'THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX' & 'THE ENGLISH SURGEON'
Rand Richards Cooper
September 25, 2009
Some films that don't create a particularly rich experience for the
viewer nonetheless raise provocative issues and questions. The Baader
Meinhof Complex follows the rise and fall of a notorious 1970s
terrorist group that waged a decade of violence against German
government and business interests. Calling itself the Red Army
Faction (RAF), the group came to be known by the names of two
leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, both of whom were
eventually arrested and died in prison under murky circumstances,
achieving a dark martyrdom and insinuating themselves into the
popular imagination as the German Bonnie and Clyde.
The Baader Meinhof Complex is based on a book by Stefan Aust,
long-time editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel; and though director Uli
Edel gives it the propulsive feel of an action flick, the film is
essentially a news chronicle, whisking us through a whirlwind tour of
headlines and news clips. This illustrated-weekly approach works at
the cost of inner drama; screenwriter Bernd Eichinger does little to
draw us into these characters' interiors or to explore their tragic
potential. Then again, perhaps they didn't have any; and such tabloid
sensationalism may simply acknowledge that revolutions typically are
led by violent psychopaths, not introspective philosophers acting in
full awareness of violence's tragic potential.
Meinhof herself possessed at least a glimmer of such awareness. Born
into an accomplished family (her father was an art historian), she
married the publisher of a left-leaning political journal to which
she herself contributed. At the film's outset we see her still in
early-sixties dutiful hausfrau mode: romping at the beach with
husband and kids, throwing parties at night, drinking and dancing.
Her critique of social inequity and government power is launched from
within the comfy confines of upper-class German life, prosperous and
perfectly bürgerlich. With the Mercedes parked in the drive, Meinhof
(played by the highly sympathetic Martina Gedeck, known to American
audiences from The Lives of Others) is content to remain a
commentator and not to act.
What tips her over is rage at America's involvement in Vietnam and
police brutality in the German streets. When left-leaning students
protest the visiting Shah of Iran, the Polizei move in, arms raised
and truncheons swinging. We witness the shooting of a protestor,
Benno Ohnesorg, a defining event-Germany's Kent State-that outraged
the middle class, galvanized students, and provided an opening for
violent reaction. Meinhof joins the fringes of a militant Communist
group led by Baader, a charismatic petty criminal, and his
girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. Frustrated by the limits of social
protest, and feeling the influence of Baader and Ensslin's acid
contempt for liberal intellectuals, Meinhof edges toward action.
"Protest is when I say 'This does not please me,'" she writes.
"Resistance is when I ensure that what does not please me occurs no
more." Soon, she becomes an active collaborator, helping spring
Baader from prison in a plot that leaves a guard critically wounded.
The Baader Meinhof Complex reminds us how much more tactical success
the violent left enjoyed in Germany than in this country: not just a
few bank jobs and bungled bombings, but kidnappings and executions,
assaults on police stations and corporate headquarters and magazine
offices. It also gained far more traction on popular sympathies.
Polls showed one out of every four Germans sympathizing with the RAF;
in one TV news clip, several man-in-the-street citizens, asked if
they would consider hiding a member of the RAF, respond
affirmatively. For Americans this is startlingas if Midwesterners in
1972 had expressed support for the Symbionese Liberation Army.
What caused such widespread sympathy among Germans? It's a
fascinating questionperhaps the fascinating questionand I wish the
filmmakers had spent more time addressing it. One brief scene
portrays a journalist interviewing Ensslin's parents, a sober pastor
and his dour wife. We've previously seen them being castigated by
their daughter for their reactionary politics; but now, asked about
her involvement in a department-store firebombing, the two solemnly
approve the act, describing it as "a holy self-realization." Whoa.
That someone like Baader would embrace political violence is hardly
surprising; but that his girlfriend's upright, uptight parents would
find a vocabulary of moral approval for it is fascinating, and hints
at a profoundly German brand of cold-blooded political romanticism.
