Baader Meinhof Complex a taut, tense look at terrorists
Friday, October 23, 2009
By Manhola Dargis
The Baader Meinhof Complex, a taut, unnerving, forcefully unromantic
fictional film about a West German terrorist group whose founders ran
bloodily amok in the 1970s, opens with a bright, sparkling image of
children playing on a beach. It's 1967, and two of the children are
the twin daughters of Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a respected
journalist who one day jumped out of a window while helping a
prisoner, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), escape. The moment she
jumped, Meinhof left her world behind for a life of revolutionary
zealotry and nihilistic violence. She traded her typewriter for a
gun, her children too.
What spurred Meinhof to leap into the void? That question haunts The
Baader Meinhof Complex," which Bernd Eichinger adapted from Stefan
Aust's book of the same title. For the most part, relying heavily on
the historical record, Mr. Eichinger lets the group do its own
talking, as does the film's director, Uli Edel, who gives it the
pulse and music of a thriller. (The propulsive score echoes those of
the "Bourne" movies.)
Written in information-packed bursts, Aust's book owes much of its
power to its exacting detail and to his familiarity with the group,
which self-importantly labeled itself the Red Army Faction. A
journalist, he wrote for the leftist newspaper co-founded by
Meinhof's husband, for which she was a columnist and had extolled the
"progressive" virtues of arson. Aust, who shows up at the edges of
the film, played by Volker Bruch, helped rescue her children, whom
she had handed off to minders while she was on the run. Ceding to
pressure from the group, she had agreed that the girls could be taken
to a Palestinian orphanage in Jordan where, Aust writes, they were to
be raised as guerrillas.
The members of the faction might have been lousy parents but they
were committed to not repeating the sins of their own fathers and
mothers. "I really see no difference left," Meinhof wrote before the
faction formed, "between the police terrorist methods we have already
seen in Berlin, and that threaten us now, and the terrorism of the
SA" - the Nazi Sturmabteilung or storm troopers - "in the 1930s." For
the Red Army Faction the enemies included American imperialism and
what it saw as an emerging West German police state: in May 1972 it
bombed a police station, a newspaper and several United States Army
sites. It also set off a bomb inside a Volkswagen owned by a judge.
That morning, however, it was his wife who turned the ignition key. She lived.
The filmmakers lay out the historical and political context in which
the faction took root - in an early scene the police beat unarmed
demonstrators protesting a visit by the shah of Iran and his wife -
but they don't try to dig deeply into the heads of the group's
Meinhof, played by Gedeck as something of a mouse itching to roar,
doesn't come off as an obvious guerrilla. In one scene, though, you
see the woman she was and her tremors of discontent. It's early
still, before her great leap, and she's in her backyard with friends,
dancing and laughing and mingling. Her husband quiets the crowd and
asks Meinhof to read her latest column, which has been reprinted on a
flier. Casting shy smiles at the partyers, she reads a passionate
open letter of protest to the shah's wife, ticking off various
outrages, including the torture of Iranian dissidents. As she
finishes reading, the film cuts to a long shot that frames Meinhof
against the large, stately middle-class house she will soon abandon.
"You're the ultimate bourgeois sow!" Baader once yelled at Meinhof,
an insult that, to judge from her relatively passive reaction in the
film, she absorbed into her being. Terror takes different forms. And
Baader, who continually lashes out at the women in the group - his
zealot girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, played by Johanna Wokalek, is as
much his baby sitter as lover - was a tyrant. Opportunism rather than
ideology seemed to drive him, as shown in the very funny, borderline
surreal sequence in Jordan, where the faction had gone to train with
a Palestinian group. Baader, in his tight velvet pants, didn't take
to the rigorous drills, and the Palestinians, offended by the women's
nude sunbathing, didn't take to their visitors either.
These sunbathing tourists became professional guerrillas soon enough
back home, where, by 1977, they and successive iterations of the
faction ended up killing almost 30 people. In the end the Red Army
Faction attracted extraordinary sympathy throughout West Germany
along with true-believers who formed new generations of the group
even as the founders languished in prison. The group's members, who
feared a police state and whose actions only brought the government's
fist down harder, were players in a real-life thriller that turned
into a national tragedy. Theirs is a terrible, mesmerizing story of
curdled idealism, one that has been told before but rarely as well.
The faction is gone now (it disbanded in 1998), but its legacy still burns.
