There’s a scene early in ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ in which a group of German citizens are protesting a visit to their country by the Shah of Iran. Although theirs is a peaceful demonstration, the Shah’s supporters start in on them. The ensuing clash attracts police attention and things really get nasty. It’s all truncheons and jackboots and water-cannons and fired shots.
It put me in mind of Jim Sheridan’s ‘In the Name of the Father’, a powerhouse movie but one so determined to stir up outrage in the viewer that the cumulative effect is like being lectured by a coke-fiend for two hours while occasionally getting beaten around the head with a blunt instrument. Heads down, see you at the end, I thought to myself; this one’s going to be a long haul.
Two and a half hours later, still glued to the screen as the end credits rolled, I was in a different frame of mind. ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ impressed and provoked me. But it left me with mixed feelings. Subtle it isn’t – with Uwe Edel directing, it was never going to be – yet somewhere beyond Moritz Bleibtreu’s sneering, swaggering rock star take on Andreas Baader and numerous scenes of brutally realistic violence, some unexpected nuances emerge.
Martine Gedeck’s portrayal of Ulrike Meinhof is one of the film’s grace notes. She effortlessly maps Meinhof’s transition from outspoken journalist to political activist as well as inhabiting her vulnerability, particularly in the trial sequence which provides a gruelling final act.
Bruno Ganz’s thoughtful turn as Horst Herold, seeking to understand the reasons behind the Red Army Faction’s outrages even as his colleagues in the government call for swift and harsh countermeasures, demonstrates the film’s even-handedness. Nor does Edel lionise the Baader Meinhof gang. Their actions are brutal. There are casualties – on both sides. Although Edel lends weight to their ideologies and motivations, he doesn’t try to present a revisionist version of the Red Army Faction as noble, pure-minded freedom fighters. Make no mistake about it: this is a film about a terrorist organisation.
Nor is it all about politics. While Ulrike Meinhof comes across as a woman of intellect driven to desperate action after she discovers that words alone won’t change the world, Andreas Baader is shown as being equally in it for the good of the cause and the perks of the lifestyle: statuesque blonde on his arm*, gun in his hand, cool leather jacket and joyrides in stolen Mercs. Oh yeah, and a few acts of terrorism.
I know very little about the Baader beyond his leadership of the gang. But if the film is even partially accurate, he must have been an insufferable arse. Scene after scene has him throwing a wobbly, either refusing to listen to reason when Meinhof posits ideas and proposals contrary to his (never mind if hers are better thought-out), or getting into a slanging match with PLO members at a guerrilla training camp in Jordan where the Red Army Faction’s free-living ways angers their hosts. It’s beautifully ironic – whether an intended irony or not – that the Red Army Faction seems to get more motivated, and their campaigns more focused, after Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof are arrested and held pending trial.
There’s almost as much nudity and free love as there is revolutionary activity, and it would be almost too easy to accuse Boll of edging into exploitation territory. But I’d like to think it’s part of the aesthetic. ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ is set in the ’70s, and it has an authentic ’70s look and feel to it. Not ’70s-by-design à la Steven Spielberg’s ‘Munich’, but something much more in tune with the edgy, on-the-streets style of film-making of that decade.
Based on Stefan Aust’s non-fiction study of the Red Army Faction, ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ hurtles through a decade of civil unrest, making few concessions to anyone who doesn’t have a decent working knowledge of that period of time. Yours truly, for instance. Supporting characters pop up for key scenes and then disappear. I’m sure some of them aren’t even name-checked. Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl), a major player in the second generation of the Red Army Faction, doesn’t take the stage until the movie is nearly over.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again when it makes its appearance on DVD in April, but I’ll be sure to have read Aust’s book first. With the timeline and the key players more firmly defined in my mind, I’m sure I’ll get a lot more out of ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ second time around.
*Gudrun Ensslin, played by Johanna Wokalek - actually co-founder of the group, longer before Meinhof’s involvement.