Directed by Uli Edel
150 minutes (Momentum Pictures)
By the time The Baader Meinhof Complex reached German cinemas in late September last year, most of the country’s population must have felt that they had seen it already. For weeks the film and its subject—the darkest chapter in Germany’s postwar history—had been the focus of earnest discussion in newspapers and magazines and on the strangely joyless talk shows that seem to be the only thing on German television after ten o’clock at night (aside, of course, from the ubiquitous advertisements for questionable companionship opportunities).
In a rather astute bit of marketing by the film’s producers, however, almost no one actually had seen it before it opened. Information about casting and production had been steadily released in tantalizing dribs and drabs. Actors and filmmakers gave interviews galore. But the only journalists allowed to preview the film in its entirety were selected senior representatives of the weekly news magazine Der Spiegel and the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, twin stars in the country’s media firmament.
The resentment this caused among those papers’ competitors fed a frenzy of speculation and vehement debate around the film. Not that the frenzy needed much feeding. From its beginnings in the student protests of the late 1960s to its self-proclaimed dissolution in 1998, the Red Army Faction (RAF), or Baader-Meinhof gang, Germany’s homegrown terrorist movement, had cast a shadow over the country out of all proportion to the size of its membership or the real threat posed to the state by its murderous deeds. More than thirty years after the carnage of the “German autumn” of 1977, which marked the violent apogee (or nadir) of the group’s activity, the RAF and its legacy still divide the nation more than does almost any other subject—and here I do not exclude even Germany’s Nazi past.
The producer of The Baader Meinhof Complex, Bernd Eichinger, was also responsible for Downfall (Der Untergang, 2004), the no-expense-spared dramatization of Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker, based on the memoirs of Traudl Junge, the dictator’s secretary. That film was accused in some quarters of sanitizing Germany’s grim history, exploiting the human psyche’s fascination with evil, and desecrating the memory of the Nazis’ victims by giving their murderers and tormentors a human face. Most agreed, however, that Downfall had somehow pulled off its difficult balancing act: Showing Hitler and his entourage as human beings had not diminished the enormity of their crimes, but had instead brought sharply into focus the evil complicity of millions of other Germans on which the Third Reich had relied.
The Baader Meinhof Complex raises the same sort of questions as Downfall, and looks to be enjoying some of the same commercial success. A similarly lavish production, with a similarly starry cast, it attracted more than 1.3 million moviegoers in the first two weeks after its German release. In the eyes of some viewers, Eichinger and the film’s director, Uli Edel, have glamorized terrorist violence, downplaying the harm and suffering it caused, thereby inflicting needless pain on the relatives of its victims. The widow of Jürgen Ponto, the banker murdered by the RAF in 1977, returned her Federal Cross of Merit in protest of the government’s partial funding of the film. Michael Buback, son of the chief federal prosecutor shot dead on a Cologne street that same terrible year, accused the filmmakers of cruelty and contended that the families were being made victims all over again. Bettina Röhl, the daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, long sickened by her notorious mother’s misdeeds, denounced the film on her blog as “the worst case scenario—it would not be possible to top its hero worship. . . . It glorifies brutal killers as good-looking idealists. It trivializes their terror.”
Such charges have been robustly denied by the film’s director, producer and stars, and by Stefan Aust, the author of the eponymous book on which the film is based. First published in 1985, Aust’s Baader Meinhof Komplex remains the definitive study of the miserable decade when the group was led by its founders, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof. The author’s detailed research, involving many interviews with participants on all sides, ran eventually, he says, to some sixty meters of files. That weight of documentary detail allows him to chart with impressive precision the group’s progress from student activism and political agitation to an underground life of illegality and ever-increasing violence, culminating in the 1976–77 prison suicides of the RAF leadership.
Aust first revised his book in 1997, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the release of Stasi files allowed him to fill some of the gaps in his narrative: In the 1980s several leading members of the RAF had gone into hiding in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), protected and given new identities by the Communist state, while some of their associates and supporters in the West turned out to have been Stasi informers for many years. He has now revised the book again to coincide with the film. The new, expanded German edition adds photographs, several never before seen, and takes account of some newly released judicial papers and intelligence service files. With the volume now running to 900 pages, the picture remains essentially the same, though new information has strengthened Aust’s provocative contention that the RAF leaders’ prison cells were being bugged by German law enforcement agencies even as they prepared to commit suicide.
Aust emphasizes, in all three editions of his work, that he has been at pains to avoid value judgments. That, in essence, is the line taken by the filmmakers, too. Edel has insisted that his concern was with authenticity and historical accuracy above all else. The aim, he has said, was to show things as they were, and to leave viewers to make up their own minds. Aust is perhaps a little readier than Edel to acknowledge what a problematic undertaking that can be.
