Releasing a film about a '60s-'70s German terrorist group on the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center raises questions of good taste, if not of sheer perversity. It certainly won't help director Uli Edel and screenwriter Bernd Eichinger convince audiences that a bunch of dilettantish revolutionaries responsible for the deaths of innocents are worth our sympathy, or even our attention.
The Baader Meinhof Complex | Directed by Uli Edel | Written by Bernd Eichinger, based on the book by Stefan Aust | with Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz, Nadja Uhl, and Jan Josef Liefers | Constantin Film | German | 150 minutes
Interview: Uli Edel. By Mike Miliard.
Be that as it may, The Baader Meinhof Complex, their frenetic account of the decades-long reign of terror of those murderous, fun-loving pseudo-Leninist loonies, left me torn between an impulse to overthrow the establishment and a revulsion at what idiots they were. Edel — perhaps wisely — doesn't leave you much time to reflect on this question, as his jagged narrative rockets along like a Godard film without a subtext, propelled by violent deeds and misguided, murky, irrational motives. The film does, however, provide a refresher course in the doomed and deluded subversive movements of that period. Who knew the Red Army Faction's influence extended to PLO airline hijackings?
It all starts with the kind of bourgeois complacency that gives liberals a bad name. In 1967, Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), columnist for her smarmy husband's leftist paper, konkret, is miffed by the tepid reception she gets from some jaded poolside partygoers when she reads them her editorial condemning the shah of Iran's visit to Berlin. Then she's shocked to learn of the police's brutal crackdown on a street demonstration against that despotic lackey of American Imperialism. When she surprises her husband in the act of shtupping another woman, that does it: her revolutionary consciousness is awakened!
Meanwhile, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) are in jail after torching a department store to protest the "genocide in Vietnam." Meinhof interviews Ensslin in custody and soon starts palling around with the terrorists. She finally commits herself to the armed struggle when she helps Baader bust out of jail. The Red Army Faction is born.
To get pointers on guerrilla warfare, the group visit an al-Fatah training camp in Jordan. It's kind of like Woodstock meets al-Qaeda as the girls sunbathe in the nude and the wild and crazy Baader insists that "shooting and fucking" are the same. Their hosts aren't convinced, so they leave, but not before they've been stocked with lawyers, guns, and money — all of which enable them to spend the next several years in a long montage of senseless bombings, bank robberies, and assassinations.
Why did they do it? Here Edel comes up short. Ensslin argues that after acquiescing to the Third Reich, the German people have a responsibility to oppose the current encroachment of fascism. Meinhof takes Ensslin's point, but does that justify her sacrificing her children? As for Baader, he's a joy-riding, gun-happy sociopath with more of a sense of the absurd than a political conscience.
The sole voice of reason belongs to the unassuming police investigator played by — who else? — Bruno Ganz. Even as he puts the screws to the gang with his relentless investigation, he's suggesting to the politicians that it might help if they addressed the policies the gang were protesting. We all know how seriously that idea was taken.