If there is a point of view to this film, it centers on an indictment
of this romanticism, and of the radical political style and
temperament that fall out from it. In one scene we observe the
student firebrand leader, Rudi Dutschke, leading a chant of Ho! Ho!
Ho Chi Minh! as a raucous crowd raises a thousand fists. "Whenever I
see Germans raising their arms like that, I get worried," a friend of
mine said later, and surely this is the point. Contempt for liberal
proceduralism, a commitment to violence, a humorless and ultimately
merciless elevation of abstractions over the particularity of
individual humans: the radical Left in this film becomes the
doppelgänger of its enemy, condemning Nazism even as it mimics its
authoritarian ferocity. Particularly fascinating are courtroom scenes
of the RAF trial, conducted before a heckling mob that jeers
raucously as the defendants scream crude insults"Old pig! Fascist
asshole!"at the judge. It is shocking to see a West German state
unwilling or unable to rouse itself in its own defense, as if
paralyzed by a reluctance to conform to the left's caricature of it.
Amid its busy news montages, The Baader-Meinhof Complex manages to
catch something of the perilous and angry Zeitgeist of the early
1970s. It was a time of raw wounds, and nowhere more so than in
Germany, where actual, historical fascism poisoned the atmosphere,
and armed children conducted a violent drama of rage against the fathers.
Geoffrey Smith's documentary The English Surgeon captures a very
different violence, one undertaken not to kill, but to heal. Smith
studies a British neurosurgeon, Henry Marsh, who for fifteen years
has been traveling to the Ukraine on a pro bono mission to improve
neurosurgical care amid a desperately underfunded health-care system.
The country revealed here is a forbiddingly dreary place, a panorama
of mud, frozen rivers, and Soviet-style housing blocks. Marsh's task
is even drearier. People line up in the hospital hallway, carrying
x-rays and scans. Too often, Marsh must inform them that there's
nothing to do but wait for deathknowing that if this were London,
he'd be dealing out life instead.
The film centers on his treatment of a young man, Marian, whose
epileptic seizures betray the presence of a large brain tumor. The
surgery is done under local anesthesia, and it is eerie to watch
Marsh and a Ukrainian colleague converse with Marian even as, on the
other side of the canopy, they rummage through his cranium. The
procedure proves a success; yet The English Surgeon is haunted, and
Marsh himself quietly tormented, by failure. We learn of his attempt,
several years back, to cure a little girl, Tanya, who was suffering
from a benign but colossal tumor. The risky surgery failed, leaving
the girl even more incapacitated; she died a year later. Now, as we
watch Marsh excavating the tumor from Marian's cranium, a voice-over
narrative expresses his astonishment that mind and brain are one,
that such elusive human traits as consciousness in fact reside in the
tissues he is carefully cutting. Marsh finds this perspective hard to
believe yet impossible to reject, and we understand that his bloody
errands in the stuff of our selves have not led him toward a
conception of the soul, but rather into a baffled materialism. Yet
what to make of his own actions and motivations? How is it that mere
tissue can engender guilt and mercy, love and hope and obligation?
The final scenes follow Marsh to an emotional reunion with Tanya's
family in their impoverished rural village. Visiting the snowy
graveyard where the girl is buried, standing alone before her
headstone, the surgeon finds himself imagining his own death, and
wonders whether he will see the faces of Tanya and of her mother. How
moving it is to watch this dedicated materialist discover the essence
of spirituality and the meaning of a life, of his life. "What are we
if we don't try to help others?" the surgeon muses. "We're nothing,
nothing at all."
'Baader Meinhof' tells German terror gang's story
By Calvin Wilson
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is the kind of journalist and
intellectual whose opinions are respected and whose presence on talk
shows is welcomed. Also a wife and mother, she seems to have it all
until she gets caught up in the chaos of a revolutionary movement.
Initially, Meinhof is merely intrigued by Andreas Baader (Moritz
Bleibtreu), who rails against U.S. involvement in Vietnam and objects
to German industrialism. But his radicalism proves to be contagious.
It's not long before Meinhof is robbing banks and fleeing from the law.
