The Baader Meinhof Complex

May 19, 2009


Watching Godard films from the mid-1960’s to the early 70’s is something akin to a living history of Continental left-wing radicalism.  The exploration of the ‘children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ in Masculin Feminin becomes the merciless searing of the bourgeois in Weekend.  The activist polemic that is La Chinoise becomes the disappointment at the failure of May ’68 in films like Tout va Bien.  What saves those films from being simple curiosities is the smirking self-awareness, but at their heart you can tell that Godard really believes in the issues his characters do.  If the characters in those films are a group of friends slowly escalating an off-colour joke, then the characters in The Baader Meinhof Complex is the guy that takes the joke too far.

For those who don’t know (count me as one of them prior to viewing, aside from a passing knowledge), the film recounts a decade or so of the operations of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a left-wing group that turns to violent means to support itself and its causes.  Springing from the Anti-Vietnam War movement, the group forms around three people:  the left-wing journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), the volatile Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek).  A large number of side characters join their group, but since so little attention is paid to them by the film they hardly deserve to be recapped here.  Early forays into car theft and arson lead them to flee to a training camp in Jordan and back again.  The film follows them through their operations, inevitable arrests, and imprisonment and trial, all the way through to the beginning of the second generation of RAF.  That is obviously a lot of territory to cover in 150 minutes, so the choices the screenwriters and director must make are what to depict and what to ignore.  Their decision seems to have been “show as much as we can”.

The problem, of course, is that by showing a little bit of everything we understand virtually nothing.  The film is keen to rush from event to event without explaining much in the way of ‘how’ and ‘why’, and in many cases not even BaaderMeinhof2bothering to fully flesh out the ‘who’.  There were a lot of people involved in the operations, and many are given nothing more than a passing glance.  There are extended montage sequences depicting some of the attacks in conjunction with the police response and the arrest of the lesser members.  The significance of pretty much everything is tossed out the window until the final third of the film, which is mostly given over to the build-up to the trial and their time in prison, and even that gets diluted with the introduction of a new set of RAF members and their attempts to force the release of their comrades.  There is a brief sequence showing clips and stock footage of famous worldwide events, from the napalm girl in Vietnam to Martin Luther King’s assassination, the film relying on our prior knowledge of these events for us to make sense of them.  That is fair enough, as we should all be at least vaguely familiar with their significance, but the events of the RAF itself are less known, at least outside of Germany, which led me to just nod along and shrug when a person is shot or a building exploded.

So if the film doesn’t want to explore the motivations of the movement or of the main characters themselves, the least it could do is provide an interesting look into how the attacks worked, but these are relegated to brief clips as well.  There’s a generic SUSPENSE score pulsing through these scenes, but there is no actual suspense on screen.  Whatever you thought of Spielberg’s Munich and it’s attempts at addressing the Israel/Palestine issue, it’s difficult to deny the assassinations depicted there weren’t full of tension, but alas, nothing here to match those.

So we have a film of attractive young people wreaking havoc for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, and what’s worse is that there isn’t much to any of them.  The film establishes the characters of its leads early on and doesn’t do very much to develop them beyond the initial impression.  Andreas and Gunder are passionate and insane, getting off on the excitement and thrill more than anything, and Ulrike is a family woman who drifts into the extreme despite never seeming like she wants to be there.  With no feeling towards them, aside from dislike and annoyance, we’re left with a series of short vignettes (a bank robbery here, a hunger strike there) that seem to go on forever.  It really is tedious.  The best aspect of the film, aside from the look (and it does look great), is Bruno Ganz as Horst Herold, the official in charge of capturing the group.  While very little time is given over to his methods, Ganz brings a serene, laid back quality to the role that is sorely lacking elsewhere.  He treats the situation seriously, but at the same time you get the feeling he’s on the verge of rolling his eyes at the amateurish tactics of these wannabe revolutionaries.  Perhaps the public see them differently from how he (and the viewers) do, but director Uli Edel and screenwriter Bert Eichinger don’t seem very concerned with that aspect at all.

BaaderMeinhof3There are several standout examples of this type of picture being done far, far better in recent years.  Ken Loach’s wonderful The Wind that Shakes the Barley does an excellent job of boiling down a whole movement spanning many years by giving us Cillian Murphy’s character to follow and understand. Steve McQueen’s haunting Hunger says a thousand things more interesting about not only the people involved in the IRA conflict but also the ideologies of both sides as a whole by condensing it to one man’s struggle in prison over a matter of months.  The closest example, though, has to be the aforementioned Munich.  In a similar running time, Spielberg gives us a similar span of time but pulls off both the exciting and tense action sequences and the character development necessary to actually care what is going on.  He even finds time for a debate over the central issues, and on top of all that, still manages to give us the signature late-period Spielberg three-endings-too-many.  The Baader Meinhof Complex, through some very poor choices made by the creative team behind it, leaves us cold and impassioned.  This revolution should most certainly not be televised.


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