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.