THE CHILDREN OF THE NAZI GENERATION VOWED FASCISM WOULD NEVER RULE THEIR WORLD AGAIN.
When this film premiered, it faced harsh criticism from relatives of Red Army Faction victims. Both Ignes Ponto and Michael Buback, the widow of a banker and the son of a federal prosecutor who lost their loved ones in RAF-staged assassinations thought the filmmakers focused too much on the killers and not enough on all the people who lost their lives. They didn’t realize that stories about victims rarely interest people as much as the ones about perpetrators; addressing the motives behind crime helps us understand them better. Another relative of a RAF victim understood this. Jörg Schleyer, son of the president of an employer’s association who was murdered by the RAF, told Der Spiegel: “Only a movie like this can show young people how brutal and bloodthirsty the RAF’s actions were at that time”.
The story of how the Red Army Faction came about begins with the Shah of Iran visiting West Berlin in 1967. When young Germans protesting against the Iranian leader’s repressive regime clash with police, one of them is shot. The killing has no legal consequences and outrages many, including left-wing writer Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Eventually, a group of activists unite with the explicit goal of fighting right-wing oppression in the shape of the government, police and capitalist interests; two of its initial, and most aggressive, members include Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek). Their first act of violence is fire bombing a Frankfurt department store. The group is arrested, but eventually released. In the meantime though, Meinhof has become intrigued by its members and joins the group.
Visual language of an action movie
I watched The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) a while ago and wrote in my review about the unease in West Germany at the time, a feeling among young people that the government wasn’t on their side but sympathized with oppressive regimes, especially if they also were supported by the U.S.. This film clearly makes us understand motives early on; they are important if we are to relate to these terrorists as more than simplistic villains. The upper echelons of the police are also shown (symbolically through Bruno Ganz’s character) as eventually understanding what it takes to defeat the RAF. But you’d have to be pretty brainwashed or lacking in empathy to feel what Ignes Ponto and Michael Buback feared – there is no question that men and women like Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin were morally corrupt and murderous. Blending reenactments of historical events with actual news footage from those days, the filmmakers often adopt the visual language of an action movie, with rapid editing, explosions, shoot-outs and pounding music. These were exciting times from a journalistic perspective, and that is convincingly conveyed here… but so is the tragedy of the killings and the bombings, all whole-heartedly carried out and supported by this vile terror group.
It’s not a perfect experience. The movie is long and never digs terribly deep. The scenes with Ganz in particular seem superficial. But it’s constantly intriguing and exciting, especially coming from a director who once made the awful sexual thriller Body of Evidence (1993). He sure redeemed himself with this.
The Baader Meinhof Complex 2008-Germany. 149 min. Color. Produced by Bernd Eichinger. Directed by Uli Edel. Screenplay: Bernd Eichinger, Uli Edel. Book: Stefan Aust. Cinematography: Rainer Klausmann. Music: Peter Hinderthür, Florian Tessloff. Cast: Martina Gedeck (Ulrike Meinhof), Moritz Bleibtreu (Andreas Baader), Johanna Wokalek (Gudrun Ensslin), Bruno Ganz, Nadja Uhl, Jan Josef Liefers.
Trivia: Original title: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.
Last word: “When you do a movie like this, you know a lot of people have their opinions. You just have to do what I did: to re-create the way that I reacted to the RAF when I was 20, 21, 22 — how I felt. You can see it in the movie, too, that my heart is with them in the beginning, until the first bombing happens. […] They were very glamorous figures: Gudrun Ensslin and Baader, they were all over the papers. They had front pages. People had already made a movie about them in ’69. You would not believe it. In ’69 also, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ were in the movies. So they called Gudrun and Baader the German Bonnie and Clyde — they looked chic, they knew exactly how to treat the media.” (Edel, The Phoenix)