For Edel the difficulties seem more practical than philosophical, and he tackles them with deft professionalism. Scenes were recreated in their original locations, and based when possible on photographs and television footage of the original events. Many of the actors bear a striking resemblance to the people they play. But above all, authenticity was deliberately extended to the film’s depiction of violence. However many bullets were really fired in a given attack, the same number would be fired on screen. Murderous assaults are shown with sickening realism, often in close-up, and from the perspective of the victims. It makes for a noisy, bloody, ugly, relentless two-and-a-half-hour-long film.
While there is nothing romanticized about the violence, what about the portrayal of the characters who commit it? Are they glamorized as Meinhof’s daughter says? In a sense they are, and Edel admits as much. Moritz Bleibtreu (Baader), Johanna Wokalek (Ensslin) and Martina Gedeck (Meinhof) are three of Germany’s most famous and charismatic stars. But they have to be. The leaders of the RAF came to exert an extraordinary hold both over their immediate followers and over society at large. A truthful film needs to show how that came about.
It’s not hard to see what Edel means, even so many years later. There is an early photograph, often reproduced, of Andreas Baader without a shirt, looking a bit like a young Marlon Brando, arrogantly confident of his own appeal. A later photograph shows Baader and Ensslin on trial in 1968 for setting fire to a Frankfurt department store; Baader cocky in shades, Ensslin looking at him with something like love. Like a modern European Bonnie and Clyde, they’re oblivious to the surrounding courtroom, happy, theatrically unrepentant, if maybe a little less goofy than the Chicago Seven in Judge Hoffmann’s courtroom. Two years later a sequence of photographs finds them on the run, smoking and joking in a Paris café, a retro Ricard ashtray on the table between them, a mirror on the wall behind; scruffily chic, they might be actors in a Jean-Luc Godard film. And they know it.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of that theatrical rebellion, that self-conscious glamour, that raw youthful appeal. Baader was a handsome, violent, amoral lowlife who liked stealing fast cars. In a Brando film, someone at some point would have called him a punk. People loved him or hated him. Ensslin, gaunt, restless and alarmingly intense, was a pastor’s daughter with a keen interest in philosophy and theology and a highly developed (and lethally twisted) moral sense. Meinhof, older and more articulate, already an established star of the West German Left, abandoned her family and a successful journalistic career to lend political legitimacy—and her own minor celebrity—to Baader’s machismo and Ensslin’s obsessive drive.
In isolation, none of them might have amounted to much of anything. It was the lethal cocktail of personalities that set them apart from their contemporaries and made the RAF stand out among countless similar groups throughout Western Europe. And it was sheer force of personality that enabled Baader and Ensslin not only to inspire others to join or support them in deadly violence, but to control and direct their loyal followers even from their prison cells.
One important difference between the responses to Downfall and to The Baader Meinhof Complex is that there is, in Germany as elsewhere, a broad historical consensus about the meaning and consequences of the Third Reich. The reunification of Germany and the economic difficulties that ensued may have brought in their wake a resurgence of extreme right-wing activity and views, especially in the former GDR. But no one, outside neo-Nazi lunatic fringe, would argue that Downfall was too harsh on its protagonists or failed somehow to do justice to their ideas.
There are some on the German Left, however—not as many now as before, but still some—who in accusing the Baader-Meinhof film of trivializing terrorism would intend almost the opposite of what Bettina Röhl meant when she used the phrase. Their suggestion would be that the film does too little to explain the ideological thinking of the RAF and the social and political conditions that caused them to act as they did. In that respect, Aust thinks the response to the film shows how little has changed since his book was first published in 1985. Then “those on the Right said I was making heroes out of murderers, and those on the Left said I was making murderers out of revolutionaries.”
For better or worse, most earlier films about the RAF considered terrorism seriously as an idea. See, for example, Volker Schlöndorff’s version of Heinrich Böll’s polemical tale Die Verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (“The lost honor of Katharina Blum”, 1975) or the same director’s Die Stille nach dem Schuss (“The silence after the shot”, 2000); Reinhard Hauff’s Messer im Kopf (“Knife in the head”, 1978); Margarethe von Trotha’s Die bleierne Zeit (“The leaden time”, 1981); or the short films by various directors in the portmanteau Deutschland im Herbst (“Germany in Autumn”, 1978). They all unvaryingly portrayed urban guerrilla tactics as a response to a complex of moral, political and intellectual challenges that liberal democracy had somehow failed to address. The film of The Baader Meinhof Complex, like Aust’s original book (only more so), treats the history of the RAF purely in terms of facts and events, not arguments or beliefs. Edel has essentially made an action film and, appropriately, Eichinger, the producer, believes firmly “that we don’t define ourselves as humans by what we say but by what we do.”
