Without the right mix of compelling story and relatable characters, you don't have a great movie. Relatable doesn't necessarily mean likable and compelling shouldn't imply positive, but the audience needs something they understand, that they can engage with in at least a limited way. The Baader-Meinhof Complex is a technically astonishing film; if direction alone made a movie, it would unquestionably be the best movie I've seen this year. The events it depicts, however, are presented in a cold and clinical way that causes the audience to react to them the way they would if they were seeing them on the news, and the point it seems to be making was one that was clear to me right from the very beginning.
The film follows the actions of the Red Army Faction, a group of rebel German youth fighting against what they thought of as a fascist government. The RAF is led by Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who start out committing smaller acts of terrorism like bombing shoe stores and setting fires. Eventually, Baader and Ensslin are introduced to Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). At first, she writes articles about the pair, and when Baader is arrested, she is convinced to help participate his escape. Instead of staying behind as a supposedly innocent bystander, however, Ulrike escapes with them, and eventually writes the various manifestos sent out by the RAF.
The primary problem with the film is that even in a government filled with ex-Nazis and the threat of unwarranted police brutality in the face of protest (shown in one of the film's stunning opening scenes), the RAF's actions never seem like anything but fighting fire with fire. It's almost instantaneously clear that the crimes perpetrated by the trio aren't going to lead to an improved quality of life or social reform, and not just because the film is based on true events with outcomes that occurred 30 years ago. It also turns the characters into unrelatable monsters. I certainly didn't sympathize or empathize with anyone on screen, because their actions invariably affect more innocent people than anyone. On one hand, there's nothing inherently wrong with this if the film is being presented as a historical document, but then again, the film gives us lots of time to get to know the characters, and the experience is like trying to bond with people you despise.
At first, it appears like the film might track a slide by Meinhof into darkness; while she's clearly angry about the events around her and history would say otherwise, Gedeck's performance still allows for a little warmth. There are times when she seems like a fairly everyday person, a far cry from anarchists like Baader and Ensslin. Once she participates and leaves with the escaping Baader, though, she rarely shows any real interest in her actions. At one point, she seems somewhat upset over the bombing of a newspaper office, but you only see her detached attitude when it's happening and when she regrets it; the audience is never taken on the journey between. To be fair, this is probably because director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger don't want the audience to form bonds with terrorists, but it feels actively alienating.
The most compelling material comes in the second half of the film, when the trio, along with a fourth member, Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt), are put on trial at Stammheim Prison. It's one of the few times in the film where you get to see the public surrounding the RAF members, and their actions aren't viewed in a vacuum. During their stay in the prison, the group is also noticeably drifting apart, arguing amongst themselves and working against one another. The performances by Bleibtreu, Wokalek and Gedeck are all top-notch, and they do their best work in the latter half of the movie, displaying defiance during the trial despite waning strength, anxiously listening to the radio to hear the results of their actions and other sections of the RAF. The entire film is punctuated occasional scenes with a tired-looking Bruno Ganz as Horst Herold of the Federal Criminal Police Office. Ganz is good, but his scenes feel slightly unnecessary, mainly consisting of him musing about the nature of the RAF and whether the various courses of action chosen against them are the right ones.
Edel's direction, again, is the defining reason to see the movie. At all times, the film is visually alive, with beautiful, kinetic cinematography by Rainer Klausmann depicting the various atrocities committed by the RAF. This is a startlingly violent and realistic movie, never for an instant shying away from the fallout from the group's actions. 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). If the film had something else to latch onto, some other element to bring it all together to say something to the audience, The Baader-Meinhof Complex would be a must-see. As it is, it is a film for the curious and patient, as emotionless and unfeeling as the characters it showcases.