Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
This may come as a shock to some of you, but I don’t know everything. The range of what I don’t know is actually fairly impressive in it’s own right and includes (but is not limited to) the solution to the Hodge conjecture, what another word for ‘synonym’ is, the justification behind pea soup, the location of the Holy Grail, and much, much more. My ignorance is most notable (and most shameful) though when it comes to historical events. I blame the Catholics and their close-minded school system, but many Americans are in the same boat when it comes to being unaware of even recent historical events outside of our borders. For example, did you know there was an active domestic terrorist organization in West Germany for thirty of the last forty years? (You probably did, but it was news to me.)
My admission of historical ignorance has probably made this clear already, but my review below and the events I’m referencing are based on the film not the history. Multiple claims have already been made against The Baader Meinhof Complex‘s authenticity and veracity, and since my source for factual information is Wikipedia please remember I’m reviewing the film and nothing more.
The Baader Meinhof Complex tells the story of West Germany’s homegrown terrorist group called the Red Army Faction from their creation in the early 1970’s to the point of irrelevancy less than a decade later. The film focuses on the seventies but starts a few years earlier to introduce the players and set the stage for what’s to come. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is a journalist for a left-wing publication known for her critiques of the German government’s policies. As a child who lived through Germany’s experiment with Nazi insanity she’s appalled by and fearful of a government run by some of those very same ex-Nazis. She meets Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and finds in them a couple who share her anti-establishment beliefs but to a much more radical degree. After being arrested for various crimes including department store arson, Baader escaped from custody with Meinhof’s aid and soon the three of them form the core of the RAF. They commit bank robberies (to fund the revolution!), bomb US military buildings (to protest American imperialism!), bomb a German newspaper building (to stop the presses!) and kill police officers (err, because they got in the way!) The trio is eventually arrested in a sweeping (and brilliantly orchestrated) day of anti-terrorism planning and placed in prison. The remainder of the film follows their protracted and controversial legal battle as well as the activities of next generation RAF members on the outside trying to win their freedom through kidnappings, assassinations, and bungled hostage situations.
The film opens with people enjoying the beach on a warm summer day. Men, women, and children… all completely and utterly nude. Were I European I may not have given the scene a second thought, but as someone unaccustomed to seeing naked eight year-old girls (let alone naked kids interacting with naked adults) it struck me as gratuitous and intentionally shocking. As the film went on however, I realized that the scene serves an important purpose. This is the one and only time we’ll be seeing characters and people completely exposed and purely innocent. The rest of the film is filled with violence, infidelity, mistrust, deceit,and deception. No one is immune, and there is no “good” to combat the “evil” because everyone on both sides is tainted and guilty to varying degrees. But that opening scene shows people with nothing to hide and nothing to fear… at least until it ends with Meinhof noticing her husband’s wandering eye.
The first hour or so of The Baader Meinhof Complex is fantastic . The leads are all introduced effectively, and we get an easy sense of their personalities as well as their cause. A peaceful protest being held against visiting dignitaries from an oppressive country sets the stage for the rebellion in stunning fashion with protestors being attacked and pummeled first by the regime’s supporters and then by the police. A riot ensues and the screen is filled with absolute chaos as people are beaten, trampled, and arrested, and the entire mayhem-filled scene is scored with adrenaline to the point where you’re as worked up as the crowd. (It’s actually scored by Peter Hinderthur and Florian Tessloff, but they work under the collective name of Adrenalin. That last part isn’t true.) The university rally that follows is equally impressive in scope and presentation, and it helps bring the film and the times to life. And those times are a fully realized 1970’s from the wardrobe and personal styles to the cars, set dressing, and intercut news footage. It’s all beautifully and faithfully done. By the time the three radicals takes a misguided trip to Jordan for terrorist training we have a good sense of what each one of them are truly after.
Once Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin are arrested though the film loses both it’s focus and narrative drive. Hunger strikes and media attention lead to the prison granting the terrorists more freedom within their walls. They’re allowed to mingle, and they’re given radios, TVs, and bookshelves. It’s a ridiculous amount of leeway and it returns to bite everyone in the ass as their trial progresses. The film splits at this point into two unfulfilling paths. One follows their travails in prison and the other shows new RAF members acting on the outside. The problem is that the characters we know have become inert and inactive leaving the film’s energy in the hands of generic and interchangable radicals on the outside. They run around causing havok but we have no investment in the characters and we often don’t even know their names. By the time the film culminates in 1977 with the chaotic maelstrom of violence and death that came to be known as ‘German Autumn’ we’ve already lost interest in both the characters and their cause.
There’s also the potential problem of identifying the RAF as either heroes or terrorists. The movie does a fair job of showing both sides of their personality coin… they’re strong and charismatic some times and weak and egotistical at other times. It’s easy to see why and how they could build a following of fellow radicals as well as gain the support of some in the population at large. Their arguments were valid and their message was clear, but it’s just as easy to see that they were also little more than bullies, thugs, and attention junkies. One exchange between the trio highlights their differing aspects well. Ensslin says they’re “forming a group. We’re going to change the political situation” to which Meinhof replies, “How is that possible?” Baader retorts immediately and forcefully, “What a fucking bourgeois question. We’ll just do it. Or we’ll die trying.”
The film has multiple strengths to counter it’s long running time (two and a half hours) and rambling second half. In addition to the immersive cinematography and set design mentioned above, the acting is exceptional across the board. The stand out performance is Gedeck’s portrayal of a woman who moves from a loving mother and wife with leftist (but pacifistic) beliefs to a radical reactionary who slowly sheds her family and loyalties as she falls prey to ambition and her own growing agenda. The film’s violence is also plentiful and realistic. Gunfights are brief and sloppy with bullets missing their marks more often than they connect. When they do impact flesh it’s done with an appreciated and gritty realism. Pacing is never a problem for the film either, even during the second half where our interest wanes, thanks to a steady mix of action and prisoner shenanigans.
Is The Baader Meinhof Complex factually accurate? I don’t know, but it is an engaging and incomplete look at a time and a place that Germany and the world at large should never forget. As one German official leading the fight against the RAF says, “In the long run it’s pointless to bash heads… those in political power must change the conditions that lead to the rise of terrorism.” Whether or not those words were actually spoken at the time or were added for today’s relevance the conclusion remains a definitive one on the part of the filmmakers. Director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger (from the book by Stefan Aust) have created a flawed film that tells an important story. It’s thought provoking on several levels, entertaining at times, and ultimately encourages the viewer to explore issues that may have occured elsewhere but that are just as relevant wherever they may live.
The Upside: Interesting and eye-opening account of Germany’s encounter with domestic terrorism; violence is fast, brutal, and believably messy
The Downside: Too long and too much time spent on time in prison; second half loses focus; ending should have included an update of some kind on both the people and the cause
On the Side: The RAF officially disbanded in April of 1998 with a letter sent to Reuters stating “Almost 28 years ago, on 14 May 1970, the RAF arose in a campaign of liberation. Today we end this project. The urban guerrilla in the shape of the RAF is now history.”