Jarv’s Birthday Series: Der Baader Meinhof Komplex (2009)
As I near the present day, I do have to say that, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed this little trawl through the movies released on my Birthday. Even when it’s been a few terrible films, I’ve been forced to watch and review them at such a rate that a good film has popped up and put a smile on my face to relieve any pain caused by some of the rotten dregs of cinema on the list (looking at you Dirty Dancing). 2009 was an interesting year. I was one year into my current job (bah) and had already reached the apogee of self-loathing that selling out inflicts on you. As a result, I was spending far too much time at Gingertown messing around on the Twitch thread. As were we all- this was, after all, only two months shy of founding the Church. Incidentally, Twitch is an excellent site and has pointed me in the direction of many a sterling “international” film that I’d probably never have discovered. And the Red Baron, which was shit.
One of the first films that I remember hearing about from Twitch was Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex, a stellar German film released in New York on 21st August, Although I saw on its opening in the UK in November 2008. This is a film that I loved so much that I immediately included it in my best of the decade for Europe, and is a high-class true story based on an ignominious chapter of recent German History, documenting the story of one of the most laughably inept “terrorist” organisations that ever walked the face of the Earth.
This is a warning in advance- this is a very, very long review. Apologies, and I hope it isn’t boring.
I was absolutely stoked to see this in the cinema. Completely and utterly unreasonably excited about it. If ever a film was ripe to be a disappointment then this one was it. Why was I so excited to see it? Well, I’ve had a minor Milf-type crush on Martina Gedeck since the truly outstanding Lives of Others, and I’ve liked Moritz Bleibtreu since Run Lola Run back in the 90’s. Furthermore, I’m incredibly fascinated by that period of European history, the Red Army Faction and Ulrike Meinhof in particular.
Let me be absolutely clear about this from the start: the Red Army Faction were half-witted revolutionaries led by a charismatic lunatic. The Baader Meinhof Complex bares absolutely no bones about this. When I eventually put together my revolutionary group to sweep the current ruling scum into the Thames, I’m going to have proper goals and demands, rather than just publishing some kind of nebulous “smash capitalism” nonsense. With regards to the Red Army Faction, according to this film they weren’t actually terrorists (despite demands) as Baader was basically obsessed with robbing banks: sticking it to the man by stealing off him. There were real “terrorist” actions that the RAF undertook here, but the one the RAF get upset about was the bombing of a newspaper office, and that was at the instigation of Meinhof, who was probably the only one of them that did understand capitalism. In reality, of course, there was a trail of ill-directed bloodshed behind them including murders, kidnappings, bombings, the disastrous siege of the West German Embassy in Stockholm and the Hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181. To be fair to Baader et al, these last two were performed by “the second generation” as part of the German Autumn.
The Baader Meinhof Complex tells the full story of the Red Army Faction, from conception to the tragic end (Germany really needs to look at this). It follows Ulrike Meinhof, portrayed here as one of the leading lights of left-wing journalism in Germany. She’s stunned by the brutal actions of the police in suppressing a riot and this occurs at the same time as her life begins to fall apart- starting with her husband’s infidelity. Gradually she is drawn to Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Johanna Wokalek’s Gudrun Ensslin (a borderline sociopath deeply inducted into Marxism- without understanding the philosophy at all) and eventually becomes complicit in his break out from prison. She becomes a fully-fledged member of the RAF (crap terrorists as opposed to sterling Air Force), and is essential as their voice. Eventually, the German Police, embodied here by Bruno Ganz’s Horst Herold, capture the terrorist cell, isolate the leaders and put them on trial. The tragic end is inevitable, and deeply upsetting- however, before that the “Second Generation” of the RAF, led by the insane Brigitte Monhaupt (Nadja Uhl) had already begun their rampage of bloodlust and the bodies were piling up.
Interestingly, from a historical perspective, the Second and Third generations of the RAF were far more extreme and savage than the original group led by Baader, and the film does try hard to draw a distinction between the two periods. I’m not excluding the first generation, because they have as much blood on their hands as anyone, but I find it curious that the film tries so hard to excuse the actions of Baader et al, and condemn the later groups. I suppose, if I had to take a stab at it, that the reason for this derives from this comment of Ensslin’s:
They’ll kill us all. You know what kind of pigs we’re up against. This is the Auschwitz generation. You can’t argue with people who made Auschwitz. They have weapons and we haven’t. We must arm ourselves!
The feeling amongst the German Youth of the 1970’s was a strong reaction to the rise of the far right (don’t anyone dare give me this shit about Nazism= Left Wing. That’s all from that half-witted Yank fraud’s book Liberal Fascism and is a deplorable attempt to exonerate the right wing of any of the sins of the 20th Century). The feeling was that the apparatus of power hadn’t changed since the rise of the Nazi Party. The same politicians and police chiefs were still in place, children were taught by the same teachers, and the youth who rebelled against Nazism in horror and collective guilt began to gravitate to the extreme left wing in reaction. Incidentally, just before I get accused of being a pinko liberal anti ‘Merican commie type, the far left are just as revolting and reprehensible as the far right. But hey, Germans like rules, so what can you expect? The Red Army Faction was born from this discontent.
In the film, Meinhof becomes drawn deeper into the web, attending hilariously stupid training camps with the PLO, penning the manifesto and various articles, but never becoming integral to the cause. Rather Ensslin despises her (she accuses Meinhof in one memorable scene of being “a knife in the back of the RAF”), and is rewriting her words before they can reach the public. It’s no surprise that Meinhof is the first of the suicides- although the RAF despicably claim that they were murdered in custody.
