The Collegian
Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Featured flick: The Baader Meinhof Complex

Director Uli Edel's 2008 film "The Baader Meinhof Complex" recounts the exploits of some of the most notorious anti-reactionaries of the Red Army Faction -- the prominent West German terrorist organization. It is an unrelenting, if not chaotic, depiction of an anarchic Germany and, moreover, the state of the world, during one of the most precarious decades -- roughly 1967-1977.

The film plays out like the strange hybrid child of a Ken Burns documentary and a Jason Statham film, at times throwing documentary realism for a "Die Hard" sensibility. Nonetheless, Edel's film nearly manages the audacious task of chronicling the history of the RAF, from its roots as a fledgling student protest group, to the demise of its leaders in the bowels of a maximum-security prison.

The protagonist is Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), the hermitic suburban wife of a wealthy, German businessman. She is a woman suffocated by domesticity and condemned to a life of hosting cocktail parties. The film's opening scene, somewhat in opposition to the mayhem that ensues, depicts Ulrike's crisis as she vacations with her family in the German Riviera (I hadn't the faintest idea such a place existed). Caught in the excess of aristocracy, Ulrike is the proverbial fish out of water. Gedeck's performance is one of the film's highlights, a collection of vacuous gazes that gives way to a mannered intensity, underscoring her character's struggle between agency and apathy.

Upon returning home to her family's estate, Ulrike, no longer content with being a conscientious objector, reads aloud a diatribe at one of her husband's dinner parties condemning the Shah of Iran's visit to West Germany. Unfortunately, her debut as a politico is met with harsh indifference from the guests at the party. Determined to fulfill her political passions, Ulrike takes her daughters and leaves behind the palatial estate, the fancy cars and her philandering husband in hopes of garnering a more interested audience.

After moving to Berlin, Meinhof continues her editorial condemnation of capitalism, German apathy and U.S. imperialism in Vietnam, and she meets up with a group of similarly minded youngsters. Among these are Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the RAF's version of Bonnie and Clyde.

Here Edel has given us one of cinema's most fashionable pairs of doomed lovers. Gudrun sports a "bob cut" and designer sunglasses while Andreas is rarely seen without a suede jacket and his aviators. They rob banks and blow up department stores with aplomb and pass secret codes through a copy of "Moby Dick." They are young, sexually potent and wildly narcissistic.

At one point, Andreas professes "sexual liberation and anti-imperialism go together" (of course, right ...?) Whether or not the depiction of Baader and Ensslin is historically accurate, it does speak volumes about the hypocrisy of ideology, a conceit that the film revels in.

Baader, portrayed in the film as the RAF's messianic yahoo, trades the Trotsky for the pipe bomb as he orchestrates a number of horrific terrorist operations aimed at undermining the state and seducing more followers to his cause. In the end, Ulrike abandons the security of her typewriter and comes to the sobering realization that the pen is, unfortunately, not as mighty as the sword.

In this kind of world, violence perpetuates violence, and Ulrike soon finds herself arguing for terrorism as a necessary means in gaining political agency. Unfortunately, therein lies the hypocrisy of the RAF because Hitler, the architect of Germany's fascist past, and its most hated ideological adversary (other than America), used the same kind of rhetoric only decades earlier.

As is the case with many a pseudo-documentary, critics have raised a number of concerns. The first pertains to the film's accuracy as a piece of historical fiction, while the second questions the stylization and supposed romanticized imagining of the terrorists and their actions. On the first account, I have no problems with the filmmakers altering historical fact in order to present a more coherent and thematically inclined narrative. I mean historical fiction is just that ... fiction.

With regards to the romanticized terrorists -- I have no issues. Any film that aims to depict the morally reprehensible -- whether it be a story about terrorism, the mob or drug use -- has to make the audience feel the lure of chaos, the rush of life on the edge and the irreverence embodied by the protagonists on screen, but in the end the audience has to realize the folly.

As Scorsese realized in "Goodfellas," if the audience isn't enamored by the facade, then the film quickly reverts to a tedious exercise in didacticism. We all remember De Niro wildly kicking the lifeless body of Billy Batts to Donovan's "Atlantis." Kubrick did the same thing in "A Clockwork Orange," as he had Alex and his Droogies rape and pillage London to the overtures of Rossini and Beethoven. If anything, the film can't make up its mind how it wants to portray its anti-heroes, and in doing so, sort of half-asses the whole operation.

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Perhaps more problematic is how heavily this film relies on the pacing and tone of films such as the "Bourne" series (especially in the film's first half). In the first real act of ultraviolence (a scene in which the RAF's leader is brutally murdered by a reactionary), the score feels identical to passages from John Powell's score to the "The Bourne Identity" (that familiar heavy bass motif from the Hans Zimmer school of film scoring).

But rather than an appeal to the modern moviegoer, this use of music seems like a cheap and anachronous device used to build suspense. One of the film's more effective sequences has our revolutionaries bombing down the autobahn to the sounds of Deep Purple. In the end, these are the children of the '60s and the sexual revolution, not those of the "MTV-cut," Jason Bourne and the video game generation.

As expected, the art direction and period detail in the movie are superbly realized, and like Spielberg's "Munich," the '70s have rarely looked better on film. In addition, the matching of the film's visuals with real documentary footage only heightens its political relevance.

With wonderful performances by Martina Gedeck and Johanna Wokalek, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is currently playing at the Westhampton 2.

Contact Collegian reporter Greg Montine at

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