Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Baader-Meinhof Complex (2008)

Starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek and Bruno Ganz: directed by Uli Edel, written and produced by Bernd Eichinger

In the late sixties a wave of violence and radicalism shook much of the international community, not only Third World countries such as Bolivia where Che Guevara was active but also affluent nations such as the Federal Republic of Germany. Against the backdrop of the war in Vietnam and Third World liberation movements, radicals expressed their anger at what they saw as the establishment's complicity in oppression and even genocide. Some of the radicals then moved from political protest to violent action and finally terrorism and murder. The Baader-Meinhof group was the German aspect of this development.

The film

The film begins with a fairly idyllic scene: left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof with her husband (editor of left-wing magazine konkret) and children on the beach, discussing the Shah of Iran who is to visit the Bundesrepublik. Meinhof and her circle are highly critical of the Shah and his wife, and Meinhof reads out an open letter to the latter to great approval from a gathering of left-wingers. The scene then switches to a protest rally in Berlin against the Shah's visit, where a group of Iranian pro-Shah demonstrators angrily attack the demonstrators with wooden sticks. The police intervene but appear to take sides against the demonstrators, leading to beatings, water cannon and finally the shooting dead of one of the crowd. The scene thus becomes set for escalating violence, including the near-fatal shooting of radical student leader Rudi Dutschke by an apparently disturbed and fanatical young anti-Communist.

Meinhof, an apparently likeable woman, finds her path crossing with that of Gudrun Ensslin, the angry and radical daughter of a Lutheran minister. She interviews her in prison, where Ensslin is being held for an arson attack on a department store. Ensslin makes cutting remarks about Meinhof's "theoretical masturbation" but at this stage holds back somewhat. She is already involved with Andreas Baader, brilliantly played by Moritz Bleibtreu as a swaggering, reckless young firebrand who shows also something of the spoilt child about him. Baader and Ensslin try to avoid prison by becoming involved in social service, which in their case means opening a home for absconders from official children's homes where they have been detained for juvenile offences. The sexual mores of the period are well illustrated in the film by a scene in which Ensslin, on meeting a young male absconder for the first time, invites him to share her bath with her, while Baader later comes in and fondles her breasts in front of the young man.

Eventually Baader is forced to return to prison, but Ensslin persuades Meinhof (against the better judgement of her close friend Peter Homann, whom the film appears to suggest as a new partner) to take part in an attempt by the group to free him. This involves using her as a decoy, but when the attempt takes place (involving the shooting of a bystander), she decides instead of acting as if she were an innocent party to escape via the same window that the rest of the gang have escaped through. From this point on Meinhof becomes part of the gang, typing their manifestoes in an increasingly radical form. The group calls itself the Red Army Faction (RAF), but is commonly described as the Baader-Meinhof gang.

Determined to be a revolutionary group, the Germans, including their lawyer Horst Mahler, end up in a Palestinian training camp in Jordan, but here it soon becomes clear that their freewheeling western ethos, mainly to do with sex, is at odds with the local culture. "This is not a holiday camp", growls the local commander. Baader himself is shown as incapable or unwilling to endure the discipline of the camp, and in a telling episode almost kills Homann after the latter alleges that he fouled himself during a live-fire exercise. In fact the real-life human dysfunctionality of the group is illustrated by Ulrike Meinhof's decision to separate from Homann in view of his concerns over their children and her desire to take part in the liberation struggle, having been told earlier in the film by Ensslin (who herself gave up a child) that such sacrifices are necessary. Immediately afterwards we see Ensslin coldly denouncing Homann to the Palestinian commander as an Israeli spy and suggesting they execute him. The Palestinians, who appear to have more native sense, instead get him out of the camp, upon which he reclaims the children from where they have been left in Sicily.

