Review: 'Baader Meinhof Complex' a true epic
Mick LaSalle, Chronicle Movie Critic
September 4, 2009
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Drama. Starring Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek and
Bruno Ganz. Directed by Uli Edel. In German with English subtitles.
(R. 150 minutes. At the Embarcadero Center Cinema, Shattuck Cinema,
Aquarius Theatre and Nickelodeon Theater.)
For a thoroughly fascinating, true glimpse into the horrors that
vanity and self-delusion can wreak, take some time to see "The Baader
The film is a deluxe German production - 150 minutes - meticulously
directed by Uli Edel ("Last Exit to Brooklyn"), written by Bernd
Eichinger ("Downfall") and starring some of Germany's best actors:
Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek and Bruno Ganz.
These estimable talents come together to tell the story of the Red
Army Faction, a German terrorist group that formed in the late '60s
and dominated headlines in the 1970s.
The filmmakers adopt the wise strategy of never imposing their
judgments on the viewer. Instead, working off of transcripts and
real-life accounts, they simply re-create the Red Army Factions
exploits, in accordance with the historical record. Ultimately, the
film emerges as an exegesis of a certain mentality, alive and well in
the 1970s, as well as a cautionary tale about the dangers of
groupthink. People who easily might have gone through life peaceful
end up committing atrocities against their fellow citizens - while
deluding themselves that they're on the side of right.
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" contains four remarkable performances.
The most chilling in its strange elusiveness and truth is that of
Gedeck, who plays Ulrike Meinhof. Here was a married woman with
children, who had a good job as a journalist and left-wing columnist.
And then one day she chucked everything and picked up a machine gun.
Gedeck ("The Lives of Others," "Mostly Martha"), an actress very good
at suggesting something weak or skewed beneath a smooth facade,
brings that quality to Meinhof.
Bleibtreu has the role of Andreas Baader, playing him as a kind of
charismatic thug, who can spout Marxist ideology to serve his every
selfish end. In a less flashy role, Ganz ("Downfall") makes an
equally strong impression, bringing wiliness and introspection to the
role of Horst Herold, the head of the German police force. Herold
realizes that to catch terrorists he needs to think like one, to
understand their motivations and goals - or, as he puts it, to
understand the "myth" that they live with.
And no one is more deeply immersed in the whole myth than Gudrun
Ensslin, Baader's girlfriend and partner in crime. As played by
Wokalek, Gudrun never doubts her own virtue or judgment. Rather,
Wokalek plays her as the kind of person who could burn other people
to death and yet think of herself as a modern Joan of Arc. We might
see Lady Macbeth. She sees herself as an underdog beset by the
faithless, and as a visionary with the courage to see the obvious
that others would deny. Along the way, Wokalek gives audiences
something valuable, a portrait of murderous evil that is, at once,
perfectly human and understandable.
How could anybody think that firebombing a department store in West
Germany could be justified as a protest against - get ready -
America's involvement in Vietnam? This is the madness portrayed in
"The Baader Meinhof Complex," a rare epic that deserves every minute
of its epic length. Director Uli Edel has a feel for the era's
internal and external life, for both its mentality and for the ways
in which violence played out on the street.
-- Advisory: This film contains full frontal nudity, strong language
(in subtitle) and extreme violence.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[See URL for embedded links.]
The Politics of Cool:
The Baader Meinhof Complex
There's so much going on in the Baader Meinhof Complex it could fill
a book. In fact, it was a book. This book.
So here's the deal. In the late 60s in Germany, there was a group who
called themselves the RAF (Red Army Faction), who others came to call
the Baader-Meinhof Gang (two of their leaders were named Baader and
Meinhof, you see). They were militant communists who organized a
series of terrorist attacks in protest of all kinds of things they
dubbed "fascist". (Although it mostly lurks in the background, it's
important to remember these are very much post-Holocaust times). They
weren't particularly discriminate, and their actions were mostly
deplored, but there was an undercurrent of sympathy that ordinary
civilians showed for them. This movie takes that sympathy, defends
it, condemns it, justifies it, ridicules it, tries to put it in
context with the sexual revolution, and eventually hangs it out to dry.
