‘Baader Meinhof’ is a Gripping Docudrama
As an American teenager growing up in the early 1970s in Frankfurt, Germany, it was impossible not to be aware of the Baader Meinhof gang, an extreme left-wing revolutionary group that called itself the Red Army Faction or RAF.
Under any name, Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and their cohorts in increasingly violent crime made their presence felt — often in deadly ways — as "The Baader Meinhof Complex" makes clear in palpably chilling detail.
It's a uniquely German story about a post-Nazi generation of young radicals determined to reject the tyranny many of their parents embraced during (and leading up to) World War II. But the film also has broader resonance in this current era of worldwide terrorism, even for those who don't recall the RAF's deadly exploits firsthand.
In 1972, the guitarist in my high-school rock band narrowly avoided injury when the RAF set off a pipe bomb in the lobby of the massive I.G. Farben building, the U.S. military and CIA complex in Frankfurt, where both our fathers worked. Another bomb was detonated at a nearby U.S. officers club, less than a mile from our home.
A shootout between the Frankfurt police and several RAF members — which aired live on TV and led to the capture of the wounded Baader — took place just blocks from where we lived.
In conveying the lethal youthful unrest that ignited in Germany and beyond in the late 1960s, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" makes for a gripping viewing experience, in spite of its dense, sometimes muddled storyline. It also serves as a bleak antithesis of the blissful, peace-and-love ethos conveyed in Ang Lee's new film, "Taking Woodstock."
Billed as "a true story," "The Baader Meinhof Complex" is shot in a docudrama style that uses archival news footage of events it depicts. The script is based on a book by Stefan Aust, a left-wing journalist and friend of several key RAF members. Documented speeches, writings and court transcripts are used to tell the tale, which ignites with a bloody 1967 protest in Berlin against a visit by the Shah of Iran.
A subsequent late-night bombing of a department store leads to the trial and brief imprisonment of Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin, who make a mockery of the court proceedings before proudly admitting their guilt. "We have learned," she tells the judge, "that words without action are meaningless."
When questioned by an interviewer, Ensslin's Protestant pastor father responds: "What she wanted to say is this: 'A generation that experienced first-hand how, in the name of the people, concentration camps were built, anti-Semitism spread and genocide committed, cannot allow new beginnings, reformation and rebirth to be for naught.'"
Ironically, his statement more eloquently articulates the impetus for the RAF than any of its dogma-spouting members, as they denounce the German government, U.S. imperialism, the war in Vietnam and exploitation of the poor.
But director Uli Edel is careful to let the events and characters speak (or not) for themselves. At times, the inability of the RAF members to cogently explain their inner rage resonates loudest in the film.
The action gears up after Meinhof, a left-leaning journalist, abandons her two young children to help the incarcerated Baader and Ensslin escape, then becomes one of the gang's most active (and conflicted) members. The RAF's deadly exploits — bombings, bank robberies, murders, more bombings — build with dizzying speed. This is juxtaposed with the subsequent five years most of the gang's doomed members spent in prison (before committing suicide), a period that takes up almost half of this 2 1Ú2-hour film.
Keeping track of all the characters is a challenge, but the acting is strong throughout. As the nihilistic Baader, Moritz Bleibtreu strikes a fine balance between charisma and near-psychosis, while Martina Gedeck deftly depicts Meinhof. The great Bruno Ganz excels as a German police official who warns, in vain, that the authorities must understand the causes of terrorism if they wish to avoid a national tragedy.
The English subtitles are generally accurate, except in misidentifying a bombing site as the nonexistent "Frankfurt HQ 5th Marine Corps." This is a key gaffe, since the gang later admits in court to having bombed Frankfurt's "CIA headquarters," their actual target.
A suitably grim epitaph is provided as Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" plays over the film's closing credits. The song's key question — How many more deaths will it take to know that too many people have died? — is answered, sadly, many times over by the "Baader Meinhof Complex."
"The Baader Meinhof Complex." Rated: R. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes. 3 stars.
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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