Based on a popular nonfiction book by Stefan Aust, "The Baader
Meinhof Complex" is the story of the Red Army Faction also known as
the Baader-Meinhof Gang and its acts of terrorism against the
German government in the 1970s.
Working from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Bernd Eichinger
("Downfall"), director Uli Edel ("Last Exit to Brooklyn") delivers a
thoroughly engrossing tale of conflicting agendas and thwarted
ambition. In its verve and verisimilitude, the film recalls such
classics of political cinema as "Z" and "The Battle of Algiers."
'The Baader Meinhof Complex'
This stark thriller dissects the motivations of urban terrorists.
By Peter Rainer | Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor
from the September 18, 2009
Most current movies about terrorists are ripped from today's
headlines, but "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is ripped from
yesterday's which turns out to be not so far removed from now.
By any measure political smarts, thrills, period re-creations
this is one of the best recent films of its kind, and a throwback, in
some ways, to such incendiary political films as "Z" and "State of
Siege" (both directed by Costa-Gavras). As in those movies, the
present-tense immediacy of "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is stunningly
Directed by Uli Edel and written by Bernd Eichinger (based on a
nonfiction book by Stefan Aust), the film is a panoramic dissection
of the notorious West German terrorist group that called itself the
Red Army Faction and, in the 1970s, bombed a newspaper office, a
police station, and several United States Army encampments. They
killed some 30 people and were fiercely defended by the far left from
which, until 1998, new branches of the faction evolved as terrorists
were killed or died in prison.
The action is framed by the Vietnam War and the political
assassinations in America, but the faction's agitations run the
gamut. They're equal-opportunity terrorists. At one point, they
decamp to Jordan, where they train haphazardly with their
Palestinian counterparts. When the shah of Iran and his wife visit
West Berlin, demonstrators rallied by the gang are clubbed by the police.
This violence fuels the faction's bedrock belief that to live in a
police state is no different from living in the Nazi storm trooper
era. Amid all the posturing and bloodshed perpetrated by these
home-grown, mostly middle-class terrorists, one note of poignancy
sounds: Whatever their depredations, these children of the Nazi era
saw themselves as trying to rid their country of another Third Reich.
Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) is seriously out of control. Like
many ideologues, he is much more about power than about ideology.
Despite his superficial obeisance to political/feminist liberation,
he treats the women in the group as flunkies, and his wayward
political ecumenicalism does not extend to the Middle East, whose
denizens he calls, "Ali Babas." He is fond of saying, "Having sex and
shooting are the same thing."
His counterpart is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a columnist who,
in the film's most powerful sequence, makes a fateful decision to
join the gang. She sees an open window through which, if she jumps,
her life will be forever changed. As she jumps, it's as if a death
knell has sounded.
Ulrike is an archetypal example of how a zealot's political
sympathies trump everything, even family. She seems unfazed by her
decision to leave her young daughters behind as she goes about her
mission. Throughout most of the movie, Ulrike operates in an
insensate zone. She never seems fully in the moment. She has zapped
most of the bourgeois from her bearing but she hasn't found a vibrant
identity to replace it. In the process of finding herself, she loses herself.
There's a fine line to walk when making a film about outlaws: A few
wrong moves and, presto, glamorization occurs. To its credit, "The
Baader Meinhof Complex" almost entirely avoids this pitfall. It
leaves us with a question that may be unanswerable: How does one
extinguish terrorism when its causes are myriad? Grade: A- (Rated R
for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content,
graphic nudity, and language.)
Radicals are chic in spellbinding thriller
BY COLIN COVERT
STAR TRIBUNE (MINNEAPOLIS)
Sept. 18, 2009
The name Moritz Bleibtreu means little to American moviegoers, so
think of him as the volcanic early Jack Nicholson.
In "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," Bleibtreu plays Andreas Baader, a
volatile West German thug who led a terrorist gang called the Red
Army Faction. His struggles to smash the state seem like the temper
tantrums of a gun-slinging infant.