How does one do this, you ask? With two and a half-hours, some rock
music, a Palestinian terrorist training camp, naked women on
rooftops, a portrait of Mao Zedong, a copy of Moby Dick, and a
leather jacket. The movie jumps from anarchy-tinged anger to big-band
rallies, from three people in an apartment to five people in a
different apartment. The attacks escalate from planting bombs in
police stations to the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet. Every action
seems equal parts mercilessness, conviction, and vanity. And that's
the complex. Baader had it. Meinhof had it. The question is, did
everyone else have it too? And there's the inevitable, do we as
audience members still have it?
It's not so much a movie about the late 60s as it is a movie about
looking back at the late 60s. In one scene, Andreas Baader gets out
of jail to come home and find his girlfriend in the tub with a young
boy who just escaped a juvenile detention center. He says a few
words, kisses her, grabs her breast, and as he's walking out, the boy
says to him, "Cool jacket." Baader takes off the jacket and throws it
to him, effectively handing off his own cool to the next generation.
A couple scenes later when we see Andreas Baader again, he's wearing
a different, equally cool, leather jacket. This reminds us that for
all the political idealism, for all the fighting for the little guy,
and for all the solidarity, these guys really wanted to be rock
stars. As a result, it's as similar to Almost Famous as The Battle of
Algiers. But what do I know? I wasn't there.
The movie is epic, culminating in a entire final chapter of courtroom
drama and prison politicking. It's very much an Academy Awards movie
and it was nominated last year for Best Foreign Language Film. Having
already released in Europe, it drew some mixed responses. People
sympathetic to the RAF condemned it for making them look reckless and
out of control. People who despise the RAF were angry that a viewer
could sympathize with them. With politically-based movies, pissing
off both sides is a sure sign of success for me.
As a perfect match for its, well, complex, political maneuvering, it
has some confounding technique as well. There's a discombobulating
mix of big and small. Each bomb that goes off feels suffocated by the
camera. Each woman's bare breasts feel a little too up-front. We
sympathize with the leaders, but when the focus turns to the
followers, they're just blank faces. And when they somehow steal a
jet, why doesn't it feel like they just stole a jet? The hectic style
is consistent perhaps with the conflicted motives of the gang, but
makes it tough for the viewer to keep up.
And ultimately I think it's about the viewer here. How do we fit into
all this? How do we want our terrorists to act? Do we want to hate
them like we love them? Or is the most hated person the one who's
ignored? (I feel like Carrie Bradshaw if she wrote for the Washington
Post.) The movie speculates but doesn't argue. Movies about the past
shouldn't be just about the past. The Baader Meinhof Complex, finally
coming to the U.S., surely isn't.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Engrossing Political-Historical Drama
By Mel Valentin
Sep 04, 2009
Directed and adapted by Uli Edel (Ring of the Nibelungs, Julius
Caesar, "The Mists of Avalon") from Stefan Aust's best-selling
non-fiction book, The Baader Meinhof Complex ("Der Baader Meinhof
Komplex"), explores Germany's most notorious domestic group
officially known as the Red Army Faction (RAF) and unofficially known
as the "Baader-Meinhof Gang" as well as its two most prominent
members, Ulrike Meinhof, a left-wing journalist turned chief
propagandist and strategist for the RAF, and Andreas Baader, the
nominal leader of the RAF from its founding in the late 60s through
his death in the mid-70s. Engrossing, fascinating, and compelling,
The Baader Meinhof Complex offers a clear-eyed, unromantic look at
the pitfalls of how rigid, dogmatic ideology becomes the
justification for political violence and not just political action.
The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in the late 1960s as student unrest
and mass protests threaten to destabilize the West German government
-- fueled by anti-Vietnam fervor, left wing, social justice-oriented
political beliefs, a repressive, heavy-handed government, and the
anti-authoritarian attitudes of the counter-cultural revolution that
swept through Western countries during that period. Meinhof (Martina
Gedeck), a left wing intellectual and journalist, initially refrains
from active political participation. It's not until she discovers her
husband having an affair that she leaves a comfortable middle-class
existence (with her twin daughters in tow, however) for the RAF
thanks to her friendship with Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek),
Baader's (Moritz Bleibtreu) girlfriend and RAF co-leader.
