Review: The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Before you read on, this is one of the best films of recent years, and a must see. Directed by Uri Edel, and with the same producer as last year’s German success Downfall, The Baader-Meinhof Complex deals with the German terrorist group the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group of left-wing revolutionaries and their reign of terror against the West German state in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. However, in its detail and political viewpoint, the film is morally equivocal. Ideologists will be disappointed by the film; at various stages the RAF are described as anarchists, socialists and communists; none of it is terribly clear. Viewers hoping to be enlightened as to their core beliefs should consult the original sources.

Reputed to be the most expensive German film of all time, Baader-Meinhof certainly packed the punches. Arson, murder, kidnappings, bombings, the hijacking of planes, and even a superbly cool 70’s rock soundtrack reminiscent of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers about the same time period (the ’68 Paris riots), Baader-Meinhof seamlessly packs in action, depth and documentary footage into 2 ½ hours of film-making. Too long? No. The opening riot in West Berlin between left-wing demonstrators, the police and the Shah of Persia’s bodyguards, is a terrific scene of cinematography.

The massive budget was apparent, not just in the breath-taking action shots, but in the clever casting of talented German actors, in particular the three central characters. Martina Gedeck’s performance as Ulrike Meinhof, the middle-class mother, intellectual and journalist who joins the RAF and becomes central to the ideology and the propagandist voice of the movement, was subtle and effective. Personally, it was Johanna Wokalek’s portrayal of Gudrun Ensslin, the mother and pastor’s daughter, that stole the show; Gudrun’s blend of revolutionary fervour and ‘terrorist chic’ created a dangerous ambivalence towards the movement’s violent terrorism. Andreas’s rampant sexuality, as the radical homicidal stud, was irresistible. Yet the movie did not shy away from portraying him as the world’s greatest sexist.

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The danger of Baader-Meinhof is that terrorism has never looked so sexy. This peculiar phenomenon of attractive, well-educated middle class women and male petty criminals was an aspect of urban terrorism in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. This can also be seen in the film Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst about the terrorist movement The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA); there are also extraordinary shades of it in Charles Manson’s ‘organisation’. The movie built up the attractive, mythological quality of the movement and then shattered it, as the group were slowly whittled down by imprisonment, violent death and suicide, and divided through internal conflict. Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a second generation of the RAF, vociferates this towards the end of the movie, when she states: “Stop seeing them the way they weren’t”.

Baader-Meinhof avoids making direct parallels with current terrorist groups, yet one can’t help but notice the similarities. The list of suspects with their faces crossed has an alarming resemblance with the pack of cards used by the Americans in the War in Iraq. The kidnapping of Schleyer (the head of the Employer’s Federation) and his televised ‘confession’, as well as the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner to Mogadishu in 1977, have similar contemporary parallels.

However, if one can fault anything about this film, it is its ambivalence towards the fundamental morality of the Baader-Meinhof group. In as much as the film discussed how the RAF funded itself, it seems to suggest that they were self-funded through bank robberies. But no other sources are mentioned. Without attributing sources, the Stazi or the Russian government could have been involved. To make the film popular in Germany, it appears that the film’s makers have papered over a few inconvenient historical cracks. One can’t help but feel that if Baader-Meinhof had seen the film before the premiere, they might have bombed it. The film has that form of liberal dishonesty which they felt such impulsive hostility towards.

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5 stars