Tuesday, October 28, 2008

London Film Festival Day 14 - THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX is a straight-forward, unexciting re-telling of the history of the Red Army Faction - a group of German left-wing militants active in the 1970s, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. Directed by Uli Edel (LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN), the film is more easily recognisable as another of producer Bernd Eichinger's historic German epics. Following on from DER UNTERGANG, it seeks to put Germany's recent past under the microscope. In terms of subject matter, the social unrest of the late 60s and early 70s is a logical follow-up to Hitler's suicide. So much of what the students were protesting against was a direct result of World War Two - the feeling that their parent's generation had no moral (and therefore legal) authority - the feeling that denazification had not gone far enough - the resentment of US policies that seemed to ape the imperial aims of Nazism in Vietnam and the Middle East - the tangible presence of US army bases on German soil.

Of course, most students only went as far as demonstrating. Political extremism was just another cause - along with feminism and environmentalism. And the middle-class liberals were similarly pursuing legitimate lines of protest. The Red Army Faction decided that talk meant nothing without action, influenced by figures such as Che Guevera. A key flaw of this film is that it never really shows us why these people went beyond talk to violent direct action. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtrau) seems to fire guns because he thinks it's cool. Is that really all it was? Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) supports direct action because....I'm no clearer after this movie. The more interesting character is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Meinhof was older and an influential journalist with a real reputation. She could've affected change through legitimate protest. According to Uli Edel's interpretation she opts for violence because she's goaded into it, which seems rather pathetic, and hard to believe of such an intelligent woman. Still, maybe that's the point? Maybe the RAF was violent for no other reason than that it was bored and it seemed exhillerating?

Over the first hour of the film, the Baader-Meinhof gang succeed in their aims of causing general mayhem. They also succeed in aligning themselves with some particularly nasty people, and the film is very clear in showing them to be feckless and petulant to a degree that is shocking and basically evil. It's ironic that these guys are protesting against "fascist tendencies" and yet they employ the same language as the Nazis. They regard the police as "not human" and that to kill a policeman is "not murder" just as the Nazis dehumanised the Jews before killing them. One of the most disturbing moments - and one too little explored in this movie - is when the Black September terrorists holding Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Munich Olympics ask for fellow terrorists to be released. Among the names are those of the imprisoned RAF members.

In the final hour, the film changes focus. The founder members of the RAF are in prison and the second generation of terrorists continue their work, escalating methods and targets. They collude with the PLO to hijack an airplane and assassinate a prominent businessman. There is less talk of ideology - it's just simple revenge. Meanwhile, in Stammheim prison, the first generation prisoners look banal and pathetic. Martina Gedeck gives a convincing portrayal of Meinhof as an ideological purist driven mad by solitary confinement and guilt. Ensslin and Baader commit suicide rather than dance to the tune of the court. But they don't seem to show any real remorse or understanding.

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX is technically good. The film-makers recreate the look and feel of Germany in the 1970s and pack a lot of material into the two and half hour run time. The problem is that they don't have an over-arching point that they are trying to make. And as a result of the "...and then this happened, and then that happened, and then this other thing happened...." approach to history, THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, doesn't tell us anything we wouldn't know from reading a Wikipedia entry. In dealing with Irish republican terrorism in HUNGER, Steve McQueen took a radical approach. He decided that we could all look up the narrative of the campaign. He was going to cut straight to the real question: how can people murder other people in all good conscience? He did this by focusing his gaze on Bobby Sands, and on a single conversation that Sands has with a priest. I was looking for similar insight in THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX, and I never found it. So for all its superficial attention to detail and marquee actors, this film is ultimately a failure.

THE BAADER-MEINHOF COMPLEX played London 2008. It was released earlier this year in Germany, Austria, and Finland. It opens in Italy and Norway this weekend. It opens in the Netherlands on November 6th; in France on November 12th; in the UK on November 14th and in South Africa on March 20th 2009.

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