There is always going to be a fine (ore sometimes, immense) line between truth and dramatized fiction, especially when dealing with history. There is also going to be divergent perspective about actual events and the people who participated in them. This is especially true is a work – film, book, or other narrative entity – tackles something controversial, multidimensional, and easily skewed. Such is the case with the former West Germany’s RAF (Rote Armee Fraktion or “Red Army Faction”). Known in its early days as The Baader Meinhof Gang or Complex, this band of left wing student radicals considered themselves “urban guerillas” rising up against the perceived fascism they saw surrounding them.
Of course, their view of the social/political fabric within their native land was skewed by their own beliefs and philosophies. It was also amplified by the quasi-cultural revolution going on in the rest of the Western world. Combine this with decades of mythologizing, a bifurcated notion of what they achieved vs. their original aims, and the ever-popular romance with all things rebellious and you’ve got the makings for an intense, if incomplete portrait – and that’s exactly what director Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn) gives us with his stirring docudrama on the RAF’s foundation and early years. Like Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant look at The Battle of Algiers, The Baader Meinhof Complex (out on Blu-ray from MPI) is a sometimes frustrating film that argues all sides of the issue – the violent and the vague, the sexy and the shocking.
When we first meet the founding members of the RAF – Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof and Gudrun Ensslin – they are rallying against the newest threat to Germany’s post-War democracy: United States Imperialism. For them, the link to their recent Nazi past is too obvious, the overall threat too great. So with bombings and assassinations, intimidations both idyllic and frighteningly realized, they intend to shake up the Establishment and create a more human, more homogenous social order. Of course, the government finds no favor in their actions and places the head of the German police force, Horst Herold, in charge of bringing them down. As with many seemingly popular political uprisings, however, it will become a task of Herculean proportions.
Dealing explicitly with the link between physical passion and personal ideals and taking both to glamorized and gory extremes, Edel’s The Baader Meinhof Complex is a redemption of sorts for this one time heralded filmmaker. After a start in ’70s television, amazing movies like Christiane F. and Last Exit to Brooklyn argued for a new and promising voice in international filmmaking. But then came 1993’s awful Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence, and an exile to the US broadcast badlands. Since then, Edel has maneuvered between stints on episodic shows (Homicide: Life on the Street), made-for-TV tripe (Rasputin, Purgatory) and bumbling big screen silliness (2000’s The Little Vampire). For him, The Baader Meinhof Complex is a return to serious consideration, and with an Oscar nomination in hand, he has more than proven his point.
Not that Edel needed Academy attention to remind us of how powerful a cinematic force he can be. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a terrific entertainment, an action packed look at anarchy in the streets followed by the specious slacker malaise argued behind closed doors. When the film was released in the newly reunited Germany, audiences were outraged at both the attractive nature of the leads, as well as the implied justification over the RAF’s acts. Others argued the standard slight of historical accuracy and absolute fact while a few believed in the movie’s journalistic aim to present a complete picture of both sides. Whenever you have something that stirs this much conversation and debate, the value within is more or less inherent.
Yet Edel does more with Baader Meinhof than he’s ever attempted before, striking a chord between dissention and desire to make the realities of revolution seem that much more meaningful. He stirs the same uneasy feelings as Pontecorvo did with Algiers, making us sympathize with the insurgency while hating ever act they commit. Similar, the government is not free from blame. In fact, once we get to the trial and hunger strike material, we witness the classic battle of fits between those in power and those who attempted to dethrone them. Sure, there is a tendency toward making our leads into something akin to a Teutonic Bonnie and Clyde, but the fact remains that all opposition has a seductive allure. Edel simply chooses to visualize it, literally.
Elsewhere, Bruno Ganz gives another excellent performance as Herold, the man in charge of the RAF case. With his hangdog looks and aging authority, he is the perfect Establishment pawn. The characters of Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin are a little less pristine. Applying a kind of backwards Fernando logic (“It is better to look good than to act well”), our leads come across like desperados as envisioned by a department store window display. Even more disconcerting is the lack of personal motivation. We never quite learn why Meinhof drops her professional soapbox (she is a reporter) and her children to take up the cause, and this makes her a distant, almost disinterested center. But Edel is out to craft something far more massive than one person’s idealistic ride. While it does replace explanation with the epic, we tend to go along with the shift in scope.
Edel does have a deft hand at sequences of suspense and abrupt violence and the conclusion does carry significant sentiment and weight. He has excellent control of the period, never letting the actors slip into a more contemporary mode and matching minor details with more time-tempered elements. We learn more about the production via the new Blu-ray disc’s numerous featurettes, including a making-of which allows Edel to defend his choices, as well as his approach to the material. It may not quell the complaining by some, but for the most part, we see a serious director explaining how all terrorism is broken down into the appeal of perceived control and the seduction of the struggle.
That’s The Baader Meinhof Complex in a fascinating nutshell. Like the campus kids of America’s peace movement, who were drawn in by the enticement of power and then fed off the few victories with same, the RAF sought change, and then used horrific means to manufacture even more self-generating rationales. Whether their point was realistic or reprehensible, their means necessary or noxious, is really beside the point. Edel wants to argue that, like a lover, or a good looking guy or gal across a crowded club scene, there is an undeniable allure to challenging the status quo. Of course, there is always more than one side to the story – and The Baader Meinhof Complex captures this magnificently.