'The Baader Meinhof Complex': Superb film educates as it entertains
BY JEFF SIMON
Updated: September 25, 2009,
One of my favorite moments in Uli Edel's often-superb "The Baader
Meinhof Complex" comes when the film is a little more than a quarter
of the way through.
Andreas Baader an impetuous, '60s radical who is always on the
lookout for the most extreme and violent expression of his ideals
is mocking his underground group's lawyer. He's such a wuss, to
Baader, that the fellow couldn't even steal a wallet from the handbag
of the woman at the adjoining restaurant table.
To prove how gutsy he is, the lawyer accepts the challenge and does
just that and wins the approval of his friend.
A minute later, Baader's own car is stolen a no-account Renault
he'd already stolen from someone else and the militant bank robber
erupts with violent obscenities at such naked, disgusting thievery on
Another couple scenes later, Ulrike Meinhof a radical journalist
and intellectual whose husband's infidelity sent her into extreme
militancy has entered into a plan to spring Baader from police
custody. She was supposed to be just a decoy, the one who lured
Baader into the open for "an interview" and then claimed ignorance
after the "liberating" raid all went down.
Everything goes like clockwork, except that people are killed. At one
point, Baader and his all-female "liberators" escape through an open
window. For a few seconds, Meinhof stares at the open window. Then,
dramatically, she jumps through it into another life entirely from
the politicized domesticity and two children she has previously
contented herself in.
It's that tiny pause on the open window that got me. That is superb
filmmaking on the fly.
In fact, the first hour of "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is as fast
and down and dirty and successful a portrait of late '60s, early '70s
radicalism as you will ever see in a movie.
That's always been the way. When movies have presented the subject
quickly, while preoccupied with something else, they have sometimes
done so exceptionally well (see "Katherine," Jeremy Paul Kagan's 1975
TV movie with Sissy Spacek). When they've been important, they've
usually been preposterous (see Michelangelo Antonioni's "Zabriskie
Point," which ends with a dynamited version of his masterful ending
of "The Eclipse" and is, in its prettified destruction, almost
indistinguishable for Hollywood's gaudy explosions thereafter.)
This movie, though, has a lot more on its mind. While it ends up, at
2 and a half hours, just a wee bit too long, it is also, in its way,
a thoroughly superb and informative introduction to the forms of
terrorism we're struggling with in the 21st century.
What you're subsequently seeing is everything that happens to the
Baader Meinhof Gang long after its leaders are imprisoned and new
generations take over. They edge ever closer to involving "innocent"
civilians in large numbers as victims in their crimes against
capitalism and oppression.
There are those murders of Israeli athletes in the 1972 Munich
Olympics. And then there are hijacked flights. And finally there is
the horror when the gang wiped out in original form merges with
jihadists and becomes instrumental in the kind of nightmare,
Hobbesian war of "all against all" we know far too well.
Edel is a very peculiar filmmaker. He has done formidable work before
in English his adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s "Last Exit to
Brooklyn." He's also directed Madonna in "Body of Evidence."
While the film is a bit too long, it's also one of the best things
Edel has ever done and one of the most absorbing docudrama
treatments you'll find of how we got where we are.•
The Baader Meinhof Comlpex
by M. Faust
25 Sep 2009
Growing out of the largely college-based dissensions that rocked the
world in 1967 and 1968, Germany's Red Army Faction was a domestic
terror group that operated through the 1990s. It had a peak of both
activity and public sympathy in the 1970s, the period covered by this
Oscar-nominated movie that is one of the largest and most expensive
productions in the history of German cinema. Based on a book written
by Stefan Aust, editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel, it was scripted and
produced by Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) and directed by the veteran
Uli Edel (Christiane F.). The cast includes a handful of Germany's
top stars (arthouse regulars are sure to recognize at least a few faces).
The result, as you might expect, is not unlike a Steven Spielberg
film about the Weather Underground: It's fast-paced and gripping and
holds your attention for two and one-half hours, but leaves you
feeling like you don't know much about these events beyond the
surface facts. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers elide a lot
of facts that it assumed were familiar to a German audience, like the
identity of Rudi Dutschke, whose attempted murder is a key early
event. See this film and you're certain to head afterward, if not to
a good bookstore, than to Wikipedia to fill in a lot of holes.
But The Baader Meinhof Complex disappoints to the degree that it
fails to maintain the intensity with which it begins. The first
half-hour chillingly paints the atmosphere of repression that gripped
the world in the 1960s and conveys the determination of some that
change was needed. (It also makes the point that, in Germany, this
was the generation that, as one character notes, "experienced
firsthand how, in the name of the people, concentration camps were
built, anti-Semitism spread, and genocide committed.") It starts out
at least to be a film about how people can do the worst things for
the best reasons, especially after they find themselves marginalized
when public fervor for their cause fades. And if its edge gets dulled
afterward to concentrate on the historical facts, it can't be denied
that what's left is still a pretty riveting story, one that can't be
done justice in a single film.
