Germany's Righteous Outlaws in The Baader Meinhof Complex

Bernd Eichinger, who wrote and produced Downfall, is the force behind the film version of another German trauma, The Baader Meinhof Complex. Founded by self-described urban guerrillas Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Ulrike Meinhof, the Red Army Faction was the Weather Underground, Symbionese Liberation Army, and righteous outlaws of Bonnie and Clyde combined—robbing banks, planting bombs, shooting cops, and assassinating judges for the better part of the decade that followed the convulsions of 1968.

Directed from Eichinger's screenplay by Uli Edel, the movie is a sweeping, hectic docudrama that would have been immeasurably helped by the use of informational intertitles. Despite a large cast, only the three principals are individualized. Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) make a charismatic couple—she's a fiery fanatic, he's a crazy hipster. As the journalist gone native, Martina Gedeck's Meinhof is a tormented liberal who takes the existential plunge—and becomes an object of media fascination—when she decides to escape with the duo after facilitating Baader's 1970 jailbreak.

The events are clear, but the psycho-politics are obscure. Edel's table-setting use of Janis Joplin crooning, "Oh, Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz . . ." suggests RAF crazies were spoiled bourgeois. But they were also chickens coming home to roost: Most of the terrorists' parents opposed the Nazi regime; many of the cops and judges had served the Reich.

The Baader Meinhof Complex lacks the claustrophobic power of Kôji Wakamatsu's parallel epic, United Red Army, but—from the early scene in which Berlin cops allow Iranian thugs to attack peaceful demonstrators against the Shah to the final corpse-dump of kidnapped industrialist Hanns Schleyer—the movie has an undeniable sweep, increasing in intensity once the principals are arrested in June 1972. Subsequent action approaches pure tumult, encompassing the seven-month Stammheim trial and tit-for-tat madness practiced by RAF members attempting to free their erstwhile leaders, who would die, almost certainly by suicide, in prison.

The bloody saga's literary dimension, underscored by the Baader-Ensslin-Meinhof obsession with Moby Dick, has been elsewhere explored: The Third Generation (1977) by R.W. Fassbinder, who knew Baader during his hippie Munich days; Yvonne Rainer's cerebral Journey From Berlin/1971 (1980); Reinhard Hauff's Stammheim, an austere dramatization of the trial transcript that won the Golden Bear at the 1986 Berlin Film Festival, where it was shown under police guard; and Volker Schlöndorff's haunting The Legend of Rita (2000), not to mention Gerhard Richter's late-'80s, 15-painting installation October 18, 1977. By contrast, The Baader Meinhof Complex is an extended footnote.

"Why do new terrorist units keep emerging? What motivates them?" someone asks the police chief (Bruno Ganz), to which he answers, "A myth." The Baader Meinhof Complex dramatizes that myth with surprising success, even as it fails to illuminate it.

 
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