‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ preview
Wally Hammond is fascinated by ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’, the latest film to take on the notorious reign of terror of Germany’s Red Army Faction in the 1970s. But why film this story again – and why now?
‘Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command!’ ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ , Bob Dylan, 1964
In 1971, in the kitchen basement of a senior judge’s house in the New King's Road, I listened to his son and other members – all male – of the editorial board of the Workers’ Press discuss the imminent collapse of capitalism and their role in building the revolutionary vanguard to hasten its demise. As a working-class kid, I was all for the dictatorship of the proletariat – but I remember pondering the enigma that these elegant, well-educated sons of privilege would want to break all their bonds of social, political and intellectual allegiance to become footsoldiers in the coming battle for international justice and evangelical socialism.
I was reminded of this watching one of the most explicitly political and emotionally shockingly scenes in Uli Edel’s ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’. This controversial film is about the activities of the German Red Army Faction, a group of mainly middle-class militant left-wingers, who, in a wave of terror from the late ’60s to the so-called ‘German Autumn’ of 1977, were responsible for hundreds of kidnaps, arson attacks and bank raids, including some 35 killings and murders. In this scene, a pastor’s daughter, a nascent Red Army Faction recruit, publicly upbraids her father for moral and physical cowardice – for being ineffectual in the face of world poverty, imperialist wars and repressive domestic political control. The subtext is their unadmitted guilt for collaboration in the Nazi era.
‘It was Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader’s girlfriend, when she was imprisoned in Stammheim, who talked of the gang’s “historical responsibility to act”,’ explains Bernd Eichinger, the film’s writer and producer. ‘They were so very pompous and vain!’, he laughs, before adding, ‘but they were the generation of “Hitler’s children” who felt their fathers and mothers were deeply compromised.’
The traumatic aftermath and complex implications of the RAF’s activities have, of course, already found their place in German cinema. But, in the heady, artistic days, following ‘Germany’s Autumn’ – difficult days which helped mature the New German Cinema – filmmakers were only too intimately acquainted with the divisive facts and understandably chose to emphasise the personal, as much as the political, implications.
Typically, the iconoclastic German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder in ‘The Third Generation’ (1979) interpreted the events as a sombre, comic opera, detailing with bitter black humour the cowardly, competitive and naive antics of a terrorist cell blithely unware that their actions rendered them as state puppets. He took his title from a quote of Baader, given under questioning in 1977, on the more vicious actions of the third RAF grouping.
Margarethe von Trotta, too, in 1981’s ‘The German Sisters’, chose to privilege the personal. Fictionalising the conflicted relationship of activist Gudrun Esslin (called Marianne and played movingly by Barbara Sukowa) and her elder journalist sister (Jutta Lampe), von Trotta used the events as a backdrop in a deeper enquiry into the psycho-sexual inheritance of Nazism and the regenerative notion of ‘sisterhood’ and feminist loyalty in an era of still unreconstructed patriarchy.
But 30-odd years on the facts are becoming distant history. ‘I was a student in that era,’ says Eichinger, ‘but the funny thing was that I myself was overwhelmed by how much I had forgotten about it.’ He goes on to explain that it was his passion – conceived before, but consolidated during, his time making the highly successful 2004 film on Hitler: ‘Downfall’ – to present that history to a new generation.
‘Also, the fall of the Wall and the opening of archives, and the fact that many ex-members escaped to the East and were forced into the open, provided us with new material’, he explains. But the enigma remains. ‘I didn’t call it the Baader-Meinhof Simplex,’ he jokes. He wanted to let events and expensive recreations speak for themselves.
This also stirs a memory: the massive, arena-set ‘pageants of history’ mounted (with the aid of such as Vanessa and Corin Redgrave) by the Workers Revolutionary Party in mid-’70s London, aimed at educating the masses and helping them realise their revolutionary potential. Eichinger’s film can be read as the opposite: a pageant of history aimed at exposing the folly of ‘revolutionary’ terrorist action. As such it has the penalties of its virtues.
‘It was risky. I chose to break the fundamental rules of narrative. I didn’t want – like in “Downfall” – to follow the trajectory of one person – as 99 percent of movies do. I based the movie on facts,’ explains Eichinger. ‘I trusted that they are so hefty that they would grab the audience’s attention.’
His film is two and a half hours long, covering the copious events from 1967 to 1977, and will be hard going for many, especially those acquainted with the history looking for a new psychological or political interpretation – which ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ doesn’t provide. But, for newcomers, it’s a fascinating chronicle – though one with an important enigma at its heart.
Can Eichinger explain that enigma, that complex: what it is that drives people to become revolutionaries or terrorists? ‘I suppose they think they have a responsibility to make the world a better place, which is no bad thing,’ says Eichinger. ‘But this won’t happen with a Kalashnikov in your hand in West Germany.’ But what about today? ‘That’s why I provide the facts – not an interpretation – in the hope that the filmgoer can make his or her mind up.’
‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ opens on Fri 14.
Author: Wally Hammond
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