'Baader Meinhof Complex':
A clear-eyed look at urban guerrillas with chaotic vision
By Michael Sragow | firstname.lastname@example.org
September 25, 2009
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" tracks the history of the German urban
guerrillas also known as the Red Army Faction in the breathless,
brainy docu-action form of classic political thrillers such as "State
of Siege" and "The Battle of Algiers."
The result is an exciting, infuriating, combative experience.
The director, Uli Edel, adhering to Stefan Aust's nonfiction
blockbuster "Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F.,"
achieves the bristling texture of engaged objective journalism.
American audiences who grew up in the 1960s will find it immediately
comprehensible yet also bizarre and upsetting. Younger viewers will
take it as a cautionary tale about terrorism.
The members of the Baader-Meinhof gang viewed themselves as heroes
fighting the remnants of the Nazi era at home and preventing the
spread of the United States' imperialism worldwide in the Vietnam
era. The movie views them as militant idealists gone awry. No matter
how analytical and targeted their manifestoes can be, their impulses
are private and chaotic, their worldview a mix of social-political
outrage, radical-chic theory, Robin Hood fantasy, Third World
exoticism and thuggery.
Unlike the Baader-Meinhof gang, director Edel never loses sight of
the humanity sacrificed on all sides of horrendous acts. At the
center of the movie is Ulrike Meinhof, played by Martine Gedeck, who
was the doomed actress in "The Lives of Others" and here delivers
another heart-quaking characterization. Meinhof was a mother of two
and already a national figure - a left-wing broadcast pundit and
magazine columnist - when Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and
Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) were merely contemplating their
revolutionary complex. In swift, telling strokes, Edel and Gedeck
depict, in Meinhof, a sensitive, curious woman's transit from
literary provocateur to political kamikaze amid the upheavals of
mores and values in the international counterculture.
With an appraising glance and a nerve-racked vibe, Gedeck, an actress
of pinpoint accuracy, conveys that Meinhof can't master the
contradictions of a bourgeois left-wing life, especially with a
straying editor husband who experiences little guilt practicing
hedonism on the profits he makes from selling radicalism. (She leaves
him and takes their two kids.) She's already on the road to a
bullet-spewing form of protest when the government stages a bloody
crackdown on a student protest against the Shah of Iran.
Later, when she covers a symbolic department-store arson set by
Baader and Ensslin, she hears Ensslin's father make the incredible
statement that the arson was an act of "euphoric self-realization."
Ensslin's father, a pastor, who previously disapproved of his
daughter's budding radicalism, suddenly sees her as a secular saint.
Meinhof seizes on his words as inspiration. Journalism and motherhood
are no longer enough to fuel her own sense of self.
To Edel, though, and to the audience, individual ecstasy mixed with
public destruction is a recipe for a devil's caldron, not some
utopian communion cup.
Wokalek and Bleibtreu create perfectly matched, fire-and-ice,
egomaniac lovers as Ensslin and Baader. She keeps her intellectual
hauteur intact even when she's trading barbs with the impetuous,
sexist Baader. We can see why Meinhof thinks that Ensslin has
achieved the sweeping integrity that the journalist has always dreamed about.
Gedeck's performance allows Edel to pull off a roiling mixture of
historical melodrama and psychological revelation. The narrative
expands to contain the full array of idiocies fostered by
quarter-baked idealism, such as the Baader-Meinhof group's delusion
that their coffee-house communism has been moving in sync with the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But Edel never lets the action swamp
Gedeck's fearless depiction of Meinhof as a woman who erases her soul
in pursuit of an all-encompassing liberation.
When Meinhof violates her humanistic principles, she comes to view
anyone opposed to the gang as pigs - and she moves beyond redemption.
Still, the movie makes us mourn both the moral wreckage she leaves in
her wake and her own wasted potential. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex"
never loses sight of the true source of totalitarian nightmares: the
dehumanization of enemies.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Martina Gedeck and Moritz Bleibtreu Star in a Film Written by Uli
Edel and Bernd Eichinger and Directed by Edel
September 23, 2009
By Josef Woodard
One of the finest films seen at this year's Santa Barbara
International Film Festival, The Baader Meinhof Complex is doubly
exotic, as one of the boldest German films of late and as an insight
into the country's recent troubled past. Though little known or
remembered on this side of the Atlantic, the Baader Meinhof Gang (aka
the Red Army Faction [RAF]) was a notorious and in some ways
antiheroic sociopolitical activist group, a generation removed from
Nazi terror, whose anti-capitalist doctrines were realized with the
aid of guns and bombs. Nowadays, the RAF is viewed as a darker,
reality-check aftershock of the blissful naïveté of 1960s peaceniks,
before a grimmer morning broke in the '70s.
We may know of the Baader Meinhof saga through once-removed cultural
sources, whether as a backdrop in Fassbinder films, or the famed
black-and-white paintings of Gerhard Richter. The vivid and carefully
nonpartisan portrait we get from Uli Edel's sharply crafted film is a
fascinating chronicle, a view of a good idea gone seriously bad,
distorted by the passion of an extremist manifestation and bad
judgments made in the name of dogma. Terrorism and violent anarchy by
any other name, the film implicitly suggests, is just as sour.
