Sunday, 16 November 2008


directed by Uli Edel, screenplay by Bernd Eichinger based on the book by Stefan Aust

The best part of the Baader Meinhof Complex, which opened at the London Film Festival and went on release Friday, is the setting of the stage for the radicalization of Ulrike Meinhof. A peaceful demonstration against the Shah of Iran turns into a bloodbath, as police stand by and let the Shah's thugs wade into the crowd, then attack the protesters themselves. One cop kills an unarmed fleeing protester. Later, the radical leader Rudi Dutschke is killed by a deranged anti-communist, who has learned his hatred from the pages of Der Spiegel, the Fox News of its day in Germany. There is a scene, when Dutschke addresses an anti-war rally, that rings so true I felt transported back to the heady days of 1968, and I sensed we might be able to convert half the audience watching the film right then.

Ulrike Meinhof is converted. A talented, liberal journalist, we have already seen her leave her husband when she catches him with another woman, and the film's central conflict is the one within Meinhof: her growing frustration with the German establishment of which she is a part. The film's linch-pin is a carefully set up scene, in which she agrees to help Andreas Baader escape police custody by arranging an interview with him on a neutral site, but then decides to flee with Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin; she sits debating internally before an open window before making the leap into a different reality. The film tries hard to emphasise her middle-class status: hardly a radical in either the political or the social 60s sense.

Her transformation is never totally convincing, and the film will emphasize her self-doubt throughout. In fairness, it is difficult to convey today the very real fear in Meinhof's generation, born under Nazi rule, that a similar style of government was on the cards for the Bundesrepublik. Meinhof's conversion is also harder to take because Baader was never a theoretical radical; he was a bank-robber, already style-conscious, a budding Clyde with Ensslin, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, as his Bonnie. As played by Moritz Bleibtreu, Baader comes closer to Charles Manson than, say, Abbie Hoffman, and the relationship with Ensslin is, if anything underplayed, because Johanna Wokalek makes her a conniving, ruthless user of her sexuality, and the only one who can control an increasingly demented Baader. It is their relationship, rather than Meinhof's lonely journey, that is the real fulcrum of the film. The acting by the leads is always impressive, but because they are often reduced to playing mechanical parts, in order to catch up on historical incident, the characters they play are not always fully-developed.

Meinhof gave her children up, to be raised in a Palestinian orphanage, but Aust, on whose book the story was based, 'rescued' them himself. The 'complex' of the film's title could be hers: what drove her to violence, to take the part of a terorrist. The film, to some extent, trivialises the Red Army Faction, as the Baader-Meinhofs called themselves, when showing them training with Palestinians; it's also the funniest part of a very serious film. Baader insists on men and women sleeping in the same quarters, and the women insisted on sunbathing nude, displaying themselves in front of what we now call Islamic terrorists; exactly like Germans on vacation anywhere. Interestingly, Meinhof's husband's adultery is also foreshadowed by a scene on a nude beach; there may be some link between the RAF and FKK ('free body culture'). But the film never really gets to the root of Meinhof's decision, and as she becomes increasingly trivialised, especially within prison, she is shown to have had a very thin shell for someone making such a thick-skinned choices about her life and the lives of others.

The film is serious, and tries to be comprehensive. It recreates the era perfectly, not just in the clothing and the constant smoking, but in the haphazard sense of the movement. Bernd Eichinger, who produced and wrote the screenplay, did the same for Downfall, and there is a sense of trying to understand the darker points in the history of modern Germany: as if this film were intended to join a trilogy with Downfall and The Lives of Others. As such, the 'complex' of the title could also be seen to justify the film's broad scope. That Eichinger has also produced Fantastic Four and Resident Evil films, and Edel directed the TV western Purgatory means that they aren't afraid to use genre elements, but if anything, the film falls down in its final act, when the main characters are in jail, and the 'second-generation' of RAF are working in Germany, while their Palestinian allies try to use hostages to get their freedom.

They are caught through the efforts of Horst Herold, head of the German version of the FBI, who used modern technology in the hunt. Played with huge glasses, like a German Andreotti,
Bruno Ganz's Herold is the very essence of reasonable policing, unwilling to be co-opted by politicans, but inevitably paving the way for just the sorts of control and repression against which Meinhof was originally opposed. Although many comparisons have been made to a variety of German films which deal with the RAF in different ways, to me, Ganz's presence recalls the exceptional, and now ignored, 1978 film Knife in the Head, directed by Reinhard Hauff. In that, Ganz plays a bystander who loses his memory when knifed during a demonstration, and it follows the whole process of radicalization and repression far more succinctly than any of the more obvious comparison films, by Fassbinder, von Totta, or Schlondorff.

The Baader-Meinhofs turned their trial into a German version of the Chicago 8, while their hunger strikes resulted in the death, through neglect, of another early leader, Holger Meins. But in prison, they became icons for the next generation of wannabe Bonnie and Clydes. The image of the real Baader and Ensslin, seen right, shows exactly what the appeal might be. The film has been accused, in some circles, of 'glamorizing' terrorism, but the appeal of Baaderm Meinhof, and Ensslin to the younger generation wasn't just that they were cooler than their parents' generation, which after all was the Nazi generation. These younger RAF recruits did find it glamorous, but they also found relief, in action, from the strains of that post-war German conundrum, caught between being Nazis on the one hand, and the good guys holding off communism on the other. Some of that next generation, calling themselves Kommando Holger Meins, took over the German embassy in Stockholm during the trial, leaving three dead, while their inspirational founders grew increasingly desperate in prison, and Meinhof grew increasingly distanced from her comrades. She hanged herself in her cell; and this is the hardest point of the film; Gedeck tries movingly, but just can't convey the 'why' of her suicide, just as we never really get the 'why' of her conversion to violence, or the 'why' of her abandoning her daughters. In the end did she feel despair at seeing the people she decided to join turn against her; despair at reaching a dead end; despair at being prisoner of the German legal system; or despair at a realization she'd made the wrong choice, fallen in with the wrong people, who fought for the wrong reasons? We never know. When the remaining prisoners kill themselves, the motivation is more obvious, if perhaps portrayed as an adolescent last finger up at the system.

That is a big part of what the so-called glamour was: that next German generation, were not born under the Nazis, and very similar to the baby-boomers in America who followed a group of radicals who were older, war- babies, the Abbie Hoffmans and Jerry Rubins, the Weathermen. In the end, there are marked similarities among these Germans, not with those radicals, but with the later Symbionese Liberation Army, and Ulrike Meinhof is in this movie played as a German Patty Hearst. But where Schrader fashioned a morality tale; this film is both more and less subtle than that. It wants to present a moral dilemma, through Meinhof, but it also wants to present a sociological study of an era, and two generations of German history. That it can be as entertaining as it is, while trying to do that, is an accomplishment. I suspect those of us who grew up in the 60s are willing to cut it more slack, perhaps, than the younger generation; but watching the parallels with a world where Iraq has replaced Vietnam, and the 'war on terrorism' has replaced the Cold War, this film sent chills of more than memory up my spine. And not chills of glamour.

1 comment :

David Gerard said...

I've worked out Baader-Meinhof: the Disney version. As faithful as their work on The Hunchback of Notre Dame!