A new German film looks at the revolutionaries who turned to
terrorism and held a country spellbound for a decade.
By Marc Olsen
August 30, 2009
Hurtling across the 10 years from 1967 to 1977, "The Baader Meinhof
Complex" tells with exacting detail the roots, formation,
revolutionary rise and spectacular fall of the West German terrorist
network called the Red Army Faction. Popularly known as the Baader
Meinhof Group, it sprang from the late-'60s student protest movement,
launching an anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist campaign that included
robberies, kidnappings, bombings and murders that held the nation spellbound.
If there were an analogous American story, it would include elements
of the Weather Underground, the Manson family, Patty Hearst and the
Symbionese Liberation Army and the shootings at Kent State. Picking
up the spirit of counter-cultural, anti-authoritarian idealism, only
to drive it off the cliff, the German group was like the romanticized
rhetoric of the Rolling Stones song "Street Fighting Man" roaring to
Directed by Uli Edel, perhaps best known for his 1989 film "Last Exit
to Brooklyn," from a screenplay by writer-producer Bernd Eichinger
(who also wrote the 2004 film "Downfall" about Hitler's last days),
"Baader Meinhof" has a rather dazzling sense of sweep and scale, a
historical epic of the relatively recent past. Said to be the most
expensive German-language film ever -- Edel puts the budget at 18
million or 19 million euros (about $25 million) -- the movie, which
opened in Los Angeles on Friday, was nominated this year for best
foreign-language film at both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards.
"What we tried to show in the film was a development," said Stefan
Aust, the German journalist on whose book (recently re-released in
English as "Baader Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.") served
as the blueprint for the film. "A development from protest into
violence into terrorism, from very humane ideas against the Vietnam
War and the Nazi past in Germany to this point of hyper-morality
where they ended up being very immoral themselves, very cruel. There
was no way back for them."
The group's main leaders, Andreas Baader, his girlfriend, Gudrun
Ensslin, and leftist journalist-turned-outlaw Ulrike Meinhof --
played with unrestrained emotion by Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek
and Martina Gedeck, respectively -- could be thought of as the body,
soul and mind of the group, as each had a specific skill-set for the operation.
"They were almost like rock stars," Edel said of their fleeting
Meinhof was a widely read columnist and fixture on TV talk shows in
Germany before she participated in a plan in 1970 to spring Baader
from jail and set herself on a course that ended with her suicide in
prison in 1976. (Baader, Ensslin and fellow member Jan-Carl Raspe
would later all commit suicide in prison on the same night in 1977.)
For Edel, a student in Germany during the faction's early years, it
is important for American audiences to appreciate the context of the
times in which the film's events took place, amid the first
generation that came of age with the scars of World War II. "We said
this is a movie about our generation," Edel said. "The postwar
generation where the first commandment was, 'We will not allow this
ever again, so we have to resist anything that shows fascist signs.'
And if you don't understand this, you don't understand the movie, why
it happened in Germany."
The film captures much of what made the group appealing and a media
sensation, a rock 'n' roll-inspired sense of glamour and mystique
with the members' fast cars, rebel attitude and sharp outfits. As
with the image of a foxy naked woman reading Trotsky in the bath, the
film often has a mix of intellectualized rebellion, palpable danger
and sex appeal. At the same time, it explores with unblinking,
horrifying candor how group members pushed themselves over the edge
into needless violence and genuine madness. With painstaking
attention, the film charts how they came together, their relatively
brief life on the run and the protracted process of their trials and
"This is really how we thought we should make the film," said Aust,
who crafted an early script adaptation of his book before handing it
over to Eichinger. "Some people say you're making cool anti-heroes
out of them, and we say, 'This is what they were at the time, this is
the reason people followed them into the underground, then on to
killing and then into prison and death.' "
The Baader Meinhof Group might have been woefully ineffective as a
political force in its time -- its members' notoriety was actually a
hindrance to more genuine activists -- but its cultural reach has
remained strong across the decades. Such diverse artists as filmmaker
Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the rock band Hawkwind, painter Gerhard
Richter and writer Don DeLillo have created works inspired by the group.
Specters of the past
The exhaustive attention to detail behind "The Baader Meinhof
Complex" brought the production to many of the actual locations where
events took place, such as the opera house in Berlin where in 1967 a
student was killed by police during a protest-turned-riot, a key
turning point in the student movement of the time. The courtroom
where the Red Army Faction leadership was tried was used for the
film's re-creations of those same scenes. Specific images in the film
are framed to replicate well-known news photos, bringing up the
haunting specter of the past.
"People ask, 'Why did you get so close to reality?' " said Edel. "I
said not because I wanted to pretend it was reality, it's still a
movie, but some of the images are in the German consciousness, so
burned in, everybody knows those images -- like an American knows
what exactly happened when Kennedy was shot, how it looked. You
cannot go there and stage it slightly different."
Perhaps Edel's truest inspiration in making the film was found right
under his own roof.
"I've been living for a long time in Los Angeles," said Edel, who has
directed several TV movies, including 2001's "The Mists of Avalon,"
"and my two sons, who at the time were 20 and 21, don't speak German.
So that was for me the key. We have to tell it in a way my sons can
understand it. To say, 'When I was 20 or 21, this happened.'
"I felt I wanted to tell them this story: These were people not from
some far-away culture, these were people I might have sat next to in
university, and that I was at first excited and then I was shocked
and disgusted, how it started with all the hope and all the dreams
and ended up in a blood bath."