The first point of note here on a critical level is that the casting here is simply superb. Gedeck, when made up, is a damned close match for Meinhof, and Wokalek is spookily similar to Ensslin, not to mention that Uhl is almost a facsimile of Mohnhaupt. The only criticism really is that Bleibtreu only bears a passing resemblance to Baader, but given the incredibly accurate job done on the rest of the faction, it’s excusable.
The acting here is as good as the casting. Martina Gedeck is sympathetic, highly attractive and desperately needy as Meinhof. The film almost seems to suggest that this highly intelligent liberal media presence has a minor case of Stockholm Syndrome, but that’s, I feel, too simplistic for a woman as complex as her. Gedeck embodies her with an emotional fragility, and despite being a much more physically and mentally intimidating woman than the juvenile and unhinged Ensslin, she manages to portray Meinhof as essentially mentally weak: a time bomb waiting to go off. Bliebtreu’s performance a Baader is also top drawer, being all insane charisma coupled with strange petulance. However, the ace in the hole here is Wokalek as Ensslin. This is a superb performance, a combination of scarily insane, wilfully strident, vicious, sexy, strong-willed and just as charismatic as Baader.
A film about Terrorism should, by nature, be a dour and unpleasant affair. However, this isn’t true of BMC. The writers Stefan Aust and Uli Edel (also the director) lighten the tone frequently to stop the weighty nature of events from becoming overbearing. Three scenes leap to mind, two at the training camp: Baader’s tantrum where he screams that they are “Urban terrorists” and the training is not for them- they want to know how to rob banks, the brilliant scene where the women are sunbathing nude to the horror of the Islamic extremists, and the truly hilarious moment when Baader, having just goaded a lawyer into stealing a purse discovers that his car has been stolen. This is generally a very clever script, but I have two huge complaints about it. The first is the wilful way that the writers tried to absolve the first generation of bloodshed. They weren’t as extreme as those that followed, true, but they were responsible for murders and bombings. These were not “nice” people, even if you think their cause was just. The second complaint I have regarding the writing is actually fairly major: The Baader Meinhof Complex is downright preachy on more than one occasion. This is most notable during the scenes with Herold, and as good as the acting here is it can’t disguise it. The three men in the room are discussing what to “do” about the Red Army Faction, when Herold comes out with a load of absolute tripe about needing to understand where the terrorists are coming from. This is nonsense for a few reasons: Firstly, he himself would be part of the problem as far as they are concerned, and secondly, it is trying to force the film’s message down the audience’s throat. This is annoying, because in a film as hugely confident as this one, it almost smells like the unpleasant whiff of collective guilt and weak minded liberal thinking rearing its ugly head again. These scenes are unnecessary, and as this isn’t a short film (much like the review) should have ended up on the cutting room floor.
Furthermore, the other reason this bothers me is that the film has a genuinely strong ending totally based in reality. There can be no doubt that the German Authorities did go too far with their incarceration of the RAF, the endless solitary etc. and even if that is understandable due to fear that they were contacting the outside (they weren’t, Mohnhaupt- recently paroled, by the way- was already on the loose) there can be no real justification for what they did. The message of the film stands with the suicide of the main characters, it’s the ultimate example of authoritarian abuse of power in the film, and as such there is no need for endless entirely fictitious rumination about a need to “understand” why these disenfranchised people have become terrorists.
Overall, this is a stupendous film. It’s genuinely superb despite my quibble about the writing, and it’s a film that I do recommend to everyone. The performances alone make The Baader Meinhof Complex worth seeing, but as a depiction of a forgotten period of European history and an insight into the collective German psyche, it’s very hard to top this film. I whole-heartedly recommend Der Baader Meinhof Komplex and give it 3.5 RAF logos out of 4. This really is an essential film, and one of the finest European efforts of the last decade.
Only 1 film to go now: 2010’s Piranha 3D- the perfect antidote for a film as heavy as this one.
I am aware, because I’ve just discovered it, that this review is a fudge of the rules. Therefore at some point I will be returning to *shudder* this list to pick from the awful other options for 2009
Until next time,
The full list in this series:
- 1978 – The Driver (3 out of 4)
- 1979 – Life of Brian (4 out of 4)
- 1980 –Xanadu (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1981 – An American Werewolf in London (4 out of 4)
- 1982 – Class of 1984 (3 out of 4)
- 1983 – Fire and Ice (1 out of 4)
- 1984 – Cal (1/2 out of 4)
- 1985 – Teen Wolf (3 out of 4)
- 1986 –Reform School Girls (2.5 out of 4)
- 1987 – Dirty Dancing (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1988 – Married to the Mob (1 out of 4)
- 1989 – Millennium (1 out of 4)
- 1990 – Darkman (3 out of 4)
- 1991 – Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (2 out of 4)
- 1992 – Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (Orangutan of Doom)
- 1993 – Hard Target (3 out of 4)
- 1994 – Natural Born Killers (1 out of 4)
- 1995 – Desperado (3 out of 4)
- 1996 – Freeway (2.5 out of 4)
- 1997 – Mimic (2.5 out of 4)
- 1998 – Blade (3.5 out of 4)
- 1999 – Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1 out of 4)
- 2000 – Bring it On (1 out of 4)
- 2001 – Heartbreakers (0.5 out of 4)
- 2002 – Sim0ne (2 out of 4)
- 2003 – My Boss’s Daughter (Orangutan of Doom)
- 2004 – Exorcist: The beginning (1 out of 4)
- 2005 – The Cave (0.5 out of 4)
- 2006 – Invincible (3 out of 4)
- 2007 – War (2 out of 4)
- 2008 – Death Race (0.5 out of 4)
- 2009 – Der Baader Meinhof Komplex
- 2010 – Piranha 3D
- 2011 – Conan the Barbarian