Paul A. Cantor
West Germany's 9/11
A movie with the catchy title The Baader Meinhof Complex was probably doomed at the box office from the start in its theatrical release in the United States. To have any hope of commercial success, it needed to be renamed something like Diary of a Rich, Sexy Terrorist or Bonnie and Clyde Meet the PLO or Big Bad Baader. Maybe the film will enjoy wider circulation in America now that it's available on DVD.
Just trying to explain what this movie is about suggests why watching it can be both a frustrating and an illuminating experience for Americans. The film deals with the Baader-Meinhof Group (also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang), radicals who operated in Germany in the 1970s, engaging in the full spectrum of terrorist activities—firebombing buildings, robbing banks, kidnapping businessmen, assassinating public officials, occupying the German embassy in Stockholm and taking hostages, and, in collusion with Arab terrorists, highjacking an airliner. But to be historically accurate, I must point out that the terrorists never referred to themselves as the Baader-Meinhof Group. They called themselves the Red Army Faction, and in the film they are often referred to by the anagram RAF (the initial letters are the same in German as in English—Rote Armee Fraktion—and yes, it's "Fraktion" in German but "Faction" in English).
In short, in the space of an action-packed two and a half hours, this film covers a momentous decade in German history, raising all sorts of complicated political, socio-economic, legal, diplomatic, military, cultural, and other issues. To follow the film, it would really help to come to it already knowing who a host of German public figures from that decade were, from Willy Brandt to Helmut Schmidt, from Rudi Dutschke to Axel Springer, from Siegfried Buback to Hanns-Martin Schleyer, not to mention Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader themselves. This film was made for a German audience, who are as familiar with these events as Americans are with, for example, Watergate or 9/11. According to all the accounts I have seen, the actors even physically resemble the historical figures they are playing, and, on one of the DVD bonuses, several of them reveal that they were worried about impersonating people who are still very much alive and still in the public eye in Germany.
Thus American viewers may have a hard time following the plot of this film, and with its whirlwind pace, they could easily miss the ramifications and larger repercussions of the events portrayed. To be honest, even though I am by no means an expert on this subject, I was able more or less to keep up with the plot developments. Still, I suspect that the huge amount of historical knowledge the film assumes will make it a frustrating experience for American viewers. But, on the other hand, that is precisely why it proves at the same time to be fascinating. It opens our eyes to historical events about which Americans know very little but which are obviously relevant to our contemporary experience with terrorism. It made me want to know more about the subject, and a few hours after I watched it, I was compulsively surfing the net for as much information about the Baader-Meinhof Group as I could google.
If I found the film intellectually stimulating, why do I nevertheless have to confess that I hated watching it? I doubt if I could have forced myself to see it all the way through if I hadn't been assigned to review it. The two and a half hours are filled with a relentless series of stomach-churning scenes—beatings, maimings, murders, torture, hunger strikes, suicides, mob violence, police violence, prison violence—all portrayed with gut-wrenching realism. The film also contains scenes of female and male nudity, with some sexual activity involved, and it is filled to the brim with foul language. The English subtitles seem to me even more vulgar in their diction than the original German dialogue. In sum, this is not a family film (unless your family happens to be named Manson).
But what made this film excruciatingly painful for me to watch was the seemingly endless cascade of left-wing slogans and bromides. The story is told largely from the perspective of the terrorists, and that means we have to listen to them pontificate about saving the world for much of the film. About ten minutes into the movie, I had reached my daily quota of Marxist dogma, and from then on kept saying to myself: "I don't have to watch a film for this; I can hear this stuff any day at my university." I realize that the film is portraying terrorists, and terrorists do not talk like Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. Still, in terms of my being able to enjoy a film, I draw the line at having to hear the claim that Israelis behave no better than Nazis go unchallenged. There were many moments in this film that just made me angry.
But I had to admit: that is testimony to the visceral power of the movie. I wanted to turn it off precisely because it was getting under my skin. The actors and actresses give superb performances. They totally inhabit their roles and make all the characters come to life, even the minor figures. The historical details of the story were researched with what can only be called Teutonic thoroughness, and the way the film manages to re-create the Germany of the 1970s is remarkable. The early scenes of the riot that occurred during the Shah of Iran's visit to Berlin in 1967 may well be the most effective staging of mob/police violence I have ever seen on screen. The director, Uli Edel, who wrote the screenplay along with producer Bernd Eichinger, set out to portray a deeply disturbing moment in German history, and as far as I can tell from comments from people who know the era better than I do, the film largely succeeds in being true to its subject. If the film is profoundly unsettling, so were the events it brings to the screen.
In the informative interviews included in the two-disk DVD version, the people involved in the film, including the historical experts attached to the project, make a similar defense of their efforts. They all insist that they were striving for a semi-documentary effect in the film. They claim that, having supplied viewers with as objective an account of what happened as possible, they can let their audience make up their own minds about the significance of this period in German history.
