The Baader-Meinhof Complex (Der Baader Meinhof Komplex)

baader-meinhofThere can’t be many film lovers today with more than the haziest memory of the Red Army Faction, otherwise known as the Baader-Meinhof gang, a left-wing terrorist group operating in West Germany during the late 60’s and early 70’s. But on watching The Baader-Meinhof Complex there will be many who can identify with the feverish tension of the era, and the fear that temporarily gripped a nation.

Based on Stefan Aust’s non-fiction work of the same name, directed by Uli Edel and written and produced by Bernd Eichinger, The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a brutally honest, uncompromising and fascinating portrayal of the events that took place between June 1967, when police shot dead a protestor in West Berlin during a state visit by the Shah of Iran, to the terrifying autumn of 1977, when the abducted industrialist and former Nazi Hans-Martin Schleyer was executed by RAF members in revenge for the suicides of the group’s leaders Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe. With more than a quarter of Germans under 30 sympathising with the group at its zenith, the RAF was a force to be reckoned with.

In spite of its initial emphasis on sexual liberation, political rhetoric and an awful lot of Bonnie and Clyde style posing, The Baader-Meinhof Complex dispels any accusations of glamorising terrorism by highlighting the hypocrisy of its perpetrators. In one amusing set-up, the group challenges a lawyer to steal a rich lady’s handbag in order to prove his political commitment. Yet only moments later Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) throws a tantrum when a youth makes off with his car. In another scene, the group fails to understand how a group of Muslims on a Jordanian training camp take umbrage to their sunbathing naked. “Fucking and shooting are the same!” is their mantra. And for all its talk of leaderless revolution, the RAF had its own very definite hierarchy that was merciless to those who attempted to overturn it.

Neither does the film display any sympathy for individual gang members. Baader himself is a portrayed as something of a monster – emotionally unstable, reckless (“Only a gun makes it fun!” he tells one follower) and totally self-absorbed. His girlfriend Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) meanwhile is portrayed as a manipulative tyrant. The catty rivalry between Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is captured superbly.

Once the original leaders have been incarcerated in Stammheim prison the film begins to flag. A second generation of terrorists led by the student Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl) steps up the bloodshed another notch. However, the group has lost its focus, and doesn’t appear to share, or even understand the ‘values’ of its predecessors.

Rainer Klausmann’s multi-layered cinematography reflects the adrenalin of the early RAF years, with a mixture of historic news footage, rapidly changing locations, character examination and violence in almost every scene.

The most expensive film in German cinema history, The Baader-Meinhof Complex employs an array of top-flight actors. Johanna Wokalek is terrifying as Ensslin, spiteful, barbaric and continually nagging the less worldly Andreas Baader towards ever more heinous acts. Like her earlier role in The Lives of Others, Martina Gedeck is adept at portraying many sides of a complex character – working mother, intellectual, effective manager and murderess. Bruno Ganz, who played Hitler in Downfall, lends a quiet authority to Horst Herold, the shrewd police chief who strives to get into the mind of the terrorists.

In contrast to even the finest Hollywood histories, Eichinger refuses to spoonfeed us, and his sprawling cast often appear on screen with no introduction or background. The film is concerned with giving us the facts as they happened, and lets the audience be the judge of its characters’ actions. Most of all, it manages to bring a turbulent era in Germany’s history alive for a new generation, and shows how a group of protestors driven by raw idealism become as much trapped as inspired by the logic of their political beliefs. The bombings and assassinations, once a means to an end, become an end in themselves as their perpetrators increasingly regard humanity as their enemy rather than their cause.

Leave a Reply