Back in Germany the group embark on a course of violent action, ostensibly with the goal of changing the politics of the country and possibly the world, although Baader seems to find the robbing of banks gleeful enough in itself. From banks they escalate to leaving bombs in police stations, publishing offices and US army bases, killing and wounding several people, before Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof are apprehended during an intense manhunt coordinated by Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), a capable State official who realises that the roots of terrorism must be comprehended if it is to be stamped out. Herold also notes earlier in the film that there is a degree of popular support for the group, with one in four Germans under the age of 40 expressing sympathy for them. For the rest of the film the three leaders and various others, notably Jan-Carl Raspe, are confined to Stammheim Prison in Stuttgart. This does not stop the violence, however, which becomes focused on kidnaps and assassinations. What is interesting however is how the relationship between Ensslin and Meinhof deteriorates at a very personal level. Baader himself occasionally shows misogynistic attitudes towards the women in the group including Ensslin and Meinhof, and the eventual isolation of Meinhof leads to her suicide in her prison cell, which the rest of the gang claim to be an extrajudicial murder by the state. The "second generation" of RAF members under the leadership of Brigitte Mohnhaupt now attempts to free their comrades by kidnapping Hans-Martin Schleyer, the industrialist leader, and ultimately by becoming involved with a Palestinian group in the hijacking of a Lufthansa plane. The latter goes badly wrong and the plane is stormed by the elite German GS9 unit, leading to the freeing of the passengers and the deaths of most of the hijackers, upon which Baader and Ensslin realise that there will be no liberation from prison, and decide that they will be masters of their fate to the end. On the night of October 18 1977 Baader, Ensslin and Raspe kill themselves.

Bernard Eichinger was also the producer for the film about the last days of Hitler, Downfall, and there are some overlaps between the two films. Part of the rage of the German radicals of the 1960s was directed against the previous generation who had to some degree at least acquiesced in Hitler's crimes, and who in some cases were former Nazis still retaining positions of influence in the Bundesrepublik. As in Downfall a key element in the film is fanaticism, again most fervently among some of the women. Ensslin in particular is shown as a bitter, self-righteous and somewhat emotionless woman who will sacrifice children and human lives to the cause, while the second generation is led by Mohnhaupt, a woman who seems similarly emotionally challenged. For their part the men, apart from the charismatic but reckless, spoilt and short-tempered Baader, who likes tearing around in fast cars, seem robotic or subdued, apart from the assassination scenes where a certain animation seems to come into play. Meinhof herself is something of a pitiable figure, a woman with a reasonable career and family life who seems to succumb to Ensslin's stronger will and descends the rocky slope into murderous self-justification, just as Hitler does in Downfall, only to be later rejected by the group and to lose everything, including her life. Again, whining self-righteousness comes into play among the murderers: having lost any qualms about planting bombs or shooting at police, they bitterly complain when one of their own is killed, or when they feel that their own rights as prisoners are being infringed.

The character of Horst Herold acts as a kind of intermittent commentator on the group. At first coming across as an affable, relaxed if not overcalm man, he soon shows both his steely determination to eliminate the group but also an awareness of the need to understand their motivation, especially in the light of initial public sympathy for the RAF. He also warns his colleagues against brutal overreaction and against complacency after the first generation have been incarcerated. This warning appears well founded at the end of the film, which concludes with the dumping of Schleyer's body in a forest in reprisal for the deaths of the RAF leaders.

Cinematic considerations

This is not a difficult film to follow, nor excessively violent, although it does not flinch from showing the effects of shootings and bombings. The three main actors (Bleibtreu, Gedeck and Wokalek) show a close likeness to the original characters they play, and Wokalek won an award for her portrayal of Ensslin. At 150 minutes this is not a short film, but it never drags.

Final thoughts

Like Downfall, Baader-Meinhof Complex looks at an important part of recent German history and tries to get underneath the skin of people whose actions seem at best dubious and at worst as incomprehensible as those of a rabid dog. Although not much mentioned nowadays, in the 1970s the RAF were highly prominent in the news headlines not only of Germany but also elsewhere in the UK, and this reviewer remembers vividly the "Wanted" posters displayed boldly in German post offices. Given the rise of terrorism from other quarters since the demise of the RAF, the film bears watching.

An interesting footnote is that Horst Mahler, the extreme left-wing lawyer shown as a founding member of the group, later switched his views to that of the extreme right-wing and in recent years has found himself in hot water with the law for Holocaust denial.

Anyone interested in the history of the Red Army Faction can find plenty of online material. Wikipedia has a good number of pages on the group and its individual members, and the German website likewise has short biographies. The site is an English language source. The film was largely based on the book of the same name by former Spiegel editor Stefan Aust (written 1985 and subsequently revised 2009). Hitler's Children by Jillian Becker has also been used as a source for some material on the group, although it has been criticised for partiality.

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