The Baader Meinhof Complex
Watching them rage against the machine
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009
If only American guerrilla outfits got the intense treatment that
"The Baader Meinhof Complex'' applies to Germany's Red Army Faction
(RAF). The movie, directed by Uli Edel, is swift, brutal, lurid,
often overheated, and occasionally comical, but it's also a serious,
well acted, and unromantic exploration of the rise and demise of a
terrorist gang whose radicalism ultimately reached beyond the young
men and women who set it in motion.
Edel shoots the film in the unsteady hand-held style of docudrama.
The camera is always watching, chasing, or getting out of the way,
and the explosions aren't massive movie bombs, just loud,
effective-enough little numbers that toss bodies across a room and
leave survivors crawling through debris.
The movie starts in 1967 with protests against the Shah of Iran. The
police join in, stomping protesters, whacking them - OK, bludgeoning
them - with nightsticks and planks of wood. The trumped-up music that
accompanies the violence is too much (it brings things closer to a
Paul Verhoeven thriller than they probably need to be). But these
sequences feel terribly real otherwise.
That afternoon's most notorious incident was the police shooting of
Benno Ohnesorg, a virgin protester whose death produced an iconic
photograph and, earlier this year, led to surprising details about
his shooter. That's material for an entirely different movie. But
Ohnesorg's very brief appearance here is a clue to how comprehensive
this movie aspires to be and how much his death galvanized the German
Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Horst Mahler turn to radicalism
as an expression of rage against what they saw as the German
government's oppression of its people, against Germany's support of
dictators, against the United States' handling of Vietnam and disgust
with generic US imperialism. Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ensslin
(Johanna Wokalek), and Mahler (Simon Licht) were part of the student
protest movement that had been erupting around the world. But they
crave destruction, setting bombs and starting fires. Their eventual
arrests inspire a leftist Berlin columnist named Ulrike Meinhof
(Martina Gedeck) to write in their defense. (She once said that
setting a car on fire is a criminal offense. Setting a hundred cars
on fire is a political act.)
After some interviews with the formidably persuasive Ensslin, Meinhof
finds herself helping to spring Ensslin's boyfriend, Baader, from
prison by arranging a bogus interview with him. It's another
stressful sequence that culminates in the culprits shooting innocent
people, and leaping through a window to freedom. Meinhof stands back,
takes a second to think about what she's about to do (give up her
bourgeois life and two children) then jumps through, too. I don't
know whether she actually did this, but it's a great image. This
woman has just hurled herself down a rabbit hole into an alternate
The film follows the execution of the group's plots and its
subsequent capture, imprisonment, and trial, during which the
members, particularly Meinhof and Ensslin, start going a little mad.
Amid the high dudgeon, there's comedy. One trip to the Middle East,
for instance, lands the group in a revolutionary training camp that
has them crawling on their stomachs under barbed wire while holding
rifles. Baader, whom Bleibtreu plays as if he were the lead singer in
a band, says that's enough. They're not those kinds of guerrillas.
It'd be nice to see an American filmmaker commit a similar reckoning
with the Watts riots, the Weather Underground, or the Black Power
movement, not simply resort to cant and kitsch but to really
interpret those moments and connect them to the state the country was
in. That's what Edel and his collaborators have done here in adapting
Stefan Aust's history of the RAF. For as much as the RAF acted
politically against the German state, the basis for their actions was
Many of the systems and people they attacked enabled Nazi Germany,
and these Nazis were their parents, if not actually then certainly
figuratively. So what the country had on its hands was a sustained
generational rebellion. These kids wanted to rise up in a way they
felt their parents had failed to. In this film, their revolt has left
them obnoxious and rudely intolerant.
Taking up the German patriarchal cause is Bruno Ganz (of course!). He
plays Horst Herning, the head of the German police. Even as he
supervises the ruthless hunt for these kids, he seems perplexed by
their angst. That generational resistance is why the RAF had the
support of German youth for so long. It wasn't just politics. It was
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Baad to the Bone
by Brendan Kiley
Sep 11, 2009
Today was opening day for The Baader Meinhof Complex. I didn't see
the film in time for this week's paper, so here's a long-ass Slog
post about it:
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 ashcan-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 five 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 whomever
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 spends 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, deeply satisfying.
Violent idealism of '60s German radicals
Sep. 11, 2009
By Steven Rea
Like the Weather Underground in the United States, West Germany's
Baader Meinhof group in the late 1960s was made up of leftist
radicals who - fed on Trotsky, Mao and Che - decided that violent
action was the only recourse against a political establishment they
Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex offers an electrically charged
portrait of the Red Army Faction (RAF) founded by a band of college
intellectuals, idealists and writers. While the fashions (miniskirts,
go-go boots, leather jackets) may look cool, and the cast
exceptionally photogenic, this tense and bloody reenactment doesn't
glamorize or romanticize what the RAF revolutionaries did: bombings,
bank robberies and kidnappings that left innocent citizens, as well
as government figures, lawmakers and police, dead.
