The Baader Meinhof Complex

Two films about gangs in consecutive weeks – is this a conspiracy? The fact is that there are very few decent films around, so apologies to those who prefer the lighter stuff.

Made by the director of Downfall, the riveting film about Hitler’s last days, the Baader Meinhof Complex chronicles the transformation of a disparate group of student protestors into a ruthless and cold blooded killing machine. It is 1967, naked bathers, including the Meinhof family, luxuriate on a golden beach – it is the era of free love, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix. But Germany has not shaken off its past – the trouble starts with a student demonstration against the visit of the Shah of Iran when the Shah’s goons set upon the placard-carrying students. At first the police stand idly by, then join in the attack – one of the most vicious ever recorded on celluloid – and end up executing one of the demonstrators.

Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), middle class, mother-of-two, left-wing intellectual and journalist, who writes for her rich husband’s magazine Konkret, is drawn into the subsequent uproar by writing an open letter of protest to the Empress. Meanwhile, another middle-class girl, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) rails against her Lutheran upbringing and joins a cell organised by Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), who is orchestrating bombing campaigns against the neo-fascist capitalists who run Germany and disregard the world’s poor. And so the Red Army Faction (RAF) is born.

The film tells the story of the decade of terror that followed in cool, calm and non-judgmental documentary style, using original footage of US bombings in Vietnam, the student riots in Paris and, of course, of Germany as well. It charts the transition from, as one writer put it, the journey from ‘fun into nightmare’.

It is hard not to empathise initially with the gang, as the reactions of the German police fuel the fires of the RAF, leading to the escalation of the violence, but a sense of revulsion takes over at the callousness of the murders, bombings and kidnappings that ensue.  The film really gets under the skin of what if must have felt like to be a gang member: there is a scene where the increasingly psychotic Baader takes a new recruit on a killing spree, speeding along the Autobahn in a stolen BMW, rock music at full blast, shooting indiscriminately at the road signs. The excitement of belonging is palpable.

There are other moments of high drama – when Baader escapes from his first incarceration using Meinhof as a seemingly innocent prop, and she throws in her lot with him, leaping through an open window and into a life of exile, deserting her children forever.

And there are moments of comedy too, which help lighten the grim tale. On the run in Rome, Baader challenges the politically correct lawyer to steal a purse off an American tourist, which he does. But while concentrating on this prank, the gang’s car is stolen. Baader’s tantrum would do a three year old proud. ‘Don’t worry’ says the lawyer, ‘we’ll steal another’. And in Jordan, where they go for paramilitary training, Baader explains to his Arab trainers that revolution and sexual liberation are one and the same – he will not be separated from his beloved Gudrun, and the glamour girls sunbathe naked in front of the aghast terrorists. Hard to believe the insensitivity, but Germans do have a proclivity for going topless as we all know!

Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in Downfall, plays the cerebral police chief, Herold, whose job it is to bring the fugitives to justice. He realises that the only way is to outwit the gang, by understanding what motivates them, second-guessing them, and at the same time trying to alleviate the conditions in society that give rise to such acts of terror. So it is that, once captured, the trial which has all Germany in thrall is a thoroughly democratic affair and ends up making the judiciary a laughing stock. What is chilling, however, is that while the leadership is on trial, in an attempt to free them, the violence scales new heights, with the kidnapping and execution of Hanns Martin Schleyer and the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is a long and sometimes gruelling 150 minutes. However, the thoughtful examination of what motivates people to terrorise the state and civilians, if they are the wrong sort, or if they are in the way, has many resonances for our current circumstances, where fundamentalist groups are an increasing threat. The causes that drove the RAF have not gone away – third world poverty, the role of the US and the Arab/Israeli conflict; the film offers no comfort on this score. Indeed it serves as a chilling reminder that little has changed since 1977. It is therefore compelling viewing for those of us who would like the politicians to move in the right direction.

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