The radicalised children of the Nazi generation led by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism: American imperialism supported by the German establishment, many of whom have a Nazi past. Their aim is to create a more human society but by employing inhuman means they not only spread terror and bloodshed, they also lose their own humanity. The man who understands them is also their hunter: the head of the German police force, Horst Herold.
It’s horrible to have to say this, but it seems the more terrible a nation’s history, the greater the opportunities for its dramatists. It’s striking that the totalitarian evils of Nazism and Communism have given rise to two of the most powerful and internationally successful German films this decade – Downfall and The Lives of Others – plus a slew of other films and telemovies, some of which have screened on SBS.
Now comes the most ambitious attempt yet to examine the ultra-leftist terrorism that gripped West Germany during the 1970s, principally carried out by the so-called Red Army Faction (RAF) led by Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin and others.
Based on Stefan Aust’s non-fictional book on the era (with Aust also serving as an official consultant), this dynamic and consistently gripping film spans 12 years from the group’s early days through its ruthless bombings, arson, bank raids, assassinations and kidnappings, to its eventual demise inside the specially fortified Stammheim prison.
The subject is of course hardly new to German cinema, with such titles as The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum, the Aust-penned Stammheim (about the Baader Meinhof gang in prison) and Legends of Rita among its predecessors. What marks out this film is its broad scope, its aim to tell as much of the story as possible.
This presents an enormous challenge to any filmmaker but the script by producer Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) is a marvel of compression that packs in an enormous amount into two and a half hours without ever feeling rushed. Returning expatriate director Uli Edel (Christiana F; Last Exit to Brooklyn) injects tremendous energy and coaxes performances of suitable intensity.
German cinema has lately offered a remarkably strong series of opportunities for female actors and this film is no exception. Eichinger places special focus on Meinhof (played here by Martina Gedeck), a well-known journalist who abandoned her two children, husband and career to become a partner in terror of the ego-maniacal Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu). Gedeck, the female star of The Lives of Others and one of the most compelling actresses in current world cinema, perfectly embodies the complex strands of this intelligent but misguided woman.
The always charismatic Bleibtreu, best known for Run Lola Run, gives what may be his strongest performance yet, capturing Baader’s narcissism and ruthlessness with the aid of the odd well-timed temper tantrum. Both are matched by the less familiar (at least to Australian audiences) but no less impressive Johanna Wokalek as Ensslin, her cold eyes permanently ringed with kohl.
In Germany the film – the nation’s foreign film entry in the last Oscars - has been attacked by some relatives of the gang’s victims for allegedly glamourising their murders. Arguably any film that uses good-looking, charismatic actors to depicting the activities of ruthless outlaws risks falling into this trap, but I believe these complaints are misplaced. While holding back from didactic moral condemnation, the film never shies away from portraying the gang members’ chilling fanaticism, their lack of qualms about killing. In a significant departure from 1987’s Stammheim, scripted by Aust, this film departs significantly from the line believed by much of the Left at the time that the gang members were murdered in prison, instead showing their deaths as suicide.
Germany’s entry for the 2009 best foreign-language pic Oscar, The Baader Meinhof Complex is a chilling, brutal account of the terrorist group which wreaked havoc in the 1960s and 70s.
Director Uli Edel and screenwriter-producer Bernd Eichinger have fashioned a tense, violent tale of jailbreaks, kidnappings, assassinations and bombings.
Based on the 1997 book by Stefan Aust, the film expertly re-enacts a series of dramatic incidents, and much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from historical records.
If there’s a minor flaw, it’s that little light is shed on the motivations of the middle-class intellectuals who were radicalized into becoming one of the most feared terrorist units of that era. They quote Mao Tse-Tung, spout propaganda and slogans denouncing 'oppression and injustice," and hate the US, capitalism and their own government, but it’s never clear how any of this justifies their repellent actions.
The film focuses initially on a a group of activists led by Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), who are arrested after firebombing a department store in Frankfurt. Prominent left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is sympathetic to their cause and helps them escape. Thus was born the RAF (Red Army Faction), which carried out a series of robberies to fund their murderous campaigns of targeting police stations, newspaper offices, politicians and businessmen.
Germany's top anti-crime fighter Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) tries to outwit the terrorists by first understanding what drives them, acknowledging that the government must try to address the social conditions which give rise to such lethal groups.
Most of the gang’s leading lights are killed or imprisoned, prompting the Interior Minister to prematurely declare the RAF case is closed. The terrorist attacks during the 1972 Munich Olympics proved that war was far from over.
The helter-skelter momentum then flags as the spotlight switches to the prolonged trial and a bitter falling out in Stammheim prison between Meinhof and Baader and Ensslin
The pace picks up in the final third when, as Baadar had warned, a new generation of RAF members led by Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl) and Peter-Juergen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer) unleashes a reign of terror which is even more ferocious and indiscriminate.
The performances are superb, most notably from Gedeck as a woman who was torn initially between her duties as a wife and mother and her revolutionary zeal, and Bleibtreu as the hot-headed, psychopathic Baader.
Disturbingly, the film notes a 1970s poll which found that one quarter of Germans—equating to 7 million people-- were sympathetic to the RAF.