He and former radical journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) were
the Bonnie and Clyde of 1970s West German radical chic. Between his
outlaw allure and her propaganda skills, they mesmerized a cadre of
European student radicals for decades. Director Uli Edel's
quasi-documentary account of their crime spree is similarly hypnotic.
The film is rigorously intelligent, carefully establishing the social
environment and the cult mentality that gave root to domestic terrorism.
A visit to Berlin by the Shah of Iran turns into a melee as mounted
police brutalize peaceful demonstrators (an impeccably staged
eruption of bloodshed, the first of many to come). In response to a
perceived campaign of assassination by conservative forces, leftists
begin forming cells of urban guerrillas to fight violence with violence.
The film succeeds where so many political pictures have failed
because it concentrates on the thriller aspects of the story. Rather
than worrying about which faction launched what operation, the
audience becomes wrapped up in whether a character will survive a
shooting or fall from a speeding car.
This is a gripping history lesson on the birth of modern terrorism, a
haunting examination of ideology morphing into psychopathology and an
intense political roller-coaster ride.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
September 15, 2009
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico
Sharing thematic commonalities with Steven Soderbergh's Che and Steve
McQueen's Hunger from earlier this year, Uli Edel's The Baader
Meinhof Complex is a detailed and brutal examination of the fact that
there are no winners in a revolution. Refusing to take sides in his
epic retelling of the saga of the RAF in the 1960s and 1970s, Edel
has made a film that doesn't take sides or turn its revolutionary
characters into martyrs or icons. With determined force, The Baader
Meinhof Complex races through years of kidnappings, riots,
assassinations, hunger strikes, trials, and suicides. It is a dark,
violent film that eventually becomes a bit numbing for its own good
and could have used a bit more character focus instead of the desire
to tell every important episode from these crucial years in Germany's
history. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a technically masterful film
that never quite connects emotionally or even viscerally like it
could have with a bit more focus on character. Writer (and producer)
Bernd Eichinger's desire to show that there are no heroes on either
side of a cultural revolution sometimes keeps the audience from
finding a connection into this episodic film but it's a remarkably
well-made and acted one nonetheless.
Early in The Baader Meinhof Complex, Edel stages a riot sequence that
is gasp-inducing in its detail and raw, realistic violence. It's just
the beginning. For nearly two-and-a-half hours, Edel works through
the key events in the lives of the major figures behind the Red Army
Faction, a German terrorist organization responsible for numerous
robberies and deaths in the 1970s. Edel and Eichinger bring dozens of
characters to the forefront but keep coming back to the titles ones,
a former journalist named Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and a
charismatic-but-angry leader of the revolution named Andreas Baader
(Moritz Bleibtreu). Watching Meinhof go from comfortable domesticity
in which she writes about the evils of government to becoming a
prisoner and one of the most prominent faces of the revolution is the
true character arc of the film. Baader, Meinhof, and Gudrun Eneslin
(Johanna Wokaleck) basically started the RAF and the film follows the
true story of their lives from the early days of the group to their
The Baader Meinhof Complex is a purposefully episodic film. Eichinger
and Edel, working from a book by Stefan Aust, leave no detail
unturned, covering years of revolutionary activity that features more
screaming and gunfire than most movies this year. There's nothing
"fun" about The Baader Meinhof Complex but there's also nothing at
all boring. Edel drives the film with a vibrant technical proficiency
with such speed that some of the actual historical events are likely
to get blurry for most viewers. And I'm not sure that the breakneck
pace of Baader Meinhof is always a good thing. The film is so
repetitively violent, depressing, and dark that it becomes numbing.
We see the major events of the history of the RAF but the connective
tissue, the human story that links them, is somewhat lost by the
filmmakers desire to tell the WHOLE story.
Having said that, there's enough to like about BMC to warrant a look
and it's not just the impressive technical scope of a film that
features dozens of characters, locations, and shoot-outs. Gegeck,
Bleibtreu, Wokaleck, and the great Bruno Ganz are all effective and
interesting, doing their best to bring humanity and character to what
is essentially a story with no heroes. By the end of The Baader
Meinhof Complex, you'll be exhausted, and I mean that as a compliment
to the power of Edel's storytelling. There's an element of relatable
humanity missing from the foundation of trying to tell a story that
could have taken six hours in a 144 minutes, but there's no denying
the power of those 144 minutes.