That was certainly true of the RAF. Most of what they said made little sense. Their strategy from the start was to insist that West Germany’s prosperous and democratic society was a fascist state. Even they knew, in their more lucid moments, that this wasn’t actually true, so they decided to make it so. Their early acts of random violence were aimed at provoking the government into behaving as the oppressive illiberal power they claimed it already was. As a general rule, that is the strategy of all non-apocalyptic, non-chiliastic terrorism.
In this they may be said to have succeeded, at least to the extent that the government clamped down fairly hard on the gang and soon had its most active members behind steel bars. Some of the counterterrorism measures introduced—not least the conditions under which some RAF prisoners were initially held—served merely to fuel sympathy for the group. Hysteria in the popular press made matters worse. One reputable opinion poll in the early 1970s found that as many as one in four young Germans expressed support for the RAF.
Once its leaders were imprisoned, however, the group’s only real objective was to get them out. For all the political sloganeering and talk of broader “anti-fascist”, “anti-capitalist” or “anti-imperialist” aims, the RAF became, in the words of former member Astrid Proll, little more than “a ‘free Baader’ movement.”
As the slaughter was stepped up, the posturing incoherence of what passed for ideology in the RAF quickly became clear. Its counterproductive futility, too, was evident to critics on the Left as well as the Right. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s darkly satirical film Die dritte Generation (“The third generation”, 1979) turns the RAF’s early strategy on its head, scathingly suggesting that if big business and the capitalist state were really looking for an excuse to secure their power and suppress all opposition, they would have only to invent the RAF.
One of the most devastating retrospective critiques of the group and its ideas comes from a former Communist, Gerd Koenen, in Das rote Jahrzent (“The red decade”, 2001). It sets out with relish a damning catalogue of contradictions and lethal absurdities. A group that had exploited Germany’s postwar sense of guilt over the Third Reich in its bid for wider support (Meinhof even dared to compare her own prison conditions to Auschwitz) now hailed the 1972 Black September massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich as a revolutionary act. The RAF threw in its lot with the Palestinian terrorists of the PFLP, who provided weapons training and support while deploring the poor discipline and lax morals of their guests. Germans were helping to kill Jews again. Imprisoned in the Stammheim high-security prison near Stuttgart, the group’s leaders continued their “fight against oppression”—while issuing a constant stream of brutally direct orders to their followers and sympathizers outside, exercising autocracy with all the unbending rigor of a totalitarian regime. All this, Koenen says, in the service of what turned out to be nothing more than a vain collective “death trip.”
It’s an apt phrase. In Stammheim, Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof descended into something like psychosis. The celebrity cast of Edel and Eichinger’s film comes into its own in dramatizing this self-inflicted decline. Meinhof was the first to crack. Bullied and ridiculed by the others as a useless intellectual, “a stupid cow“ or “the knife in the back of the RAF”, she hanged herself in her cell in May 1976. Just under a year and a half later, on October 18, 1977, after the bloody failure at Mogadishu airport of a joint Palestinian-RAF plane hijacking that had been intended to free them, Baader, Ensslin and their fellow inmate Jan Carl Raspe committed suicide. Their followers responded next day by murdering in cold blood the industrialist Hanns-Martin Schleyer, whom they had been holding hostage in Belgium for 44 days.
The RAF’s “struggle” continued in sporadic acts of killing and terror for another two decades: a sort of murderous memorial campaign. By the time it ended, the followers of Baader, Meinhof and their associates had helped to turn Germany into a more anxious, less tolerant place than it might otherwise have become. They had killed 34 people, seriously wounded hundreds more, and caused millions of marks worth of damage. Twenty-seven of their own members had died. Anyone who sees much in the way of thinking behind all this is as deluded as were the members of the group. The RAF called a halt only when its members came finally to see what the film of The Baader Meinhof Complex makes clear: that violence would get them nowhere, even if they’d had any real idea of where they were trying to go.
Hanns-Martin Schleyer’s son has praised the film for showing the RAF as the “merciless, ruthless gang of murderers” they were. From beginning to end, “Baader-Meinhof” was a “complex” more in a psychological than a military or ideological sense. Even after the death of its founders, it was less a political movement than a deadly personality cult. Edel and Eichinger’s star-studded action movie demonstrates, in brutal, almost wearying detail, that there was never much more to the RAF than the hideous violent spectacle that met the eye. It’s the film the group deserves. What Germans make of it, of course, in the collective process of coming to terms with their own history, is up to them.