The Baader Meinhoff Complex bangs away for two and a half hours, re-telling the true story of the Red Army Faction, a radical German protest group so violent, they make the Black Panthers and The Weather Underground seem like pacifists in comparison. The story of the RAF may not be very well known in the United States, but that’s not the only reason this excellent film is worth the attention of American audiences. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and aside from the amazing story, what’s most remarkable here are the main characters, who remain fascinating throughout, in spite of their many flaws. Keep in mind folks, these people were not only serious and committed in their beliefs, they were also out and out murderers. In their wake, the RAF left a trail of 47 dead. Despite all the unrepentant violence though, these characters somehow come across as complex and intensely human.
For a film like this, it’s clear that getting an audience to identify with the main characters might be the biggest stumbling block for the filmmakers. But Producer/Screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, and Director Uli Edel, have pulled it off by simply attempting to recreate history, and allowing the audience to make up their own minds with regard to the rest. Together, the two have painted a compelling portrait of Germany in the late 1960′s and early 70’s, effectively giving the audience a taste of the atmosphere that spawned the RAF.
Imagine if you can, Germany in 1968: the sexual revolution is in full bloom, the cold war is still ice cold, and the German student population is beginning to unearth the wicked sins of the last generation. For many young people, that meant coming to the stunning realization that their parents, family members, and government leaders were guilty of supporting or even playing a part in Hitler’s Nazi regime. The bloody images of the U.S. conflict in Vietnam that invade German television don’t really help matters, and the issue of a rubber stamped genocide heats things up even further. The German government’s complicit approval of the war, and a visit by the Shah and Princess of Iran, sparks a peaceful student protest, just as unrest grows tangible. The protest results in a mass student beating, led by the Shah’s supporters and German police, leaving one protester shot dead in the street. The event becomes a flashpoint for the creation of the so called “first generation” of the RAF, led by Gudrun Ensslin and Andreas Baader. As a young militant girl who plays for keeps, Ensslin is played with sultry, manipulative brilliance by Johanna Wokalek. Moritz Bleibtreu plays Baader, her lover and very real partner in crime, as a selfish bully who charms loyal followers through sheer fearlessness. Martina Gedeck gives the most complex and nuanced performance in the film however as Ulrike Meinhoff, a sympathetic journalist with a husband and two young daughters, who eventually turns her back on her life to join the RAF.
The three join forces and together with their followers become known as the Baader-Meinhoff Gang, thanks in part to Meinhoff’s propagandist communiques to the German press. The arson, bombings, jailbreak, and point blank shootings they commit together in protest, eventually lands each one of them in German prison. The film takes on a slower pace as the group goes stir crazy while awaiting court proceedings in jail. The pace of the action is mitigated however by the galvanizing effect their capture has on remaining members, as second and third generations of the RAF form. The subsequent actions taken on behalf of The Baader-Meinhoff Gang, reads like a modern history of terrorism in Europe, and for that reason alone this film is worth watching.
New chapters on European terrorism unfold on screen while the main characters await their fate, and the viewer is forced to consider what plants the seeds of anger initially, and what, if anything might be done to break the chain of violence in the end. All of these ideas are worth some serious consideration, and the film’s relevance is only magnified by the quality of the script, direction, and performances throughout. Without a doubt, this film is definitely worth seeing people, and all the more if you can catch it while it’s still up on the big screen.