The Baader Meinhof Complex:
Grinding, Sexy, Horrifying
by Brendan Kiley
September 15, 2009
For such an earnest song, Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" sounds
weirdly sardonic and cutting as it plays over the closing credits of
The Baader Meinhof Complex. By the end of the 150-minute drama about
the German anarcho-communists who murdered, blew up, and set fire to
what they disliked about the bourgeoisie in the 1970s (and killed 34
people in the process), the lyrics cut both ways: "How many deaths
must it take before he knows/That too many people have died?" Ripped
from its original context, the line lands like a vicious joke. It is
one of the many masterful choices in Uli Edel's ash-can-gritty drama
about the hideousness of capitalism and its discontents.
A quick primer on the Baader Meinhof gang (they called themselves the
Red Army Faction): It's 1970s Germany and a conservative, monolithic
government filled with ex-Nazis runs the country. The official
parliamentary opposition party gets only 5 percent of the vote and
the Communist Party is illegal, so students and radicals start
"extra-parliamentary opposition." Strangers are shooting each other
over ideological differences, police are acquitted for beating and
shooting protesters at rallies, and there are bloody riots in the
streets. The country is extremely tense.
Enter Ulrike Meinhof (a brooding, restrained Martina Gedeck), a
leftist journalist who writes sentences like: "If one sets a car on
fire, that is a criminal offense. If one sets hundreds of cars on
fire, that is political action." She meets a group of political
arsonists during their trial and falls in with them as they escape to
France, hide with a friend of Che's, and return to Germany to
commence bold guerilla warfare. They're surprisingly popular among
the disenfranchised left, and their charismatic center is a handsome
young egoist, badass, and high-school dropout named Andreas Baader.
According to Moritz Bleibtreu's stormy performance, Baader is as
devoted to chicks, fast driving, and shooting guns as he is to
proletarian emancipationthough he'd punch your nose through the back
of your head for saying so. (Once Baader achieved international
notoriety, Jean-Paul Sartre visited him in prison and allegedly
described him as "an asshole"a detail that, sadly, didn't make it
into the film. By Complex's grinding final act, a bit of comic relief
would've been refreshing.)
The Red Army Faction robs banks, blows up newspaper offices and
barracks, and assassinates judges, cops, politicians, and whoever
else seems appropriately "fascist." They go study terrorism in the
yellow deserts of Jordan with the PLO, whom they enrage with their
nudism, coed living, and spoiled-brattiness. Those scenes are both
the funniest and the darkest in the filma bumbling clash of
civilizations where dangerous first-world clowns tangle with actual
freedom fighters who are battling for their lands and lives and not
some abstracted notion of international justice as articulated by
their favorite author from the Frankfurt School. It would be
absurdist comedy if it hadn't actually happened.
Everyone in the film is indicted: the corpulent, conservative (and
frequently ex-Nazi) politicians eating lobster soup and the RAF
smoking their incessant cigarettes. But through careful, meticulous
storytelling, Edel sends us tennis-balling from one side of the fight
to the other and forces us to identify with each major character at
least once or twice: Yes, it is wrong to prosecute an ideological war
on a poor country and unleash state thugs on peaceful demonstrators;
yes, it is also wrong to blow up a newspaper office because you don't
like what you read.
Edel stretches the film with the classic description of the pacing of
war: pulse-raising action, horrifying aftermath, and then back into
the slow wait for the next charge. By the time the original gang is
all dead or imprisoned and a second generation has sprung up and
started executing hostages in embassies and on airplanes, The Baader
Meinhof Complex takes on an awful, operatic weightnot unlike the
final act of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood.
Baader Meinhof has the hopeless, concrete-monolith feel of '70s
German architecture: complicated, violently sexy, horrifying, and
heavyand deeply satisfying.