Spanning almost a decade, from the RAF's birth in 1967 out of a
protest rally turned riot to subsequent waves of RAF members that
took the group to even more militant extremes in the 1970s, The
Baader Meinhof Complex captures the heady idealism, headlong
intensity and ultimate disillusionment experienced by its members.
Children of the Nazi generation, ashamed of their country's recent
past, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his journalist partner,
Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) joined forces with Gudrun Ensslin
(the wild-eyed Johanna Wokalek) to form the core of the RAF. Over
time, the ranks expanded and changed, with terrorist training camps
in Jordan and a new, more radicalized ethos.
If Edel's Oscar-nominated film drags in its final 40 minutes, it's a
function of the director's fidelity to the facts - and the fact that
the founding trio (and the film's stars) have become prisoners of the
state, confined and confused. But The Baader Meinhof Complex still
beats with a strong pulse, depicting both the lure of the radical
life and the despair that comes when ideology gives way to human
failings and needs.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.
'The Baader Meinhof Complex' an evenhanded approach to Red Army Faction
Film stars Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleitreu, Johanna Wokalek
By Michael Phillips
September 11, 2009
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" is the sort of picture we have a very
hard time making in America. It accommodates more than one point of
view; it's equal parts heat and light, pulp and sobriety; it paints
its various subjects, key members of the far-left German terrorist
organization known as the Red Army Faction, as neither martyrs nor
Notorious in the 1970s (the group was formed in 1970), the R.A.F.
came out of anti-fascist protests and the wildfire anti-establishment
climate of the previous decade. You sense the screenwriter (and
producer) Bernd Eichinger racing around to include as much of Stefan
Aust's nonfiction book, the source of this fictionalized film, as he
possibly can in the space of 144 minutes. It is a little bit of
everything, and now and then you get lost in the blur of events. But
director Uli Edel, a long way from the Madonna sex thriller "Body of
Evidence," plays the material right down the middle, without risking
dullness for a second. The movie's propelled by its breathless
technique, similar to what Martin Scorsese brought to "GoodFellas."
Baader was Andreas Baader, whose lover, Gudrun Ensslin, started the
group with a surprising third party, a left-wing journalist and
commentator named Ulrike Meinhof. She was bourgeois fruit ripe enough
for plucking, and she becomes the audience's entry point to an
unstable, alluring, bloody universe.
A more conventional treatment would focus primarily, and
melodramatically, on Meinhof. In "The Baader Meinhof Complex," which
follows its principals from Berlin to terrorist training camps in
Jordan to safe havens in Rome and elsewhere, she is just one of many
characters, mutating, responding to events, setting hijackings,
kidnappings and assassinations into motion.
The key, I think, to the film's success is twofold. The acting
excels; performances such as Moritz Bleibtreu's insolent, childishly
brutish Baader do not ask for our sympathy for a moment. Martina
Gedeck's Meinhof shifts from comfortable upper-middle-class wife and
mother to lone wolf in such a way that you believe, even if you don't
approve. This isn't a movie about bravura speeches and pat
revolutionary platitudes; it's about people who were making up their
lives, desperately, as they went.
The other success factor is the film's texture. Edel shoots it like a
documentary, on the fly, interpolating news footage. With his
cinematographer, Rainer Klausmann, he brings you close to each new
locale and setting. The prison sequences and courtroom scenes
dominate the final third of this ambitious sprawl of a drama, and
once there, you really do feel the walls closing in on the
characters. Earlier, when the R.A.F. decides to bomb a right-wing
newspaper the group doesn't like, the look on journalist Meinhof's
face (thanks to Gedeck's flickers of anguish) says more about the
human cost of political idealism, out there on the fringes of
society, than 100 pages of dialogue on the subject. There is a moment
when Meinhof has a choice: either go back to her old life or follow
her leaders, literally, out an open window. Lives are made and lost
at such junctures, and this exciting, unruly picture is full of them.
Tale of young German terrorists only skims the surface
"The Baader Meinhof Complex," Uli Edel's Oscar-nominated
dramatization of the Red Army Faction's terrorist campaigns, has its
impressive moments, but it's the kind of action-packed political
melodrama that generates more heat than light.
By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times
The Red Army Faction's bloody 1970s terrorist campaign inspired
several German films, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder's satirical
"The Third Generation" and Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von
Trotta's more serious "The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum."
The latest and most expensive Red Army movie, "The Baader Meinhof
Complex," was written by Bernd Eichinger ("Downfall") and directed by
Uli Edel, a prolific German-born filmmaker best-known for an American
film: "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989).
Impressive in its scale and momentum, it's the kind of action-packed
political melodrama that generates more heat than light. Although it
was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year for best
foreign-language film (losing to the Japanese "Departures"), it skims
along on the surface without telling us enough about who these people
were and what motivated them.
Bruno Ganz, who starred as Hitler in "Downfall," effectively shifts
gears to play a crafty policeman who's on the trail of the
terrorists. Moritz Bleibtreu, star of "Run Lola Run," is credibly
charismatic as the terrorists' leader. Martina Gedeck, the heroine of
"The Lives of Others," does what she can with the sketchy role of a
journalist and sympathizer.
