Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Baader Meinhof Complex

Poster for The Baader-Meinhof Complexdir Uli Edel

Viewed at the London Film Festival, Edel's controversial film finally opens across the UK. Based on Stefan Aust's book of the same name, this is the long-awaited cinematic telling of the campaign in the late 60s and 70s against the West German state by the Red Army Faction (RAF), also known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, which resulted in firebombings, assassinations and several questionable deaths in German prisons.

Onscreen this becomes a lot of smoking, shooting and yelling with the odd anti-US slogan but little coherent vision, either for the group or the film. At the end, the transgressors die, and so the morality is quite conventional.

Much has been said as to whether the film glamourises terrorism and cultivates a cult of personality around such figures as Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the three leading figures in the film. More on that later.

For me, there is a huge void at the centre of the film and that is Ulrike Meinhof. As portrayed by Gedeck (marvellous in The Lives of Others), Meinhof is tentative, anxious, indecisive and held in no great esteem by the rest of the group, who consider her bourgeois. She has so little presence and appears so passive, that one wonders how she came to be a figurehead: she displays no leadership qualities whatsoever. What she does contribute, as a recognised left-wing journalist with access to the media, is good PR: her typed missives gain a following for the RAF. In short she is the PR mouthpiece rather than leader.

The driving force within the RAF rather seems to rest with the power couple of Baader and Ensslin. Here is a symbiotic relationship, with Baader's adolescent swagger egged on by Ensslin's revolutionary fervour combining to form zealotry. At times they are a comical duo, with him purring "Baby" to her and the two cuddling in strategy meetings or in prison.

Baader and Meinhof have very little interaction, other than him bellowing at her when she suggests more planning in their actions and her responding with a baleful stare. One waits in vain for her to assert herself in the film, and she strikes a rather pitiful figure, as if she can't understand how this terrorism thing happened to her. Most odd. In fact, Ensslin and Meinhof display more chemistry---their dynamic ranges from mutual suspicion to camaraderie to betrayal, with the two squabbling in prison like an old married couple, while the men look on, bemused.

As for Baader, he is invested by Bleibtreu with a lot of gusto, charisma and ridiculous bravado, brandishing a cigar as he plays to the gallery in his first trial. Early in the film, as he swaggers around in his leather jacket, driving at excessive speeds and firing a pistol out of the car window, one senses his role model is Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless. Indeed, in J├╝rgen Teipel's book, Verschwende deine Jugend, one finds that a lot of German punks identified with Baader and that he sought inspiration from Belmondo's role in Pierrot le Fou.

Ironic, then, that 31 years after his death he finally becomes a leading man. But Baader comes across as a bit of a buffoon. A quintessential alpha male, he expresses himself by throwing chairs and torrents of verbal abuse rather than any reasoned arguments or political theory, in a manner more Basil Fawlty than Che Guevara. Casually peppering his antagonists with racist and homophobic slurs and posturing arrogantly, he offers no coherent explanation for his actions. The film is, in fact, remarkably lacking in providing a theoretical framework for the group's actions, with the exception of tiny extracts from Meinhof's tracts.

The participation by women in RAF remains a fascination. That so many women were drawn to a terrorist group and achieved leading positions is unusual. The film depicts many women coming and going, but Astrid, Ingrid, Petra, Susanne, et al are indistinguishable and their motivations remain unexplored, which is a pity.

The exception comes two thirds of the way through the film when a key figure suddenly appears: Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), who becomes the new leader of the second wave of the RAF. Released from prison, she quickly arranges a sexual assignation and then sets about planning the next stage of the group's activities. Her steely determination and efficiency in martialling the troops are in stark contrast to the ineptitude of the first wave, whose leaders managed to get arrested for breathtakingly stupid lapses. Mohnhaupt is quite a striking figure, and the actress bears a disconcerting resemblance to Nico. Should a biopic ever get made on the singer's life (and why hasn't that happened?), surely Uhl would be a leading candidate.

If the film does provide opportunities to glamourise the RAF leader, it also shows the cost of the group's actions, with gory, bloody, bullet-ridden assassinations depicted, balanced by police brutality and an attempted assassination of student leader Rudi Dutschke. The message seems to be: violence begets violence.

Dutschke's shooting in 1968 is an interesting inclusion. Not a member of the RAF, he is shown as inspiring many youth to protest against the Vietnam War and there is a long sequence showing his attacker stalking, confronting and shooting him several times. Blood spurting from his mouth from several wounds, Dutschke stumbles, falls and appears an absolute goner, but miraculously survives and promptly disappears from the film until much later on when he appears at the funeral of Holger Meins, an RAF member who died on hunger strike.

That draws a parallel with the other particularly graphic scene: the force-feeding of Meins in prison. If one duty of the state is to give everyone a fair trial, provide representation and to protect them in custody, then clearly it fails in this instance. By including this scene, the film attempts to recognise the humanity of people, no matter their extreme ideology and to suggest that nobody deserves to be treated with such brutality. This message is especially timely, given that it is considered acceptable for states to hold suspects for indeterminate time without charge or trial. Equally trenchant is a police investigator hunting the RAF suggesting that those in power must change the conditions that lead to terrorism.

The Baader Meinhof Complex provides few insights into what turns political activists into terrorists, being more interested in action than motivation. As such, it is dramatic, powerful, violent and gripping. But the question asked so many years ago by Marianne Faithfull in "Broken English" remains unanswered: what are you fighting for?

The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in the UK on 14 November.

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