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Hollywood has certainly distorted the image of terrorism. The "terrorists" in thrillers from The Bourne Ultimatum to The International are master criminals, corrupt politicians, power-mad generals and comic book villains. Most political villains in movies turn out to have motives other than politics, to the point that I believe the general public doesn't accept that any violent radicals are sincere in their aims -- if no selfish reason can be found, religious mania or fanatical hate is the fallback position. Movies that present terrorists as having even an inkling of of a rationale for their actions, no matter how self-deluded, make audiences uncomfortable. That's too much controversy, too much to think about. And there's always the danger of glamorizing the radicals and their ideas.
For the last ten years or so the most engaging and adult thrillers I've seen about real-life political conflicts have come from Germany: The Tunnel, Downfall, The Lives of Others, The Counterfeiters. All deal with contentious issues -- Nazis, concentration camps, the Berlin Wall, repression in East Germany. 2008's The Baader Meinhof Complex is the most challenging film yet on the subject of Terrorism. The violent German radicals covered in this show make ordinary political activists and Marxist revolutionaries seem like gentle romantics.
"The Baader-Meinhof Gang" is the name the media gave to the Red Army Faction (RAF), ostensibly to redefine a militant radical group as simple gangsters. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a straightforward account of the group's ten-year reign of terror in the relatively peaceful, reconstructed West Berlin. Enraged young politicos spoke out against the West German government and the many ex- Nazis among its leaders. Seeing that the newspapers and TV supported the government version of all events, some youthful rebels advanced quickly beyond conventional political dissent. An underground group of disaffected students and juvenile detainees rallied around Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof to take direct action against their perceived enemy.
The movie invents little, using the printed and recorded words of the participants. Leftist journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck of The Lives of Others) is already a major anti-government spokesperson, protesting West Germany's complicity with the United States in its war in Vietnam and its support for the Shah of Iran. When a policeman murders an anti- Shah demonstrator and the leftist leader Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Bromberg) is shot down on the street, Meinhof throws her support behind Baader and Ensslin, a pair of reckless firebrands. Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek of Aimée & Jaguar) is a rebellious minister's daughter who despises talk and believes wholeheartedly in violent action. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreau of Run Lola Run and Munich) is a car thief and violent hothead who welcomes the opportunity to strike out at the establishment. They quickly attract a cadre of young followers as well as other radical journalists and lawyers. Inspired by the promise of a new revolution, Ulricke Meinhof helps Baader make a prison break. The most notorious urban guerillas of the 1970s are in business.
The RAF aligns itself with the growing Third World resistance movement and fires off manifestos with every violent outrage. The group plants bombs, robs banks and pulls off assassinations and kidnappings. Their crimes continue even as the police succeed in arresting many of their "commandos". Innocent bystanders are killed and maimed. Meinhof publishes her approval of the murders of the Israeli Olympics team at Munich, initiating a relationship with Jordanian militants. The authorities are shocked to find that 30% of young Germans approve of the RAF, who they see as opposing a West German establishment ruled by ex-Nazis in league with American Imperialists.
The Baader Meinhof bunch proves too radical even for the Jordanians, who are shocked by their sexual license and lack of discipline. After a wave of new outrages, all of the RAF's "first generation" is killed or captured. Conscious of the need to avoid inspiring new radical groups, the West Germans go to elaborate lengths to mount a fair trial. The defendants exploit these concessions to disrupt the proceedings, while the "second generation" of RAF commandos botch a number of kidnapping and embassy takeover attempts to free them. Things come to a head as detainees die in hunger strikes or are found hanging in their cells. In support of the RAF, Arab radicals hijack a Lufthansa jet in a last-ditch attempt to free Baader and Ensslin.
The ferocious violence of the RAF makes The Baader Meinhof Complex an arresting action film; the film is one fully documented armed conflict after another. The West German police allow the Shaw's "security detail" to attack a crowd of loud but peaceful demonstrators with wooden clubs. Communist leader Dutschke's would-be assassin looks like a latter-day member of the Hitler Youth. Some of the first-generation members are middle-class idealists who dress in trench coats as if playing parts in a Humphrey Bogart film. Beautiful Alexandra Maria Lara (who played Hitler's secretary in Downfall) runs a roadblock and then tries to shoot it out with the cops. The reckless Andreas Baader flies into rages when RAF actions go wrong. The commandos have fiery rhetoric for every occasion, some of it quite inspiring on an emotional level. But the fact is that they're forever on the defensive and on the run, never in control. The admirably restrained government response is represented by special police strategist Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz) and his assistant Dietrich Koch (Heino Ferch, the hero of The Tunnel). Herold uses computer data cross-indexing to locate likely RAF members, and chooses police actions that encourage the radicals to become impatient and reveal themselves. The government maintains a responsible course despite the RAF's ambush murders and kidnaps of judges and other officials.