I do not question their sincerity, and yet it is surprising to hear anybody, let alone educated Europeans, make such claims to objectivity in this postmodern age. The makers of the film, who frankly admit to their left-wing background, seem unaware of the biases that inevitably inform their work. I hate to oversimplify a complex matter, but if I were forced to state the message of this film, it would run something like this: "The Baader-Meinhof Group were essentially right in their criticism of the West Germany of their day—it was a neo-fascist police state, deeply involved with reactionary forces around the world, including the neo-imperialism of the United States in Vietnam and elsewhere. The Baader-Meinhof rage against the system was therefore justified, but the way they chose to respond to that system was tragic: they answered violence with violence and became the mirror image of the forces they were rebelling against, and in the end they destroyed themselves and killed many innocent people." These are all arguable claims, but they hardly constitute a neutral assessment of the story.
I do not have the space to prove this interpretation of the film's message; I can only point to one particularly telling scene. To the extent the movie has a moral center—and it is genuinely questionable whether it does—it is represented by the head of the forces assigned to capture the terrorists (Horst Herold, played with his usual brilliance by the great German actor Bruno Ganz). This man does all he can to destroy the gang, and yet at a crucial moment he tells a group of fellow officials, who merely want to crush and annihilate the terrorists, that the first and most important thing to do is to understand them, to figure out what motivates their violence and by implication to acknowledge the legitimacy of their protests and demands (specifically those of the Palestinians against Israel).
This may be a valid perspective on the Baader-Meinhof story, but I wish the makers of the film would admit that they do have their own take on the events and are not giving an unbiased account of what happened. One could easily question their one-sided and oversimplified view of the role of the United States in the geopolitics of the 1960s and '70s, or the view of Israel presented in the film. Still, the film's biases are subtly embedded in it, and many commentators have accepted its claim to objectivity. Indeed the extremely varied reception of the film seems to support the claim that it leaves judgment to the viewers. It has meant many different things to many different people, as is evident, for example, from reading the reviews of the DVD on amazon.com.
Radicals have praised the film for its sympathetic treatment of the terrorists and its acknowledgment of the justice of their cause. Conservatives have praised the film for its unsparing analysis of the pathology of radical terrorism, the way it reveals the Baader-Meinhof Group to have been self-indulgent, spoiled children of the middle class—and narcissistic, thrill-seeking sociopaths to boot. By the same token, some on the Left have criticized the film for its negative portrayal of the Baader-Meinhof Group, arguing that it accepts uncritically the establishment view of their story. For example, some complain that the film adopts the official government line that the leaders of the gang committed suicide in prison, whereas the accepted radical version of the events turns them into martyrs, brutally murdered by their guards in what were made to look like suicides (a view immortalized in the painting The Murder of Andreas Baader, by the great Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum). Meanwhile, some commentators on the Right vilify the film for glamorizing the terrorists and presenting their opponents as Gestapo-like goons. They fault the film for not acknowledging what study of the files of the East German communist regime has revealed—that some of the West German policemen who were guilty of actions that provoked the Baader-Meinhof terrorism turn out to have been agents provocateurs, in the pay of the East German secret police, who were trying to destabilize West German politics.
In sum, if the makers of this film wanted viewers to draw their own conclusions about the Baader-Meinhof Group, they have evidently succeeded. Their movie does have the documentary quality they wished to achieve. But for me that is not simply praise; it is a criticism of The Baader Meinhof Complex as well. In largely succeeding as a quasi-documentary, the film partly fails as a work of art. Although it is a very professionally made film—even slick at times—it is not a well-made film in the sense of a well-made play. In dramatic terms, the film is loosely structured, more like a chronicle than an artful narrative. In its effort to cover everything that happened during a ten-year time period, the film threatens to get lost in the chaos and confusion of the history it is portraying. It is not enough for the filmmakers to reply: "we were trying to portray precisely the chaos and confusion of that era." In literary criticism, that is known as the fallacy of imitative form. Homer had a story of a ten-year conflict to tell in the Iliad, and it involved a lot of chaos and confusion, but he knew how to distill out the essence of the story to clarify its meaning. The Baader Meinhof Complex fails to focus on a few key events or to build up to a clear dramatic climax. In the end, the weakness of its dramatic structure goes a long way toward explaining why I find it interesting to talk about the substance of The Baader Meinhof Complex, but not enjoyable to watch it as a movie.
1. Among those interviewed is Stefan Aust, whose book Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F., published in 2009 by Oxford University Press, is the best available account of the group's history, and who served as a consultant on the film.
Paul A. Cantor is the co-editor of Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture (Ludwig von Mises Institute).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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