The controversy over the Oscar-nominated film about Germany’s mostnotorious Urban Terrorist Group, is just the latest episode in a mediasaga begun 40 years ago.
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29 Apr 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Jul 2014 - 6:01 AM

 

It is a terrible thing to kill.
But we will kill not only others, we will kill ourselves too if necessary,
For this murdering world can be changed by force alone, as
Every living person knows.”

- Bertold Brecht, The Measures Taken
(Quote found in the cells of the Baader Meinhof Group, at Stammheim prison)

Der Spiegel is Germany's most popular news magazine and for a time in the 70s it would run weekly stories on the urban terrorist gang, the Baader Meinhof Group (B-M). “They would regularly list \'B-M\' alongside “Culture\', \'Foreign\'…no one needed the letters B-M explained to them,” writes Richard Huffman in a new book about the group, The Gun Speaks. In 1971 a poll taken in West Germany found that 20 percent of citizens under 30 had some sympathy for the Baader Meinhof Group and one in 10 would be happy to give its members refuge from the authorities. In the context of post-war Germany, the Baader Meinhof's message of violent government overthrow had some real moral force.

"The Baader Meinhof touched the zeitgeist, which was one of dealing with the Nazi roots of the older generation,” explains Annette Hoerster, a Cologne native who is researching an MA (at Sydney University), which deals in part with the Baader Meinhof Group. She says that it was the fact that former Nazis were in government and industry that incensed the generation born in WWII as it seemed a betrayal to the ideal of a new democratic Germany.

The Baader Meinhof grew out of the new left movement in the late 60s, Hoerster says, where protesters, many of them students, routinely objected to the government of West Germany\'s authoritarian civil strategies and foreign policy support for US involvement in Vietnam. “A lot of these demonstrations against the government got out of hand and became violent,” Hoestler explains, “because of outdated police tactics, originally devised during Weimar Republic which were performed by many officers, now middle aged, who had been trained in the SS!”

\"\"State response to the threat of the Baader Meinhof helped create an \'us and them\' mood in the popular culture: “We had the feeling that they were like Robin Hoods,” says Klaus Krischok, director of the Sydney\'s Goethe Institute, who was a teenager in Germany at the time. Young people were routinely stopped by police and had their cars searched, an action that spawned a bumper sticker: \'Just because I have long hair I do not belong to the Baader Meinhof Group.'

 

Based on Stefan Aust's landmark book, The Baader Meinhof Complex, Uli Endel's big budget exploration of the events surrounding the formation and activities of the terrorists has been criticised for the predictable and traditional reasons that most films based on true-life criminal activities always have been: its critics have complained that in taking a thriller outline and applying action movie aesthetics, the film omits the pain of the victims and glamourises the 'bad guys'.

“It is not really an important point, but in Moritz Bleibtreu's portrayal of Baader, he does not have a lisp, like the real Baader did,” Hoerster says, ruefully. But the film\'s portrait of Baader as an individual who understood power as both real and abstract, sensual and based on image has sound basis in research: “Baader was known to rise in the morning and search the news print media for mention of his name,” she says.

The characterisations of the Gang itself are problematic not only for dramatists, but historians as well. “The Group would commit an action, a crime, and then Meinhof, who was the most politically sophisticated would write a pamphlet or article about it, to explain it,” Hoerster says. Was Andreas Baader then, a foul-mouthed poseur or the perfect poster boy for revolution? Hoerster suggests that Baader was political but “hard to grasp” and baulks at dismissing him, as others have, as a 'garden variety' sociopath. Born in Munich in 1943, the son of a respectable middle class historian, Baader the teen, faked an incurable lung ailment as a way of attracting attention. The sham was exposed when his boarding school pals found no trace of blood on his handkerchief. His adolescent rebellion took the form of not celebrating Christmas, and poor personal hygiene.

\"\"By the time he reached 30 he was the leader of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a group of urban terrorists he had formed with his girlfriend, an earnest, educated and politically motivated activist, Gudrud Ensslin, born 1940, the daughter of a Protestant pastor. The third key member of what would become the infamous group was one of Germany's leading political commentators of the late 60s, Ulrike Meinhof, born 1934, a media celebrity in her own right. Baader apparently disliked the Baader-Meinhof moniker since he was the “leader” and publicly they had ideological objections to a cult of celebrity. (Aust writes he was unremittently cruel toward Meinhof, who seemed ill at ease in the 'underground' atmosphere of a life lived 'on the run').

The Baader-Meinhof would ultimately be responsible for 34 violent killings - some of them outright murders.

Under their RAF 'brand' they robbed banks, and bombed the offices of the right-wing Springer news group, as well as US army HQ\'s based in Europe (a protest against NATO).

By 1972 many one-time supporters had turned against the RAF and the state clamped down on the personal liberties of citizens with random raids right across West Germany's major towns and cities.

By 1975 the Baader Meinhof gang were all captured. In 1977 as the RAF/Baader Meinhof trial reached its end, a wave of violence hit West Germany, led by the Second Generation of RAF, aimed at forcing authorities to release the groups leadership from Stammheim prison. There were multiple murders of government figures and their bodyguards in the street, an airline hijacking and a kidnapping. Filmmakers responded immediately, with much of the work keen on the symbolic and philosophical significance of the action (a position that infuriated both the middle-brow elite and the working class, writes Huffman).

In 1978 Germany in Autumn appeared. Made by some of the country's leading filmmakers and thinkers including Heinrich Boll, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlondorff, it was an “essay film” that compiled news reports, interviews and commentary of what had happened in the RAF “autumn” of 1977. Two years later Fassbinder released a feature The Third Generation, a fiction that centred on an urban guerrilla group, not unlike the Baader Meinhof. Critic Tony Rayns described Fassbinder's thesis in Time Out: “The West German state is so repressive that it might well have invented its terrorists as scapegoats for its own totalitarianism.” Stammheim an art-house feature which received wide festival exposure directed by Reinhard Hauff, focused on the trial of the Baader Meinhof, was released in 1986 to much acclaim.

Aust, who knew Meinhof when she was a major player at the left-wing journal Konkret, writes that he is not judgemental of the Baader Meinhof Group, and the film like his book maintains a cool, observational tone, a position bound to confront viewers in a movie where so much blood is shed.