Inside The Baader Meinhof Complex
Even back in the day, when I was revolting on campus while extolling the paradise of Soviet socialism to my slack-jawed parents over breakfast, my lefty friends and I drew the revolutionary line at Germany’s Baader-Meinhof group, which grew out of the student movement into a full-fledged terrorist gang whose escalating violence ended in the murder of a prominent industrialist in revenge for the suicide of their three leaders in prison. Nothing that even our most radical British splinter groups got up to in the early ’70s came close to Baader-Meinhof’s neo-fascist (I don’t use the term lightly) rhetoric and brutal acts of terror against the consumer society that shaped them and its American imperialist masters. It doesn’t take a historian to see that the most rigidly disciplined and conformist societies, like Germany and Japan, also produced the most violent student terrorist groups. History is never that simple, of course, but even though the new German film The Baader Meinhof Complex runs two and a half hours and is based on an account of the gang’s rise and pitiful fall by the respected historian Stefan Aust, no one should go to the movie looking for enlightenment as to who the Red Army Faction’s members were or what were the forces that shaped them.
As directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn), it’s mostly a cheesy action picture that measures the gang’s passage from protest to terrorism in stuff getting blown up by the pound. For another, it’s written and produced by Bernd Eichinger, who also wrote and produced the acclaimed but thuddingly literal-minded Hitler movie Downfall, which like Baader Meinhof doesn’t have an intepretive thought in its event-packed head. Apparently, that was deliberate, but happenings alone don’t make history any more than deer-in-the-headlights reaction shots illuminate character. Notwithstanding an ensemble cast drawn from Germany’s A-list, the characters are sloganeering empty vessels, especially Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run) as the loose cannon Andreas Baader, while Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others) makes an unaccountably lifeless Ulrike Meinhof, a journalist turned firebrand who abandoned her two children for “the struggle.”
Like Downfall, The Baader Meinhof Complex (which has grossed more than $18 million at the German box-office since it opened last month and is its country’s official submission to the Oscars) has to be seen as part of Germany’s reckoning with its tumultuous past. But the nearest the movie comes to expressing an idea comes from the mouth of Bruno Ganz, as the chief of police who warns that the gang is just “the tip of the iceberg.” No iceberg follows, but its examination ought to be urgent for any Western society that is wondering how our recent orgy of consumerist greed and rampant warmongering — which makes the post-War period in which Baader-Meinhof came of age look like a tea-party — will shape the attitudes and behavior of the kids who will grow up paying its price. Not to be alarmist, but...civil war, anyone?