The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)
Directed by Uli Edel
Written by Bernd Eichinger, based on the book by Stefan Aust
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz
Run Time: 144 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated R
At almost three hours, Uli Edel’s docudrama about the terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF) is an exhaustive account of how a gang of self-appointed urban guerrillas traumatized Germany during the decade following the global paroxysms of 1968. Also called the Baader Meinhof gang (after two of its leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof), the RAF went on a rampage of bank robberies, targeted assassinations, bombings, and even hijacking a Lufthansa passenger airline, before finally sinking into oblivion after the suicides of four of the group’s most influential members, who had been imprisoned for years while awaiting trial.
The Baader Meinhof gang has encrusted itself into the fabric of German cultural lore. In 1988, German artist Gerhard Richter created an ambiguous memorial to the collective suicides with a series of 15 panels called October 19, 1977, the day three of the leaders were found dead in their prison cells, another severely wounded. (Ulrike Meinhof preceded the others by a year.) Other German filmmakers have tackled the bane of RAF’s legacy, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlondorff. Edel’s film, based on Stefan Aust’s comprehensive book of the same name, takes the daunting task of fictionalizing the historical account of the group from inception to dissolution, and although the movie succeeds admirably in its detailed and realistic recreations of events during that tumultuous decade, we are still left with the same mix of fascination and horror, sympathy and repugnance that must have perplexed those who lived through it.
The film’s non-judgmental, matter-of-fact style, and its insistence on recapturing the major events of an entire decade (and there were many), leaves little room for other than a detached curiosity, much like how sociological studies captivate their observers. If there is a narrative aspect at all to pull us in emotionally, it’s bound up in the personalities of the three principal characters, especially Ulrike Meinhof, the left-wing journalist who gives up everything-including any hope of seeing her children again-to go underground with the RAF. Ulrike Meinhof captured the media’s attention at the time, and remains a cult figure today, for her decision to cross the line from sympathizer of radicalism’s courage to fight for their ideological beliefs, to a terrorist herself. Why she did this is anybody’s guess, and the answer is probably found in a confluence of factors, but the film rather bewilderingly plants the seed that somehow her political motivations were spurred by personal trauma inflicted by a cheating husband whom she’d left a few years earlier. Whatever the causes, Ulrike Meinhof comes across as slightly unhinged, and as played by Martina Godeck (The Lives of Others), Meinhof displays melancholic and depressive qualities that end up defining her as much as her political convictions. Miss Godeck’s performance is a brilliant recreation of Meinhof’s tentative, sullen descent into existential anarchy, right down to the slight bow of her head and distressed look in her eyes as she follows her fellow terrorists in their deadly games.
In contrast, Moritz Bleibtreu (Run, Lola, Run) plays the sociopath Andreas Baader with the insouciant charm and sexual braggadocio of a true rebel without a cause. Every terrorist movement needs its unequivocal alpha male, and Baader seems to have had just the right mix of amorality and charisma to fuel the RAF’s bloodbath. He’s like a sexier Charles Manson. The only member of the gang who is shown as following her true political calling, and not succumbing to some innate self-destructive karma, is Gudrun Ennslin (Johanna Wokalek), Baader’s lover and the RAF’s anchor, the middle ground between Baader’s sadism and Meinhof’s cerebral masochism. Why the gang was never called the Ennslin gang could make an interesting topic of a feminist study on the role of the mass media in shaping history. It was Ennslin who masterminded Baader’s successful prison escape during the group’s early days, and in the movie, it is Ennslin who speaks the most convincingly of the movement’s philosophical ideals.
The movie contains scenes of the Stammheim trial that has eerie echoes of the animated courtroom scenes in last year’s Chicago 10, a movie based on the transcripts of the trial of Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and eight other Vietnam War protesters who were charged with inciting a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In Chicago 10, the defendants are mischievous and unruly, and the judge comes across as a prick. The audience may shake their heads in disbelief at the court shenanigans, but the result is still comedy. Not so the Stammheim trial, where Baader, Ennslin, Meinhof and two other defendants confront their enemy with the same anarchic fury laced with ideological rationale they used to fight them on the outside. Chicago 10 feels like child’s play compared to this; not only are the stakes higher, the whole game feels more serious, more tragic. The enemy, after all, grew up under Hitler, and many of them were perhaps stained by the Nazi convictions of their own youth. The thought makes one see The Baader-Meinhof Complex as more than just a movie about a fucked-up terrorist group. It’s a movie about a troubled Germany, one still recovering from a national disease. The Baader-Meinhof gang could be seen as the growing pains, and a particularly rebellious adolescence, of a new Germany.