Based on Stefan Aust’s non-fiction bestseller and prefaced with the ever suspicious claim ‘a true story’, his film opens on the exclusive, partly nudist, Baltic holiday island of Sylt in June 1967, as Janis Joplin plays on the soundtrack and we see the German journalist and mother Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) observe the regimented ‘freedoms’ of the late ’60s privileged bourgeoisie. Meinhof is one of three main characters on which the film rovingly concentrates – many are seen, few are identified – alongside criminally enthusiastic RAF co-founder Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his anti-authoritarian, pastor’s-daughter girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek).
But it is Meinhof’s unpredictable conversion from radical writer to full-blown ‘revolutionary’ which is at the heart of this episodic film’s essential mystery. She aids a bold rescue mission to spring the imprisoned Baader, takes an increasingly important role in the faction’s tactics and organisation, even abandoning her children to a Palestinian camp, before cracking up in Stammheim prison.
One of the most expensive recent German films, ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ has a good pedigree among its makers. Its eclectic producer and writer, Bernd Eichinger, was responsible not only for ‘Downfall’ but also one of the seminal cinematic inquiries into the Nazi heritage with Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s ‘Hitler: A Film from Germany’. Edel, with films including ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, has shown a creative taste for Hollywood-style spectacle and a bold, often savage, insight into the workings of murky and violent human passions.
Cultural and dramatic competence is in evidence here, but this is a film more intent to show rather than understand. It’s also more content to present an admittedly compelling and relevant ‘factual’ history but loath to offer any profound social, political or psychological analysis of its protagonists. As such, this is a film that’s bound to disappoint and bemuse as much as it intrigues.
The reconstructions are impressive, notably the violent response of supporters of the Shah of Iran and riot police to a Berlin demonstration which, legend has it, concentrated the mind of the left and provided the foundations for the Baader-Meinhof gang’s support. Also remarkable are the evocations of the ideas, conflicts and contradictions of the time.
At two and a half hours, it’s a risky, if laudable, strategy to outline a decade-long chronicle of events – arson attacks, bank raids, assassinations and kidnappings – without adopting, or privileging, a fully developed character with whom the audience can relate to or identify. As an action-packed pageant of events it is excitingly demonstrative and provocative, but as human drama it proves a mite too enigmatic and unyielding.