Formed in response to the violent government crackdown on student
protests and the absence of left-wing voices in the West German
parliament, the RAF under Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof bomb civilian,
government, and U.S. military installations, rob banks (rationalized
as "expropriation to finance the revolution"), after receiving
training in the Middle East from Palestinian terrorists, and later,
as student unrest and demonstrations dissipate, to kidnappings and
assassinations to remain politically relevant.
Meinhof doesn't become an active member in the RAF's operations until
the police capture Baader. Even then, Meinhof limits herself to chief
propagandist and occasional strategist for the RAF. It's Baader and
Ensslin, however, who plan and execute most of the RAF's actions.
After they're captured, detained (for three years), and put on trial,
the RAF's "second generation" carries on in their name.
While, by necessity and, presumably, historical precedent, The Baader
Meinhof Complex focuses primarily on Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin,
other members of the RAF also receive screen time. Unfortunately,
that's exactly where The Baader Meinhof Complex suffers the most: in
delineating the supporting or background characters, some of whom
appear in a handful of scenes, barely introduced, only to disappear
altogether. Once The Baader Meinhof Complex shifts from Baader,
Meinhof, and Ensslin, the RAF's second generation increases in
importance, but given their late, sketchy introduction, it's
difficult to follow them with anything except marginal, tangential interest.
The Baader Meinhof Complex's other major flaw lies in the absence of
markers to denote the passage of time. While Edel includes the
occasional montage to cross off major events (e.g., the political
assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy), Edel
doesn't include references to the year through title cards,
superimposed text, or dialogue. Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin's
detention and trial last three years, but Edel discloses that in a
single line of dialogue near the end of the film. It might sound like
a minor point, but in a film tied so closely to historical events,
it's important to let the audience in on when events are happening
and the time between major events.
Where Edel succeeds, however, is in the portrayal of the RAF, the
initial idealism of its chief members, and their relatively rapid
descent from political activism to terrorism, including the murders
of government officials, industrialists, and members of the police.
Idealism fueled by ideology hardens into dogmatism, dogmatism hardens
into an "Us-Them" mentality (an idea Ensslin mentions several times),
and that "Us-Them" mentality allows Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and
their followers to justify murder by dehumanizing political opponents.
Whatever its faults, The Baader Meinhof Complex is at, minimum, a
cautionary tale, regardless of political ideology. Once political
activism turns to violence, whatever value ideology may have (i.e.,
by reflecting real-world power relations) becomes, if not moot, then
Baader to the bone
Hipster terrorists? Uli Edel's new film exhaustively explores the Red
BY KIMBERLY CHUN
September 2, 2009
"The Baader Meinhof gang? Those spoiled, hipster terrorists?" That
was the response of one knowledgeable pop watcher when I told her
about The Baader Mienhof Complex, the new feature from Uli Edel
(1989's Last Exit to Brooklyn). The violence-prone West German
anarchist group, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), still
inspires both venomous spew and starry-eyed fascination (see Joe
Strummer's RAF T-shirt, Gerhard Richter's paintings of its dead
leaders, and Erin Cosgrove's 2003 satirical romance paperback, The
Baader-Meinhof Affair). Edel's sober, clear-eyed view of the youthful
and sexy yet arrogant and murderous, gun-toting radicals at the
center of Baader-Meinhof's mythology a complex construct, indeed
manages to do justice to the core of their sprawling chronology,
while never overstating their narrative's obvious post-9/11 relevance.
Based on the nonfiction best-seller by onetime Der Spiegel editor
Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex finds its still, watchful
center in Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck).
Aust's onetime fourth-estate colleague makes the dramatic trajectory
from bourgeois wife and mother to underground radical crawling
through Mideast dust and toting a machine gun under the tutelage of
Fatah. She's shocked by brutal police crackdowns on the student
protests against the visiting shah of Iran and America's Vietnam War
enacted with a cruelty reminiscent of the one-generation-removed SS
and a reminder of a not-so-distant fascist past and somewhat in awe
of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna
Wokalek), who emit rock-star charisma.
