Note: Some elements of this review have been taken from my theatrical review of The Baader Meinhof Complex, although I had a significantly different opinion viewing the movie on DVD, and have altered the review to reflect that.
There is a line in Armando Iannucci's In the Loop, spoken by the war-hungry US Assistant Secretary of State Linton Barwick (David Rasche): "All roads lead to Munich." In the context of In the Loop, it's a joke, but re-watching The Baader Meinhof Complex on DVD, it seems like an accurate observation of the time that gave birth to the Red Army Faction, or RAF, which rose to prominence in the years between the fall of the Third Reich and the politically charged Munich Olympics (not to mention amidst the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, and an attempt on German student Rudi Dutschke's life). Director Uli Edel paints a compelling portrait of an ideological impasse, a point at which it may have been impossible to reconcile one side's views with the other without any genuine conflict or bloodshed. The question is: can we prevent something like it from happening again?
The film follows a group of German youths who are fighting against what they feel is a fascist government. Their leaders are Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who catch the attention of the police when they bomb a department store. While in prison, Ensslin is introduced to Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a German journalist who has plenty to say about the increasingly oppressive attitude of the government from behind a typewriter, but isn't ready, at first, to leave her children behind in the name of political upheaval. The two become friends, and when Andreas is arrested after he and Gudrun attempt to flee when the jury declares them guilty of the bombing, Ulrike is convinced to help participate in his escape. Instead of staying behind as a supposedly innocent bystander, she decides to escape with them, and eventually starts writing the various manifestos sent out by the group, officially calling themselves the RAF.
The role of the German government in Hitler's ascent to power places The Baader-Meinhof Complex and the members of the RAF in a startling no-win scenario. On one side, there is a government filled with ex-Nazis trying to scrub the last few years from the record using police brutality in the face of protest (shown in one of the film's stunning opening scenes), while on the other, a group of volatile, righteous youths are gearing up to fight fire with fire, because nothing else seems to work. On some level, the RAF want genuine social reform, a cause worth fighting for, but it's almost immediately clear that the RAF's actions too anarchic to get the right kind of attention; in one scene, Baader encourages one of his followers to fire shots at random out a car window. It's also just as clear, if not clearer, that the government is simply unwilling to listen, and to that end, the film offers occasional scenes with a tired-looking Bruno Ganz as Horst Herold of the Federal Criminal Police Office. Ganz is good, but his scenes are repetitive and leading, mainly consisting of him musing about the two sides needing to meet in the middle.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex is, first and foremost, a technically astonishing film. If direction alone made a movie, it'd probably rank as the best movie I saw in all of 2009. At all times, the film is visually alive, with beautiful, kinetic cinematography by Rainer Klausmann depicting the various atrocities committed by the RAF with the same kind of brutal, take-no-prisoners panache as Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds displayed with similar material. This is a startlingly violent and realistic movie, never for an instant shying away from the fallout from the group's actions (not to mention the liberated attitude of the characters and setting; I think there's more full-frontal nudity in this movie than I've seen in the past 3 years of American films). The bombing of the newspaper offices that eventually haunts Ulrike is one of the film's most stunning moments, as is the brutal kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Bernd Stegemann).
Edel paints Baader and Ensslin as angry people who act out of resentment, while Meinhof is the voice of reason. At first, Ensslin primarily exists in the middle, but she quickly begins to drift towards her boyfriend's side as it becomes clearer and clearer to Meinhof that their plans are digging them a grave rather than climbing a ladder. By the time the trio, along with a fourth member, Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt), are put on trial at Stammheim Prison, the group is actively, publicly arguing amongst themselves and working against one another, as well as watching with astonishment as a new group of youths, far removed from the original protests and further lacking a leader with a well-defined vision, blow up buildings and hijack airplanes with reckless abandon. The performances by Bleibtreu, Wokalek and Gedeck are all top-notch, even if it's hard to swallow some of Wokalek's intensely hateful attitude.