Excellent acting helps the cause here, elevating the film. Martina
Gedeck plays the more measured, philosophical, and ultimately bored
suburban intellectual Ulrike Meinhof, drawn into what is called "holy
self-realization through arson" by the more volatile, action-lustful
young revolutionary Andreas Baader, played by Moritz Bleibtreu. The
pair has a fiery charismatic lure for the expanding ranks of the
group, not to mention inter-sexual magnetism. Edel follows the story
and its infamous violent episodes, bank robberies, assassinations,
and various narrative twists in the RAF saga, which more or less
ended with the sobering horrors of the terrorist actions at the 1972
In other words, the film covers a lot of ground, time, and
perspectives, with a surprisingly seamless yet engaging touch.
Consider it the evil-twin companion piece to Taking Woodstock.
German quasi-biopic remembers when terrorists were young, stylish,
and sexy--but doesn't have anything to say about them
By Ian Grey
Somewhere in Uli Edel's long, brutal, and failed account of Germany's
infamous Red Army Faction's 30-year reign of terror, a security
operative asks his superior what causes people to murder bystanders.
His answer? "A myth."
We wait for more, but that's it. For another 144 minutes we wait, but
"a myth" is it.
And so Edel's technically impeccable movie, complete with
nerve-wrackingly randomized violence that shows somebody's been
watching their Italian realism DVDs, is a magnificently wasted
opportunity that chooses minutia-mad historical replay and simulation
over the greater truths of artful guesses. And so what we get is
hours of good-looking young people spouting leftist vagaries, blowing
shit up, getting arrested, getting out of jail, blowing shit up,
rinse repeat. Which is a drag as The Baader Meinhof Complex's first
half-hour simmers with wild energy as it builds the case for the now
unthinkable concept of "terrorist chic."
It's the late '60s. Germany's repressive right-wing government, the
"Vietnam genocides," and the mainstream media's stranglehold on truth
have given the first post-Nazi generation a mess of guilt-free stuff
to rail against. Edel opens with Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau), a
dashing petty con, and his lover Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) as
they tear through the night streets in stolen cars while blasting the
Who. Equally enamored of Lenin and Pierre Cardin's latest, they're a
glamorous gang of human powder kegs waiting to blow. When Germany
kisses up to the U.S.-backed Shah of Iran and with the existence of
known Nazis in the government, they do.
Baader, Ensslin, and some pals firebomb a chic department store. The
"action" gets the attention of Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a
left-leaning journalist slowly radicalized by Baader and Ensslin's
combo of guns and Mao and rock 'n' roll, although it's suggested that
her husband's infidelity was a co-contributing factor (and so ends
the movie's sole engagement with human motivation).
For a while, the gang focuses on attacking "legitimate targets"--the
police, politicians, American military posts. With their trademark
logo--a machine gun set against a red star and the letters
"RAF"--they were the first to brand terror. And, for a while, they
had the support of one in four frustrated German citizens.
It's all good anarchistic shits and giggles until an attack on the
Springer newspaper chain's HQ goes bloodily afoul. The RAF slowly
devolves into a full-time terrorist group that would be involved in
kidnappings, assassinations, and, in general, fucking shit up until
its dissolution in 1998. You will have a hard time keeping track of
who's being whacked for what reason and when--if a movie ever
demanded box-office Cliffs Notes for its American release, this is it.
Edel has been bouncing around Hollywood (the Madonna mess, Body of
Evidence), TV (episodes of Oz and Homicide: Life on the Street), and
German cinema and TV for decades; his greatest contribution to the
cinema of Earth was guiding Jennifer Jason Leigh to her career-high
turn as Tralala, the feral whore in Edel's otherwise amber-encased
1989 adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn. And
while Baader Meinhof's game cast glower, speechify, and kill with
great energy, they're stuck with a script--co-written by Edel and
producer Bernd Eichinger--shaped by a terrible idea.
The idea is that by using, where possible, the actual words said by
the actual miscreants taken from real documents and messages, they'll
end up with a more true representation of the gang. Besides being
akin to thinking you could figure out a dead man's dreams by reading
his laundry bill, this cutting and pasting adds nothing to these
angry ciphers, while betraying a weird mistrust of the whole art-making thing.
Eventually, you get sick of the lot of them and try relating to the
middle-aged, anti-terrorist experts trying to bring them to justice.
But as the movie helpfully mentioned earlier, a good lot of them are
Nazis, so, you know, fuck them.
As you battle with sleep after interchangeable-feeling carnage and
chatter by people you couldn't care less about, it's easy to miss the
movie's one isolated insight--and it's got nothing to do with a
"myth." It's the moment where, after another killing, one of RAF's
hot terrorists feels a draft of guilt. It's quickly staunched by a
peer's assurance that the victim isn't really human if she's on the
wrong side of the ideological divide, and therefore nothing to mourn.
A investigation into how humans devolve so easily to that level--that
would be a movie to watch.