Helping to bust Baader out of jail on the pretext of working on a
book, Meinhof joins her crushes in life on the lam. The three and
their followers declare an urban guerrilla war on West Germany until
they are nabbed and stuck in solitary at Stammheim Prison. While
their trial descends into bitter, kangaroo court-style comedy, the
RAF members outside resort to heightened feats of bloodshed and
desperation in the so-called "German Autumn" of 1977, killing the
chief federal prosecutor, kidnapping a banker, and finally conspiring
in the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet.
Edel has absorbed his share of criticism for his RAF portrayal: the
director's far from sympathetic when it comes to these self-absorbed,
smug rebels, who relish offending their Muslim hosts by sunbathing
nude, yet he's not immune to their cocky, idealistic charms.
Cool-headed yet fully capable of thrilling to his subjects'
eye-popping audacity, the filmmaker does an admirable job of
contextualizing the group within the global student and activist
movements and bringing the viewer, authentically, to the still timely
question: how does one best (i.e., morally) respond to terrorism?
Scars of German terrorism survive
Depiction of terrorists prompts some of the victims' loved ones to
decry the film, which opens in the U.S.
By Kate Connolly
September 4, 2009
Reporting from Berlin - When "The Baader Meinhof Complex," an epic
depiction of left-wing terrorists who cut a murderous and explosive
path through German politics in the 1970s, debuted here last fall, it
was like taking a knife to a partially healed wound.
The film, which opened in limited release in the U.S. last week, did
solid business at home, won critical plaudits and was nominated for
an Academy Award in the foreign film competition.
But "Baader Meinhof" also ignited fierce debate over whether the film
glorifies the terrorist Red Army Faction -- responsible for 34 deaths
and numerous kidnappings and bombings -- or gives an unsparing
portrayal of the gang's brutality. And not all of the reactions have
fallen along predictable lines.
The 2-hour, 24 minute-film chronicles the rise and fall of the RAF,
principally focusing on its leaders Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader
and Gudrun Ensslin. Director Uli Edel and writer-producer Bernd
Eichinger have punctuated the movie with action sequences but also
provide political context. The terrorists saw their violence, in
part, as a struggle against a previous generation they perceived to
have been implicit in -- and to have subsequently failed to confront
-- the country's Nazi past.
Among the most vocal critics of the portrayal is the daughter of
Meinhof, Bettina Röhl, who was abandoned by her mother, who left to
join the RAF.
"Society has not managed to overcome this trauma until now precisely
because of such unscrupulous people who insisted on keeping the RAF
on the boil for their own means," Röhl wrote in a blog in response to
the movie. She added that the movie did nothing to "bury the RAF
corpse" as she felt should have happened long ago, but "embalms it instead."
Michael Buback, son of one of the gang's murder victims, said the
film pays little heed to the victims or their survivors. "We feel
we're playing the victims all over again," he said.
But that feeling was not universal.
Jorg Schleyer, son of industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer, who was
kidnapped and killed by the RAF in 1977, described the movie as a
frank portrayal of the gang as a "wantonly brutal band of murderers .
. . without damaging the memory of the victims."
Frank Schirrmacher, editor of the highly regarded Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, praised the film for finally "doing away with the
histrionic fustiness" surrounding the RAF, which for 30 years, he
said, had allowed "left-wing romantic filmmakers and RAF
sympathizers" to nurture the idea of home-grown "feel-good terrorism"
But Petra Terhoeven, a historian at the University of Göttingen, was
critical of the film's failure to mention Meinhof's "statement of
support" of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics
in 1972 by Palestinian terroristsand what Terhoeven described as the
gang's manipulation of "the dark German past" into a
"self-victimization" PR strategy.
What was clear was that even though Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin are
dead and their crimes extend three decades into the past, the events
are still potent in German society.
And as if to underline this, just last week another member of the
gang who had served her sentence was arrested in connection with the
1977 murder of chief federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback at the hands
of the RAF, which is graphically depicted in the film. The woman
allegedly had been linked to the envelopes containing the group's
claims of responsibility for the killing.