects. But his wife said that even he thought
his assassin was maybe a Stasi. He suspected it but he never found
out, because the guy committed suicide in prison.
Has the early myth of the Baader-Meinhof gang survived at all?
Irmgard Möller, the woman who survived that fatal night in Stammhein,
she still tries to tell the myth that they did not commit suicide,
that it was someone from the outside. They had to make their deaths
look like, done from a fascist government, so that it would prove
that all their actions were justified. Young people now started to
believe again sure, the government. It was the government, right?
But there's no way. The only thing, what might be suspicious we
know for sure that they were wiretapped. We know that for sure. If
they listened to what they were speaking, we don't know for sure. But
Stefan Aust [who wrote the nonfiction book on which the movie is
based] is still believing that there must be tapes of that fatal
night. If they all collectively committed suicide, they must have had
connections. If those connections were there, somebody might have
listened to it. And somebody might have known that they were going to
do it. And the question would be, why did they not prevent it? I
don't know if this is a kind of a conspiracy theory. But you should
ask Stefan Aust. He is not giving up. He said, I will find these tapes.
Moving along now you're shooting an 8 Miletype biopic on German
rapper Bushido. Sounds like a drastic shift.
It's not such a big shift. First of all, my two sons basically I'm
listening since they were 12 years old to nothing else but rap music.
So I got brainwashed heavily. When Bernd Eichinger, the producer,
called me, he said, "Listen, there is this German rapper king, he's
the best rapper in Germany. He's an Arab-German: His father was Arab
Tunisian his mother a German. We call it a multiculti scene, kind
of a ghetto scene in Berlin. It's a minority in Germany, this
rebellious minority." And I said, "Wow, this is great. I love rap
music!" I didn't even know the guy before. And I listened to the
music and, it's really … my sons can't understand it 'cause they
don't speak German … but the music is great. But it's not so much a
movie about Bushido, it's a movie about ghetto culture in Berlin.
What rappers do you like?
I love Tupac.