Sunday, October 05, 2008

"Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex" film

I just saw the newly-released historical drama Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, about the German terrorist group called the Rote Armee Faktion (RAF, Red Army Faction), also known as the "Baader-Meinhof gang", after the names of two of its best-known leaders.

The movie is not a documentary, but it uses the realist approach of the well-received film Der Untergang (English title: Downfall), about the last days of Adolf Hitler. Both movies were produced by Bernd Eichinger, and both reflect his interest in encouraging people to take a fresh, fact-based look at important incidents in recent German history. The films also share a major actor, Bruno Ganz, one of Germany's best-known comtemporary actors on both stage and film. He played Faust in Peter Stein's historic first-ever staging of Goethe's Faust in its entirety, Hitler in Der Untergang and Horst Herold, the head of the Bundesnachrictendiesnt (BND) who had primary reponsibility for apprehending the RAF, in the current film.

The film is based on journalist Stephen Aust's book Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, first published in 1985 and later revised, most recently in a 2008 edition. Aust eventually became the chief editor of Der Spiegel. He was a friend of Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and her husband in her pre-terrorist days as a radical journalist for the magazine Konkret. Aust also figures as a character in the film, who among other things resuces Meinhof's children from a commune with which they were hidden in Italy, saving them from being sent into the obscurity and danger of a Palestinian orphan camp.

The film focuses on the period 1967-1977, which takes us from the background of the group in the youth and student movements of the 1960s to the group's actual formation in 1970 to their most notorious exploit, the kidnapping and murder of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Bernd Stegemann), who was president of the German Employer's Association. The cast of characters is sometimes confusing, because only a few are identified in a way that the viewer can easily follow who they are without a detailed knowledge of the story. The ones receiving the most focus include Meinhof, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Horst Mahler (Simon Licht), Gudrun Ennslin (Johanna Wokalek), Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), Irmgard Moeller (Annika Kuhl), Jan Carl-Raspe (Nils Bruno Schmidt) and Peter Jürgen Boock (Vinzenz Kiefer). The first four are the most fully developed as characters in the film.

This site by Richard Huffman, The Baader-Meinhof Gang and the Dawn of Terror, provides an English-language account of the group. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the details, but it seems to provide a reasonable timeline. It certainly gives an idea of the bloody nature of the group's career.

In the film, we see several key events and people depicted that were key events in German politics in the 1960s: the formation of the Grand Coalition government of the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD); the murder of photographer Benno Ohnesorg by a policeman during a demonstration against the visiting Shah of Iran in 1967; Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg) as the radical leader of the German leftwing student organization SDS, who is severely wounded in a murder attempt by a far-right radical; the violent demonstration against the Springer press that was part of the aftermath of that assassination attempt; and the bombing of a Frankfurt department store by Baader and Ennslin prior to the formation of the RAF.

The real Hanns Martin Schleyer in an RAF film after his kidapping

As the mass movement among students and young people waned after 1968 and the controversial Grand Coalition was replaced by an SPD/FDP (liberal party) coalition, a number of radicals like Meinhof, Baader and Ennslin felt frustrated. And they believed that dramatic acts of violence would again radicalize the West German public and aid what they saw as an international liberation movement against American imperialism and its allies. They formed the RAF for that purpose. Their ideology was a brand of radical Marxism, but the impulse was heavily oriented toward dramatic action.

It's inevitable that some critics of the film would accuse it of romanticizing the RAF and its violent acts. But I find it hard to see how one could draw such a conclusion from this movie. We see a lot of violence, destruction and blood. But it's not the action-movie, comic-book kind. Although it chronicles the history of a group that did romanticize violence and its police opponents who also overstepped the bounds of legality in their actions at times, what we see depicted are people being killed in gunfights; bloody bombings intended to kill people; deliberate assassinations; a dramatic occupation of a German embassy that ends in massive violence; the hijacking of a Lufthansa flight and the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer pictured in very un-romantic detail.

We follow the key characters until Meinhof commits suicide (?) in her high-security jail cell, followed later by four deaths on the same night in the same maximum-sucurity prison: Baader, Jan Carl-Raspe and Immgard Moeller by gunshot, and Ennslin by hanging. All were ruled suicides. The film accepts that interpretation and shows what are presumably at least partly speculative explanations for how the four could have pulled off such an unlikely mass suicide.

Whether one has some kind of sympathy for the RAF or curiosity or outright hatred for the group, the film is a reminder that these people were good at techniques of terrorism and at operating underground. Part of that can be explained by their training with Palestinian guerillas, which we see depicted in the movie. The film basically only hints at the level of support for the RAF from Communist East Germany, though such support has been documented. But a large part of it undoubtedly came from their determination, fanaticism and dedication to their cause. As in any war, as RAF cadres were killed or captured, they became martyrs whose deaths and imprisonment then justified and demanded further violence in the minds of the RAF. But they did pull off some spectacular actions, including bombings of American military facilities.