The only flaw -- the relevance of which is left up to the viewer -- is that Edel and his co-screenwriter Bernd Eichinger avoid offering a real opinion on the events, choosing to let their depiction of the time speak for itself. Obviously, being a film, it's hard to judge how accurate it really is, but it seems to be a straight take on the things that really happened, and at a certain point, that doesn't feel like enough. The Baader Meinhof Complex is an incredibly compelling piece of filmmaking, one of the best of the year, but it's not a quite satisfying as a movie, offering a vision of a time, and nothing further. If the film had something else to latch onto, some other element to bring it all together, it would probably rank as an all-time classic. As it is, it is a blistering historical recreation and a technical masterpiece, and often as emotionless and coldly objective as some of the people it showcases.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex arrives on DVD via MPI, who have created a very nice-looking package that uses the movie's poster artwork and color scheme very effectively (even integrating a new logo -- that of the New York Times -- without ruining the image). The back cover is a bit on the basic side, but hey, they kept the poster, so I can't complain. The two-disc set is housed inside via a flap tray, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
When I saw the movie in theaters, it was projected digitally, if I remember correctly, and it looked fantastic. Obviously, no DVD presentation is going to be on the level of a digital theatrical presentation, but it's clear in my mind that one or two questionable tweaks have been used on this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen version of the film. The colors all look pretty vivid, and fine detail seems alright for DVD, but my eyes detected a fair amount of edge enhancement, and whites (such as the back of a man's suit at the party at the very beginning of the movie) are horribly blown out and even blinding. A quick glance at screencaps from the Blu-Ray version suggest a better contrast balance and less artificial sharpness. From a distance, the casual viewer probably won't notice, but for me, it took away from the experience.
The German Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine, although it doesn't pack the amount of punch I was expecting. Again, it's probably unfair to compare this standard definition disc to the version I saw on the big screen, but I remember the gunshots being far louder, as if to emphasize the violence. It's probably just my imagination, but the dialogue and the sound effects seem a little closer together on home video, but even so, the track is just fine overall. English subtitles are provided in lieu of any dubs.
Disc 1 contains a general making-of featurette called "How the Film Came About: The Making of The Baader Meinhof Complex" (29:47). It's a breezy half-hour that hits all of the most important bases, packing in plenty of B-roll footage and covering quite a few elements of Edel's directorial process. It's the perfect balance between insight and pacing, never feeling as if it's glossing over particularly interesting elements of the production.
The film's original theatrical trailer is also included.
Disc 2 contains a massive amount of additional video content in the form of four featurettes, including "The Actors On Their Roles" (37:49), "Scoring Baader" (37:49), "On Authenticity"" (20:39), "Behind-the-Scenes" (12:58), and multi-part interviews with author Stefan Aust (approximately 40 minutes) and writer/producer Bernd Eichinger (approximately 25 minutes). There are some interesting comments interspersed throughout these video extras, but for the most part, I found these interviews to be quite dry, with an over-reliance on film clips. It is also disappointing that Uli Edel is not one of the two major interviews (although he pops up fairly frequently in the featurettes). Obviously, I don't want to make it sound like a bad thing that Constantin and MPI have created a whole second disc of material, but anyone who wants to know a little about the making of the movie will be better served by the shorter documentary on the first disc, and when push comes to shove, I probably would have preferred two audio commentaries (the first with Edel, Eichinger, and Aust, and a second by the actors, probably edited-together Criterion-style) or a single long-form documentary than having to sift through the mountain of video to find the best comments.
The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn't quite achieve greatness, but it is a fantastic, visceral movie that will overwhelm the viewer with the same feelings of fear and oppression that existed when the real RAF was committing crimes in the name of revolution. The DVD is a touch lacking in the video department (especially compared to a glance at the Blu-Ray), but all in all, the film comes in a solid package that is well worth a high recommendation to anyone who missed out on the film when it was in theaters.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.