A German Youth effectively centers the deep shame and identity crisis haunting post-World War II Germany, and the cultural and social upheaval that came with it.
“I mean, is a German able to make a picture?” Posed in the first moments of Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth, the question could be understood an inquiry into aim, bias or subjectivity. But there’s a larger and more foreboding meaning that it implies, one heavy with history: what does it mean to be a German? If German national identity is to be communicated, then what ought to be shown?
The documentary gestures towards answering this question, but the film registers more as an investigation than a shot of pure ideology. A German Youth recontextualizes and aestheticizes the rise of the Red Army Faction, or Baader-Meinhof Group, in ‘60s Germany, providing a fresh and gripping interpretation of a fragile and fraught period. Périot, a prolific director of short films, proves adept at bringing together the disparate strands of the group’s origin. He handily streamlines almost two decades of historical and political sprawl into a tightly-paced chronicle of the RAF and the violent resistance that came to define it.
A German Youth effectively centers the deep shame and identity crisis haunting post-World War II Germany, and the cultural and social upheaval that came with it. In the wake of Nazism and its collapse, older generations struggled to retain respectability and authority while Nazi sympathizers left over from the war and encroaching Western capitalism sought control over the newly divided country, all as communist East Germany loomed just beyond the Berlin Wall. Périot vividly paints the kind of fascination and institutional hand-wringing that accompanied the response of young Germans, with a growing intellectual leftist subculture and the radical student movement in Berlin. Disillusioned by the hollowness of the conventions they were inheriting, young German progressives—writer Ulrike Meinhof, students Andreas Baader and Gudrun Enslin, film student Holger Meins, later RAF members and just a few of the documentary’s subjects—sought meaning in remaking a society they saw as archaic and unpliable, dangerously so. “Those representing authority are no longer convincing,” Meinhof declaims in archival footage, to a panel of skeptical men much older than her. “If one has the desire or the presumption to educate a population, one must create conditions of real democracy.”
The film is comprised entirely of visuals and audio from historical archives: news reports, debate panels, avant-garde student films, contemporary interviews, footage from protests and court cases and standoffs with the police. It’s a fascinating technique suited to the film’s stated purpose of investigating German identity. A German Youth works hard to recreate the experience of its moment, trimming clips and visuals into a cohesive narrative to an often dizzying effect. There’s a great deal of history and background here, but the director’s unwillingness to be bogged down by rote historical recap—to keep the film compelling, really—risks making the heady content feel secondary to its structure. The scholarship, the artistry, even the spirit of the film can feel lost in Périot’s shuffle.
The filmmaker’s touch is felt most in his curated construction rather than any explicit guiding of the narrative. A German Youth’s smaller moments, excavated from decades of archival footage and research, resonate the most, accentuating small moments of humanity in sensationalized media. The camera lingers on Meinhof in her home, in the meetings of the young film students fomenting protest, the violent tableaus of demonstrators clashing with police, all the way to the harrowing shots of emaciated RAF members finally arrested in tense police standoffs. Selection of such footage invests them with unlikely emotions: there were, and are, human stakes to this struggle, and the film does its best work in communicating this.
Périot understands the delicate difficulty of what his film trying to portray. It’s not interested in moral judgement, and merely traces its central figures’ path from intellectuals and students to radical leftist militants. The violence of both German authority and the Baader-Meinhof group’s bombings is presented unsparingly, with no sense of equivocating. There’s a clear contrast in the film’s understanding between the violence of the state and the violence of the RAF, so much so that the establishment backlash against the RAF at the end of the film manages to feel disorienting, even heartbreaking. There’s a cycle to these movements, A German Youth seems to claim, and protest denied for too long can and will lead to destruction. Maybe the film, for all its breathless sense of history, is meant to be a reminder of that fact, that the struggle for a better world always begins with something human.