It's interesting to speculate to what extent the RAF operated as a cult. I would be dubious about such a characterization. But clearly, their technical competence at bombing, assassination and kidnapping was not matched by any sophisticated reading of the political prospects of their movement. And their aims were consciously political. They did have a significant core of sympathizers who were not directly part of their organization. But they were about as politically isolated as they could be. All but the most leftwing-radical Germans were repelled by their actions.

As the title of his book taken over by the film implies, Aust's approach focuses on the mentaliy and the process by which Meinhof and the others became terrorists and justified their murderous deeds, to themselves and to others. And the movie reflects that approach, as well.

This doesn't mean that the Baader-Meinhof Komplex film presents a sympathetic-apologetic picture of the RAF. Part of the movie's strength is the way it lets us relate to the very human emotions of the characters. But the RAF figures come off as fanatical killers. We see Gudrun Ensslin evolve from a passionate, idealistic, rebellious daughter of a Protestant minister and a young woman who formed a relationship and had a child before she was ready to an arrogant, sexually manipulative, hate-filled killer. Meinhof evolves from a respected intellectual and loving mother of two to an ideologue who plans mass murders and then writes dogmatic communiques to justify them. Andreas Baader evolves from a cocky but weirdly charming young guy who likes to drive fast cars and shoot pistols to an unpredictable, brutal bully and murdererer.

The RAF was composed of macho guys and a larger number of women, most of the women being at least as macho as the men. They were young and, despite what outside training and other support they received, were largely making it up as they went. And this comes through clearly in the movie.

Movie trailer (in German):

One of the most dramatic moments comes in the Jordanian camp where RAF cadres are being trained by Palistinian guerrillas. Meinhof's boyfriend has a fistfight with Baader after one of Baader's imüulsive, arrogant outbursts at their Palistinian trainer, presumably provoked by the stress he felt in the middle of training under live ammunition fire. The boyfriend later offers privately to Meinhof to take her back to Germany to leave the RAF together, promising to take care of her children while she serves out whatever sentence may be facing her at that point. Seemingly charmed by his offer, Meinhof nevertheless smiles and says in a sweet tone incongrous with the words coming from her mouth that his offers sounds "a goddamned lot like betrayal". He responds, "Betrayal to whom, Ulrike?" She walks off without responding. (All diagolue quotes here from memory.)

Later, a Palestinian militant takes the boyfriend to secretly listen in to Meinhof, Baader and Ensslin talking to a leader of the Palestinian camp, Ennslin translating for the group into English. They bring up the problem of Meinhof's children. The Palestinian says they can get the kids into a Palestinian orphan camp, but Meinhof would never see them again. With Meinhof's silent assent, Ensslin accepts the plan.

Then Ennslin proceeds to bring up Meinhof's boyfriend, saying he is "a problem" because he "is an Israeli spy". Again with Meinhof's silent assent, Emmslin says with a killer's smile, "Shoot him". The tranformation from arrogant, reckless idealists to cynical, cult-like killers is dramatically completed.

In one scene, the BND chief Horst Herold implicitly addresses easily-anticipated criticism of the film itself, which were also very much a part of the debate at the time. Meeting with his BND subordinates, he asks for suggestions of new approaches to fighting the RAF. One suggests creating a special police unit to deal with terrorists. Herold agrees that such a unit is needed but warns that it alone won't solve thge terrorism problem. He then fields challenges. To the accusation that he is downplaying the RAF murders, he responds that he's not doing so at all but rather saying that in order to combat terrorism effectively, it's necessary to understand realsitically what motivates them. To the bitter comment that the families of the victims don't want to understand the terrorists, they just want them caught, Herold responds that it may well be true of the vitims' realtives. But as officials responsible for designing an over all approach to terrorism, it wa encumbent on them to understand all the factors affecing the problem of fighting the RAF.

Although the film is done in a realist style, some scenes obviously have to dramatized in a way to convey information succinctly. For instance, the scene of the anti-Shah demonstration in which Benno Ohnesorg is murdered seems to be a compilation of two different incidents on the same day. And presumably, Ulrike Meinhof didn't take her children leave her husband within moments of her catching him energetically boffing a blond friend of theirs, as depicted in the film. I mean, such things happen, but behind an unlocked door while the kids are in the house?

Overall, it's a violent but intensely engaging look at a very important period in German history.

See also: Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex IDMB

The Red Army Faction - 10 Years After Its Dissolution Deutsche Welle 20,04,08

Die Geschicte der RAF (by a German government-sponsored group)

Terrorism: The Red Army Faction The Independent 02/18/07

Die Zeit articles on the RAF

Who were the Baader-Meinhof gang? BBC News 02/12/07

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