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The Baader Meinhof Complex

Dir: Uli Edel

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Vitagraph Films

150 Minutes

No matter which direction one heads on the political spectrum, if you go too far to the left or too far to the right, you end up in the same place. In response to escalating American Imperialism in Vietnam and a staunch reaction to the Nazi regime that ran Germany 20 years earlier, the Red Army Faction (RAF) set off violent operations against government targets between the late 1960s and 1998, killing over 30 people in bombing raids and bank robberies. The fall of 1977 was a particularly bloody time, earning it the name “German Autumn.”

In The Baader Meinhof Complex director Uli Edel traces the first decade of the RAF as it evolved from a student-led protest group to a gang of communist-inspired terrorists. However, Edel seems more fascinated with the violent episodes than the actual ideology behind the attacks. The anger derived from the cushy treatment of some ex-Nazis is rarely mentioned as Edel would like us to believe the worldwide political climate matched with violent police reaction to protests spurred this reign of terror. Though there are many tense moments, especially once the leadership of the Baader Meinhof gang is scooped up by the police, much of the film force feeds us key events and people in breathless fast forward just to move us along to the gory bits.

Though Edel attempts to make an objective film, it is difficult for him not to portray the Baader gang as nothing more than misdirected youngsters who espouse ideals they truly do not understand. As many people are barely aware of the existence and history of domestic terrorist groups such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, Edel’s mix of historical footage and dramatized scenes provide little more than a breezy history lesson. It is hard to sympathize with leader Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) as he is portrayed as little more than a dogma-spouting ideologue. Bleibtreu does nothing to tease out nuance in Baader, sticking to a one-note performance of arrogant barking as he complains about fascism and castigates his less intelligent cohorts with vituperative fury. More interesting is the leftist journalist turned terrorist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) who is more eager to use rhetoric than guns to stop imperialism. Meinhof is the one character given any backstory, as we see her as a jilted wife and caring mother. But Meinhof takes a backseat in the story to Baader and his sycophantic lover/sidekick Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) who is totally hypnotized by Baader and his endless anger.

The rest of the gang comes and goes with very little introduction or farewell, making it difficult to understand or sympathize with these ciphers. Most of the characters are played by attractive actors and Edel often uses them without clothes to empathize the “free love” appeal that attracted many disposed youngsters to the movement. At one point, a member claims that fucking and shooting guns are the same thing. Could the RAF be little more than a vehicle to dispose of youthful vim? Edel doesn’t allow us to really explore this hypothesis since he keeps the violence and rhetoric at a steady clip but does very little in establishing the people we’re watching.

The biggest problem with The Baader Meinhof Complex is it straddles the fine line of historic recreation or dramatization. Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday work so well because it is a true recreation without music to cue the audience to tense up or half-hearted character development. Edel wants the best of both worlds, a true to life gritty recreation of key events (such as the infamous hijacking of a Lufthansa jet) and a character drama in which we peer into the minds of those involved. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to have it both ways.

This isn’t to say that some of the action sequences aren’t well executed. Among the many scenes of kidnapping attempts, bank jobs, embassy bombing and liberation operations, Edel makes it clear that he more than adept at staging gripping scenes of intense violence. Unfortunately, it’s hard to care a bit about the people in these scenarios. Part of the blame can go to screenwriter Bernd Eichinger, who wrote the far superior slice of German history Downfall. In that film, Eichinger provided a convincing portrait of Hitler’s psychology as we watched his empire unravel in its final days. The same resonance is lost on The Baader Meinhof Complex and as it winds its way to a bloody conclusion after spending two and a half hours with Baader and his friends, the worst thing of all is walking out of a politically-charged film with precious little more than apathy.

by David Harris

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