We've seen documentaries like The Weather Underground and Patty Hearst and the SLA about violent American radicals. These groups come off as confused or impotent when compared to the RAF. Whereas it should be obvious that violence is counter-productive to political change, the fact is that everybody secretly loves a rebel. Film critics in particular have been guilty of perpetuating the mystique of "radical chic", a concept applied to movies ever since Bonnie & Clyde vaguely implied that its rural bandits were anti-capitalist revolutionaries. Worthy political films like The Battle of Algiers and "Z" reveal truths instead of attempting to make radical politics into a fashion statement. The Baader Meinhof Complex is exciting because it clarifies a history that the U.S. media reported only for its shock value.
The movie doesn't say so, but the RAF's third generation continued to commit crimes well into the 1990s. Critics of The Baader Meinhof Complex have cited its commercial sex scenes as a detriment. Those didn't bother me but the choice of music did. Having Bob Dylan sing over the end credits seems not a nostalgic flashback but a mild endorsement of the violent radicals. Also, the government's Horst Herold is charged with voicing sentiments like "catching the commandos isn't enough, we have to stop the root cultural causes of terrorism". These lines are as false as the speeches from old, lame socially conscious movies: "This isn't the problem of the juvenile delinquents, this is our problem". Otherwise The Baader Meinhof Complex is a hard-edged, no-nonsense political action thriller that will keep you riveted to your seat. One impressive scene has Gudrun Ensslin's religious parents describe to a reporter how radical anti-Fascist action galvanized their daughter into taking a personal stake in history. As horrible as the results were, we can't help but be fascinated by people who put their lives on the line for their beliefs.
Director Uli Edel's spotty career includes some real howlers, including Madonna's risible Body of Evidence. He and international producer Bernd Eichinger (Our Hitler, The NeverEnding Story, Downfall) turn The Baader Meinhof Complex into a gripping experience. The 2.5-hour show moves at a dizzying pace yet nothing gets lost in the adaptation. Author Stefan Aust reportedly knew Ulrike Meinhof and had a tangential involvement in the events of the movie.
The on-screen talent is very impressive; it's always good to see these superior European actors granted such good roles. The beautiful Martina Gedeck de-glamorizes herself to play Ulrike Meinhof, particularly in her later stages of depression. Johanna Wokalek makes her Gudrun Ensslin into a ruthless wild woman, a politico with a sharp tongue and a broad mean streak. Mortiz Bleibtreau's Andreas Baader is a real troublemaker, a manic zealot. Radical rebellion seems a convenient way for Baader to channel anti-social energy and have fun at the same time. We're told that the real Baader had a strong lisp, a detail dropped for the movie.
MPI Home Video's Blu-ray of The Baader Meinhof Complex is a fine encoding of this fast-moving, colorful action thriller. The film's production values are top-rank, with the large-scale set-piece scenes of rallies and street rioting making a stunning impact in HD.
The lengthy presentation extras, produced for the film's 2008 premiere, are spread across the Blu-ray and a second DVD of extras. A long-form making-of show appears in HD. Interviews with writer-producer Eichinger and author Stefan Aust, and featurettes on the film's cast, music score and period re-creation are in standard def. The production hired two full-time researchers to get legal clearances for hundreds of 70s photos and posters seen in the film. Older hairdressers were hired to provide the proper period look -- they're more familiar with how kids wore their hair back then. For a person who was a kid back in the early 70s, it is very strange to see one's own college years being recreated in near-anthropological detail.
The interviews with Stefan Aust are particularly informative. He recalls that radical Gudrun Ensslin loved the book Moby Dick and used it to defend the fairly indefensible actions of her lover-leader, Andreas Baader. She compared Baader to Ahab, asserting that all great things in history were achieved by men with pathological obsessions.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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