Eichinger's script also demonstrates some sympathy for the leftist
extremists, known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, who harbored a few
Robin Hood delusions about the bombings and robberies they arranged
to call attention to government-sponsored mis-adventures in Vietnam
and the Middle East.
An episode in which they demonstrate against the Shah of Iran's 1967
visit to Berlin is particularly well staged. So are a couple of
lighter-weight scenes, set in Jordan, where Palestinians fail to
train the German radicals in desert fighting techniques.
The more violence the gang uses, the more ambitious they become in
their attempts to whittle away at the government, the more they
demonstrate that the ends do not justify the means.
While Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" plays under the end credits,
the audience is invited to ponder how universal and terribly timeless
its lyrics have become. It's perhaps the most sobering moment in a
movie that could use more of them.
John Hartl: email@example.com.
'The Baader Meinhof Complex' is a complex, gripping docudrama
By George Varga
September 10, 2009
As an American teenager growing up in the early 1970s in Frankfurt,
Germany, it was impossible not to be aware of the Baader Meinhof
gang, an extreme left-wing revolutionary group that called itself the
Red Army Faction or RAF.
Under any name, Andreas Baader, Ulricke Meinhof and their cohorts in
increasingly violent crime made their presence felt often in deadly
ways as "The Baader Meinhof Complex" makes clear in palpably
It's a uniquely German story about a post-Nazi generation of young
radicals determined to reject the tyranny many of their parents
embraced during (and leading up to) World War II. But the film also
has broader resonance in this current era of worldwide terrorism,
even for those who don't recall the RAF's deadly exploits firsthand.
In 1972, the guitarist in my high school rock band narrowly avoided
injury when the RAF set off a pipe bomb in the lobby of the massive
I.G. Farben building, the U.S. military and CIA complex in Frankfurt,
where both our fathers worked. Another bomb was detonated at a nearby
U.S. officers club, less than a mile from our home.
A shootout between the Frankfurt police and several RAF members
which aired live on TV and led to the capture of the wounded Baader
took place just blocks from where we lived.
In conveying the lethal youthful unrest that ignited in Germany and
beyond in the late 1960s, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" makes for a
gripping viewing experience, in spite of its dense, sometimes muddled
storyline. It also serves as a bleak antithesis of the blissful,
peace-and-love ethos conveyed in Ang Lee's new film, "Taking Woodstock."
Billed as "a true story," "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is shot in a
docudrama style that uses archival news footage of events it depicts.
The script is based on a book by Stefan Aust, a left-wing journalist
and friend of several key RAF members. Documented speeches, writings
and court transcripts are used to tell the tale, which ignites with a
bloody 1967 protest in Berlin against a visit by the Shah of Iran.
A subsequent late-night bombing of a department store leads to the
trial and brief imprisonment of Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun
Ensslin, who make a mockery of the court proceedings before proudly
admitting their guilt. "We have learned," she tells the judge, "that
words without action are meaningless."
When questioned by an interviewer, Ensslin's Protestant pastor father
responds: "What she wanted to say is this: 'A generation that
experienced first-hand how, in the name of the people, concentration
camps were built, anti-Semitism spread and genocide committed, cannot
allow new beginnings, reformation and rebirth to be for naught.' "
Ironically, his statement more eloquently articulates the impetus for
the RAF than any of its dogma-spouting members, as they denounce the
German government, U.S. imperialism, the war in Vietnam and
exploitation of the poor.
But director Uli Edel is careful to let the events and characters
speak (or not) for themselves. At times, the inability of the RAF
members to cogently explain their inner rage resonates loudest in the film.
The action gears up after Meinhof, a left-leaning journalist,
abandons her two young children to help the incarcerated Baader and
Ensslin escape, then becomes one of the gang's most active (and
conflicted) members. The RAF's deadly exploits bombings, bank
robberies, murders, more bombings build with dizzying speed. This
is juxtaposed with the subsequent five years most of the gang's
doomed members spent in prison (before committing suicide), a period
that takes up almost half of this 2½-hour film.
Keeping track of all the characters is a challenge, but the acting is
strong throughout. As the nihilistic Baader, Moritz Bleibtreu strikes
a fine balance between charisma and near-psychosis, while Martina
Gedeck deftly depicts Meinhof. The great Bruno Ganz excels as a
German police official who warns, in vain, that the authorities must
understand the causes of terrorism if they wish to avoid a national tragedy.
The English subtitles are generally accurate, except in
mis-identifying a bombing site as the nonexistent "Frankfurt HQ 5th
Marine Corps." This is a key gaffe, since the gang later admits in
court to having bombed Frankfurt's "CIA headquarters," their actual target.
A suitably grim epitaph is provided as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the
Wind" plays over the film's closing credits. The song's key question
How many more deaths will it take to know that too many people have
died? is answered, sadly, many times over by the "Baader Meinhof Complex."