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Baader Meinhof Complex

Revolution in ’60s Germany

Dec. 1, 2009
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For millions who came of age in the 1960s, peace, love and understanding was a bourgeois farce. And while the media of the ’00s fixated on Sgt. Pepper and Woodstock, for many the defining events of the late ’60s were the bloody upheavals that erupted around the world in riots from Berkeley to Berlin, the thwarted uprising in Czechoslovakia, the Cultural Revolution in China, the guerilla cells and movements operating almost everywhere except Antarctica. Among the most successful revolutionary groups in the West—if success is measured in longevity and casualties without a single enduring positive accomplishment—was Germany’s Red Army Faction. They remain better known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the moniker assigned them by the German media.

The Oscar-nominated Baader Meinhof Complex is the latest German film on the Red Army Faction, following illustrious predecessors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation and Volker Schloendorff’s Legends ofRita. Little wonder German filmmakers and writers have been so preoccupied with the subject. During the ’70s the Faction held their nation in a grip of ambivalent anxiety as they bombed, killed and kidnapped. Unlike the suicide terrorists of nowadays, their targets were specific—usually judges and prosecutors, captains of industry, American soldiers stationed in Germany. But in playing God with the lives of people they hated and dehumanized as “pigs,” they took other lives as well. Many Germans refused to wholeheartedly condemn Baader-Meinhof, feeling they were making a valid point even if the violence was increasingly disturbing.

Writer/producer Bernd Eichinger, whose lightly fictionalized drama was adapted from an account by a one-time sympathizer, has been accused of glamorizing Baader-Meinhof. In truth, the Gang glamorized themselves by playing to the media and treating revolution as avant-garde theater, erasing the distinction between actor and audience with bombs and bullets. As a good storyteller, Eichinger’s contribution was to infuse the material with the tense pulse of a cinematic thriller.

The Gang’s namesake, Andreas Baader, is depicted as a bigoted, misogynistic psychopath, a coddled child acting tough and pushing his circle toward the grim, always-receding horizon of his bloodstained vision of Utopia. He rationalized his actions through an embrace of Marxism-Leninism, but he was closer to Clyde Barrow than Che Guevara, a reckless thrill killer with a self-rationalizing ideology.

Ulrike Meinhof is the more fascinating of the pair, albeit, as the film shows, she was less Baader’s partner than Gudrun Ensslin, a pastor’s daughter who came to value action over pious words. Meinhof began as an observer rather than a participant. As a columnist for a radical chic magazine, she covered the inception of the youth revolt in Germany and was drawn by steps toward the fiery Baader and Ensslin. She made her final break with society, trading typewriter for tommy gun, during a gun battle in an office, slipping from behind her desk and escaping with the radicals through an open window. She never turned back, even abandoning her children to an orphanage run by Palestinians allied with the Red Army Faction in the global confederacy of leftist radicals during the ’60s and ’70s.

The Palestinian militants, at whose camp the Faction trained, viewed Baader-Meinhof as poseurs—sunbathing tourists on a dangerous holiday cruise. And yet, the Germans were determined to prove themselves as guerilla fighters, severing all ties of biology and affinity, becoming a dysfunctional family unto themselves. To understand them, The Baader MeinhofComplex maintains a running track of contemporary news footage from Vietnam and other trouble spots, and reminds us that the parents of the Baader-Meinhof generation were seen as complicit with Nazism. A kernel of genuine outrage at injustice coexisted with a lust for kicks. As the West German intelligence chief (played by the great Bruno Ganz) explains to his hardheaded colleagues, the Red Army Faction continued despite all setbacks because they possessed “a mythology.”

Unlike Hollywood, The Baader Meinhof Complex doesn’t tell us what to think or how to feel about the Red Army Faction. It allows the Gang’s words and deeds to speak for itself and treats us as adults, capable of drawing our own conclusions.

The Baader Meinhof Complex opens at the Downer Theatre on Dec. 4.n


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