The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel

This new German blockbuster adopts a relatively neutral view of 1970s urban guerilla group the RAF
Propaganda of the Oedipal Deed. Film review – Tom Jennings

Submitted by Tom Jennings on December 14, 2008

Propaganda of the Oedipal Deed. Film review – Tom Jennings

Uli Edel’s return to European cinema with The Baader Meinhof Complex gives an impressively even-handed visualisation of ten years of escalating bank raids, bombings, and assassinations of the West German ruling classes by the Red Army Fraction (RAF), until the founding members’ deaths at Stammheim prison in 1977. Producer/screenwriter Bernd Eichinger whittles down Stefan Aust’s 1985 factual account – flirting with action-thriller glamour and ‘radical chic’ (e.g. ‘Prada Meinhof’ high-fashion and other pop trivia) but avoiding the historical dishonesty of high-profile German revisionisms like Goodbye Lenin, The Lives of Others, and Downfall. So, besides Oedipus and military-industrial connotations, ‘Complex’ mainly implies ‘complexity’ – both in the wider phenomenon of the era’s Western urban guerillas, and the personal nuances of leadership, inspiration and motivation in non-hierarchical affinity groups. The admittedly futile and deluded armed struggle in this case nonetheless required a discipline which was consistently eroded by nihilistic impulsiveness and gross ideological stupidity amid a Maoist, Marxist-Leninist and (purportedly) anarchist mish-mash. But while the individuals were fatally flawed (aren’t we all?), they’re clearly only meaningful collectively. Thus Andreas Baader’s regressive macho narcissism and resourceful charismatic panache contrast with Ulrike Meinhof’s conflicted empathetic seriousness and Gudrun Ensslin’s reckless determined passion – all inexorably shading via progressive isolation and adversity into paranoia, cruelty and depression.

Unlike with the Weather Underground and SLA (USA), Direct Action (Canada), Angry Brigade (UK), Action Directe (France) or Red Brigades (Italy), numerous films have covered the RAF – who enjoyed widespread domestic sympathy – most, however, employing decidedly philosophical approaches. Their arthouse intellectualism misses the visceral populist appeal to disaffacted middle-class youth, awoken from stultifying post-war conformism by the 1960s counterculture yet enraged by imperialist carnages abroad, especially in Vietnam. Meanwhile, consumerist saturation at home complemented bureaucratic banality and brutality, with dissent suppressed and moderate liberal-lefties and revolutionary firebrands alike murdered. Conversely, maybe only the complacency borne of aspiring families and affluent backgrounds could have inculcated the grandiose arrogance of these specific class fractions imagining their gestures could kickstart changing the world.

Moreover, their revulsion at their parents’ apathy had special resonance in Germany, where ‘denazification’ mostly entailed a disavowed rehabilitation. So Ensslin (the real driving force of the first generation RAF – and note how many strong young women led these units) berates her liberal pastor father’s inability to act in the face of injustice. Yet her parents comprehend – and even appreciate and identify with – the liberation afforded her by wholesale rejection, through action, of their failed moral codes. Throughout the film, an almost documentarian focus on the physical reality of violence is peppered with such telling moments – cunulatively suggesting the utter bankruptcy both of mainstream institutions and their erstwhile implacable post-hippie antithesis. That the most sympathetic character is the social-democrat counterterrorism police chief – fretting about ‘understanding’ the terrorists while prototyping sophisticated surveillance networks designed to trump repressive tactics – speaks volumes about The Baader Meinhof Complex’s success in raising so many appropriate, and timely, questions while refusing pat answers or naff judgements either way.

Film review published in Freedom, Vol. 69, No. 22, December 2008.

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