The Baader Meinhof Complex

Dir: Uli Edel, 2008. Starring: Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek. Foreign.
The Baader Meinhof Complex
Stunningly shot and perfectly conceived, the best historical political thriller in recent years is director Uli Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, a film about the West German radical group, the RAF—Red Army Faction—who reigned from 1967–77. Inspired by cultural revolutions in Paris and Czechoslovakia they took the baton from American outfits like the Black Panthers and the Weathermen and raised the stakes by about a hundred. Unlike other great political films like Z, State of Siege, Bloody Sunday, Che, and even Munich, Edel, best known for his American film Last Exit to Brooklyn back in ’89, does not go with the traditional handheld docu-realism style but a slick look, with long dolly shots (ala Boogie Nights) and a smooth editing style. In this age of terrorism paranoia, here is a film like Battle of Algiers that tries to explain the motives behind the action, but not justify them or even glamorize them. These were true believers in the cause but also groovy party rebels who just didn’t want to be like their parents and broke from the longstanding rule of German conformity.

German counter-culture radicals of the ’60s and ’70s have been portrayed in both real life and fictional accounts in films a number of times before; most famously there was Volker Schlondorff's The Legend of Rita and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's The Third Generation. Schlondorff also directed with his then wife, Margarethe von Trotta, the classic The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, while Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night covered the Italian counterparts in the same period. And more recently the story of Uschi Obermaier, the ’70s German terrorist/supermodel, had her wild life made into a movie, Eight Miles High. And then there was Olivier Assayas’s epic Carlos about the international super criminal. So this is fertile ground that has been covered from many angles for the last 30-something years, but The Baader Meinhof Complex feels like the most authoritative, final statement on the subject, at least from the German side of history.

Students protesting a state visit from the Shah of Iran and his wife cause German cops to get all clubby, beating many and finally shooting an innocent kid. This sparks the radical movement, as a generation realizes that their government has been lying when it calls itself a democracy. Politically active leftwing lovebirds, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), firebomb a department store in the name of the revolution. Respected journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck of The Lives of Others) digs their radical chic and goes from covering them to leaving her husband and joining them. Along with other disillusioned young people, they train in the Middle East to become“Urban Guerrillas.” They take part in prison escapes, bank robberies, kidnappings, shoot-outs, and bombings. Their enemies range from the German government who won’t speak out against American imperialism in Vietnam, to Israel, to the judges and cops that prosecute them. Even with a fairly sympathetic homeland security officer, who seems to handle them with kid gloves (played by Bruno Ganz, who was so brilliant as Hitler in Downfall), their rage against the system is unyielding. Even as the leaders are finally arrested or killed, the next generation of RAF continues the war, with a famously tragic takeover of the German embassy in Sweden. 

Based on a 1985 book by Stefan Aust, considered the foremost document about the RAF, the production used many of the actual locations to add to the authenticity. Like the great Brazilian film City of God, The Baader Meinhof Complex introduces new characters in the group, follows them, and then bounces back to our original protagonists. It doesn’t concern itself with deep character development; small clues from reactions to clothes help tell the story instead of depending on overly aggressive narration or simplistic exposition. Also, like the violent kids in City of God, there is a feeling of a never ending cycle of terror. When one level of the cell is stopped, the next generation springs up, though now history tells us that the end of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Wall helped bring about an end to the most powerful or visible of the leftwing groups of Germany (inner friction and infighting also helped destroy many of the radical groups in Europe and America). The Baader Meinhof Complex captures a moment in Germany, and these filmmakers are some serious craftsmen at work; the detailed recreation of the period is spot on. And the performances by the fantastic cast bring more credibility to the story. This would make a perfect double feature with the Nazi war crimes trial film, 1961‘s Judgment at Nuremberg. While both films show Germans rejecting their past, the older film still seems to embrace the American democratic sprit (it doesn’t hurt that it’s a studio flick directed by daddy-liberal cause Stanley Kramer), while one generation later, the RAF young people are already back to distrusting America. With the lies that were told to Americans to keep us in Vietnam about to be revealed and Watergate making Americans even more cynical, maybe these Germans kids were on to something.

The Baader Meinhof Complex was nominated for an Oscar (Best Foreign Language Film).
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Jun 18, 2012 5:25pm
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