If Not Us, Who?
Synopsis: In 1960s West Germany, with the war a recent memory, old Nazis are back in positions of power, and nobody is prepared to talk about war crimes. University student Bernward Vesper meets Gudrun Ensslin, and the twin souls set out together to conquer the world. Gudrun and Bernward become part of a social and political upheaval that soon takes hold around the globe: liberation movements, student protests and the Black Panther movement in the USA; drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. The course of history is inexorable but, at the time, for a moment, it looks as if it might be possible to change its path. If not us, who? And when, if not now? And then another man, Andreas Baader, appears on the scene. Here is someone who is more unswerving, more radical and resolved than Bernward. Before long, Andreas, Gudrun and Bernward find themselves caught up in the centrifugal forces of history – and they cannot control them.
Romance in the midst of radicalism.
GERMAN FILM FESTIVAL: This absorbing and long film opens with a cluster of scenes so good that at once you’re primed for something brilliant and exciting. The time is the late ‘40s and the place is Germany. We’re in a garden. A large and cuddly cat spies a nightingale in a tree. The cat stalks, captures and kills the bird. A young Bernward Vesper (Jonas Haemmerle) hides the cat. His father Will (Thomas Thieme) isn’t fooled. He takes a gun, and shoots the cat. Moments later we’re in a cosy lounge and Bernward is listening intently as his father reads to him, after which he solemnly intones that cats are the Jews of the animal world.
It turns out that Bernward’s dad is a famous writer; or perhaps one could say notorious, since it quickly emerges that Vesper was pro-Nazi and he, and his writings, were a great friend to Hitler’s propaganda machine during the years of the Third Reich.
By the time Bernward gets to Uni, in the early ‘60s his father’s ignominious past is a burden for his son; indeed, restoring some form of respectability to the name he shares becomes a mission. He meets Gudrun Ensslin (Lena Lauzemis) who, like Bernward has an agile, literate mind and a passion for politics. They begin a romance, marked by a mix of devotion and betrayal, interpersonal mind games, and always coloured by the politics of Germany as it was in the late ‘60s; a country where large numbers of its baby boomers were aghast at its Nazi past – and bewildered by Germany’s support of the Shah and the US mission in Vietnam. By the ‘70s Ensslin would end up a wannabe revolutionary, world famous for all the wrong reasons; Vesper would end up, as this movie would have it, crazed, suicidal and heartbroken.
Uli Endel’s somewhat undervalued big-budget The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) was a huge mosaic; a cool-headed portrayal of the Red Army Faction at work. Critics complained that the film didn’t add much to the historical record; which is to say, the dissenters were expecting a more psychological portrait.
If Not Us, Who? makes a fascinating (and perhaps inevitably frustrating) companion piece to Endel’s picture. Based on extensive research and exquisitely detailed and directed by esteemed filmmaker Andres Veiel, whose Black Box BRD was a critically acclaimed documentary that looked at the activities of the third generation of RAF activists and their terrorist actions. Veiel approaches the Ensslin-Vesper true story not as some neat foundation narrative about how a terrorist is ‘made’, but as an interior, lowkey psycho-drama.
Eschewing violent action, and the tired techniques of screen biographies where all motivations are neatly squared off, Veiel instead, keeps the action (mostly) in doors and the stakes, domestic; the narrative questions aren’t, ‘Gee, when is Ensslin going to pick up a gun?’, but rather, ‘Where will this strange, bruising, mutually stimulating, and ultimately unhealthy relationship lead this pair?’
Veiel of course, provides an ironic answer in the film’s structure; throughout, he intersperses the film’s domestic scenario with archival news inserts of momentous events which, taken as a whole, portray a world coming apart in the face of war, injustice and upheaval.
Still, the film’s major set-pieces have nothing to do with guerrilla actions; the film’s feel is doggedly claustrophobic, and emotional. Veiel’s technique gives the film a sense of lived experience; unlike most screen bios, I never got the feeling I was watching an historical pageant with actors filling up outsized characters; Ensslin and Vesper feel alive to life’s possibilities and suffer equally from their personal transgressions as much as their politics.
Still, this approach is going to upset some viewers (as it has a lot of critics already); the film’s attitude to its subjects is speculative and humane, rather than definitive and coolly analytical.
Or to put it another way, the film posits no theory and glosses no specific keynotes that interpret Ensslin’s move from activist to terrorist. Her infatuation and love affair with Andreas Baader is earthy and sexual (and dysfunctional) and it ultimately marks her ‘split’ from Vesper and allegiance to a conventional life – and yet the moment does not feel grave, or terrible or a turning. You feel that Ensslin, always challenging and risk-taking has followed an inner muse, even if you don’t entirely understand it. Of course, Veiel does not, it has to be said, make out Ensslin to be naïve, or politically unconscious; when we first meet her she’s tuned in (and turned on) by the thought that a better world is possible and she and Vesper begin the film with high ideals that alienate the expectations of their families and work colleagues.
The film never quite lives up to the promise of its stunning opening or the commitment and passion of its very fine actors. Still, it’s always interesting (how often can you say that about a picture?). What remains is a sad portrait of Vesper and Ensslin’s l'amour fou - for each other and a cause, that at least here seems doomed from the start.
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