OCTOBER 2, 2009
By BRIAN M. CARNEY
About halfway through "The Baader Meinhof Complex," the eponymous
German terrorists are found sunbathing on the roof of a building in a
PLO training camp in Jordan. Their Palestinian hosts, nonplussed by
their mostly nude Western guests, demand that they cover up,
whereupon Andreas Baader, the group's charismatic leader, shouts a
reply in German. Gudrun Ensslin, a founding member of the gang,
translates Baader's words into English. Standing in the sun topless,
blond and statuesque, she repeats, in a somewhat coarser alliteration
than this newspaper will print, that sex and shooting go together.
This declaration is as good a mission statement as any for West
Germany's most notorious terrorist group as depicted in "The Baader
Meinhof Complex," a German-made film currently in limited release in
the U.S. The film's promotional materials, echoing a statement in the
book on which it is based, claim that the movie does not make the
case either "for the prosecution or the defense" of the
Baader-Meinhof Gang. But, then, it doesn't have tothe Red Army
Faction, as the group was formally styled, indicts itself.
The "Complex" is not a documentary. One might call it historical
fiction, and certain liberties are taken to streamline the tale told
in Stefan Aust's 456-page book, titled simply "Baader-Meinhof." But a
comparison with the book, which 24 years after its publication
remains the definitive account of the terrorist group, reveals the
movie to be remarkably faithful to its source.
The "Complex" is being released in the U.S. at an interesting moment
in the history of the Baader-Meinhof story. Earlier this summer,
German researchers discovered that Karl-Heinz Kurras, a West German
policeman who shot and killed the student protester Benno Ohnesorg on
June 2, 1967, was an East German double agent. This killing, for
which Mr. Kurras was later acquitted, is seen in Germany as a turning
point, one that led eventually to the campaign of shootings, bombings
and kidnappings with which the Red Army Faction terrorized West
Germany for the better part of a decade.
That Mr. Kurras was in the secret employ of the East German secret
police, the Stasi, caused a political earthquake in Germany. But it
fits nicely into the dramatic arc of the unraveling of the
Baader-Meinhof Gang. Overtly, the Red Army Faction and its fellow
travelers were leftists who opposed the Vietnam War and what they saw
as the creeping fascism of the West German state. It was of no
account to them that across the border in East Germany was a true
totalitarian police state, or that Soviet-backed North Vietnam would
enslave its people in the name of communism for a generation. Indeed,
at every turnfrom Baader-Meinhof's association with the
Soviet-backed PLO to the aid, comfort and protection offered by the
East Germans to various members of the gangthe Soviet Union lurked
in the background of the Red Army Faction's tale and supported its
efforts against Western imperialism. So it is fitting that the iconic
act of West German police fascism back in 1967 was committed by a
Stasi spy, whether he acted as an agent provocateur or not.
But "The Baader Meinhof Complex" makes the case, compellingly, that
these minor complications would have mattered little to the founders
of the Red Army Faction. The picture that the movie paints is of a
group that has chosen terrorism as a kind of aesthetic, a lifestyle
in which sex and shooting are an expression of antibourgeois authenticity.
A few years before the Red Army Faction began its campaign, an aging
Martin Heidegger said that the West was waiting for the emergence of
new gods. It was in this environment that Baader, Ensslin and Ulrike
Meinhof emerged, recruiting to their cause runaways and troubled
youths. In a perverse twist of fate, the three had been sentenced to
oversee the youngsters as community service after an early arson
conviction for fire-bombing a department store.
Even Ensslin's father, a Protestant minister, described his
daughter's defense of her actions in that arson case as "really holy
self-realization such as we find mentioned in connection with
saints." It was not just West Germany's youth that was casting about
for religious apotheosis.
But of course theirs was not the path to the cloister. Baader is
depicted, both in Mr. Aust's book and in the "Complex," as a rebel
first and revolutionary second. He has no time for the PLO's
discipline, whether military or moral. He steals cars because he can
and for the thrill of it.
And one of the more intriguing figures in the Red Army Faction is
Horst Mahler, a radical lawyer who defended Baader and Ensslin in the
department-store arson. He was later sprung from jail by the efforts
of another young lawyer, one Gerhard Schroeder, the future chancellor
of Germany. Today, Mr. Mahler labors as a far-right-wing Holocaust
denier. A dedicated revolutionary must be flexible about the means he chooses.
One of the liberties that "The Baader Meinhof Complex" takes with Mr.
Aust's book is the title, which is double-edged. The movie's name
suggests a kind of psychological disorder at the root of the impulse
to terror, and its depiction of the Red Army Faction does nothing to
dispel that suggestion. In the end, who killed Benno Ohnesorg would
have mattered little to Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof. They were in it
for the shooting and the other thing. That will do nothing to comfort
their innocent victims, but the "Complex" paints a fascinating
picture of the minds of these German terrorists at a time when it is
more important than ever to understand the motivations of those like them.
Mr. Carney, editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe,
is the author of "Freedom, Inc.," out this month.