Review: "The Baader Meinhof Complex"
Gritty Docudrama chronicles the rise and fall of the RAF in West Germany
October 22, 2009
By Barry Paris
If Germany's World War II wounds are still festering today (which
they are), imagine how much fresher they were in 1967 -- especially
in the minds of its first post-Nazi generation, determined to thwart
what many of them perceived as "the new face of fascism" in their
No need to imagine. Director Uli Edel reimagines it for us in
bloodcurdling -- and bloodletting -- fashion with "The Baader Meinhof
Complex," a tough docudrama depicting the rise and fall of RAF (Red
Army Faction), the home-grown radical group whose bombings,
kidnappings and hijackings rocked West Germany for a decade.
As genres go, it has pretty much everything: action, thrills, crime,
cops, romance, history -- and a plethora of biography. Central figure
Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin
(Johanna Wokalek) are free-lover radicals, provoked by the Vietnam
War and the attempted murder of a prominent left-winger into leading
a violent fight against American imperialism and the German
"This time, we won't sit by idly and watch fascism develop," declares
Baader, whose revolutionary fervor calls for a new morality to go
with a new politics. "Sexual revolution and anti-imperialism go together!"
So does a certain misogyny on his part, complicated when prominent
journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) enters their tight-knit
cell. In the film's opening nude beach scene, Meinhof establishes her
"ultra-liberal" credentials. She and the others are further
radicalized by the Shah of Iran's 1967 visit to Germany, the brutal
police suppression of protests and the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War.
Ulrike, increasingly coming to share the belief that "talk without
action is wrong," is the film's most enigmatic figure. At first just
a spokesperson for the extremists, she soon leaves her husband and
children to join the movement as an active participant.
On the other side of the law stands Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), West
Germany's top law enforcement official -- the one man who
"understands" them. As the film's unifying character of sorts, he
argues that brutal police tactics are counterproductive and that --
like Sherlock Holmes -- you have to penetrate the criminals' thought processes.
Director Uli Edel is objective even with his biases, if that's
oxymoronically possible. His clear sympathy for Meinhof and certain
of her colleagues (excluding Baader) is influenced -- like she is --
by her motivational meetings with people willing to take action
instead of just jawboning for a better world. In one of the picture's
best scenes, when she helps Baader escape incarceration, her
last-second jump from a window sill is a powerful metaphor for her
jump to extremism.
But Edel's apparent initial sympathy with the extremists' goals
slowly evaporates with their murderous tactics. At first split over
how violent to be, killing soon becomes acceptable to the radicals,
whom Edel portrays as increasingly more criminal than political.
Meanwhile, Ganz's Herold character suggests the government was a
model of moderation -- not exactly true. In fact, Herold did nothing
to challenge the German people's postwar complacency and American
complicity, succeeding in his relentless pursuit of the young
terrorists while acknowledging they were just the tip of an iceberg.
Nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar (which it lost to Japan's
"Departures"), "Baader-Meinhof" is as impressive in its period
recreation as Edel's "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1989). The screenplay,
based on Stefan Aust's book, is by Edel and Bernd Eichinger, who
wrote the terrific "Downfall" (2004), about Hitler's last bunker
days. Ganz is as superb here as he was playing the paranoid Fuhrer
"Downfall" was heightened by its concentrated time and space.
"Baader-Meinhof" is historically accurate to a fault: too many names,
dates and events over too much historical time (and reel time -- 149
minutes). It regains its focus toward the end, after the gang's
original members are rounded up, jailed, put on trial and go on a
hunger strike. But it would have benefited by zeroing in on fewer
characters from the start. Otherwise, only Germans who lived through
the period can fully grasp the details.
Many such Germans were RAF sympathizers, transfixed by them, their
agenda, and by the circus trials that resulted -- until the 1972
Munich Olympics massacre, Germany's rough equivalent of America's
9-11. If there's a moral or a parallel today, it's that we're still
faced with similar dilemmas that inspired the uptick in terrorism
then: Palestinian statelessness, dubious wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, financial crises and a growing divide between rich and
poor caused by unfettered rogue capitalism. Why today's youth doth
protest too little? Perhaps because the RAF experience taught them
it's better to be docile and look out for No. 1 if you want security.
There was worldwide disillusionment with the counterproductive evil
The Baader-Meinhof group resembled the American Weathermen but were
longer-lived and much more destructive in their belief that random
acts of violence could bring down an oppressive government. They
aimed to create a more human society by inhuman means. Edel's film is
a compelling chronicle of how they lost not only the battle and the
war but their own humanity in the process.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at