Attempting to come to terms with its past is new for Germany. Only for a decade or so have real discussions started not only on Nazism but on more recent events in the country’s troubled history. Such would be the ascent of the Baader-Meinhof gang or Rote armee Fraktion (RAF) that, in the late 1960s and the 1970s, terrorized the establishment and went on a spree of bank robberies, kidnappings, assassinations. The terrorists at first attracted a certain degree of sympathy from the German public who, like most everyone at the time, was swept up in the mishmash of the sometimes generous ideas that floated about. But a decade of relentless violence finally turned public opinion against the terrorists.
The winds of rebellion that brought in Baader-Meinhof had indeed been sweeping across Europe, the United States, and parts of the rest of the world since the late 1960s. The catalysts for most of the protests were the monstrous specter of the Vietnam war or the plight of the Palestinians displaced from their land. Rudi Dutschke, the Brigatisti in Italy, the Baader-Meinhof gang, later Carlos the Jackal, all the actual or crypto-Communist, Marxist, Trotskyist, Maoist movements stoked spreading fires. In Germany, the horrors of World War II were gradually coming to light, a terrifying past that the new generations of Germans never wanted to see repeated.
Still, benighted is the word that comes to mind about the urban terrorists who, in the 1970s, found kidnapping, arson, and assassination the best response to the violence perpetrated by governments, much like activists who kill abortion doctors out of respect for life.
The powerful film “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” by Uli Edel conveys the era to perfection. Bernd Eichinger, the producer and screenwriter of “The Fall” about Hitler’s last days, is also responsible for producing “Baader-Meinhof “ and writing the screenplay with the original book’s author, Stefan Aust.
Edel doesn’t take sides but uses an almost documentary approach to convey immediacy and reality. Leaders Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu of “Lola rennt“ fame) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek, from “Aimee and Jaguar”) rant while journalist-turned-terrorist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck, from “The Lives of Others”) rants and writes, all in the done-to-death language of violent leftist ideologies. We have no sense of who they are, if they are indeed anything but cutout figures. Innumerable other participants—there are 123 speaking parts in the film—are undefined and pass through too quickly to register.
Beyond vicious verbal—and occasional physical—attacks on one another and some raw sex, we don’t know if shared revolutionary views create a bond between any of these protagonists. We don’t know what they think or even if they think. A scene from the book that is absent from the film describes the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who, after visiting Baader at the Stammheim prison where he and his cohorts were held, is said to have made the single terse comment, “quel con!” (what an idiot!)The acting is perfect throughout, not least the restrained and elegant performance by Bruno Ganz (an extraordinary Hitler in “The Fall”) as head of the police Horst Herold who makes an honest effort to understand the motivations of these wild urban guerillas in order to put an end to their murderous activities.
In the last half-hour of the film, Baader who has already been in jail for several years while the violence escalades outside tells an unidentified government figure that he doesn’t even know this second or third wave of militants. Which serves to remind us that the pre-first waves players are almost always the most sympathetic. Mirabeau at the beginning of the French Revolution of 1789, Kerensky at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and even Rudi Dutschke before the actual rise of the RAF, these are the casualties when the first wave hits. But there is nothing sympathetic about the actual first wave, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, even if their convenient group suicide provokes pity as well as suspicion.
Our world has gone in a different direction. It has shifted from Marxist-Leninist ideology-based violence to an even more frightening religion-based violence. Somehow, the first, though lethal, was more familiar, if not more palatable. “The Baader-Meinhof Complex” leaves us with much to think about. It may be crammed full—some might say too full—with facts and events but keeps us thoroughly engaged for the 144 minutes of its duration, the rare film that never allows the mind to wander.