Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Der Baader Meinhof Komplex   Uli Edel, 2008, Germany

The events of 9/11 appear to have caused previous decades’ experiences of terrorism in the West to be forgotten, even where the causes are similar or the threads linking the past and the present obvious. Hopefully Der Baader Meinhof Komplex will provide some redress.

The film is a brilliant dissection of a ten-year slice of post-war European history, from the formation of Ulrike Meinhof’s ideas whilst a political journalist working during the already-tainted optimism of 1967 to the final fatal act of terror by the loose grouping of extremists she inspired in the summer of 1977.

Though outside the scope of the film, this is the same decade which also took in the Munich massacre and the Lufthansa hijack broken by German and British special forces. This is the background for the violent acts of the Red Army Faction – bombings by bag and car, shootings, kidnappings, bank robberies – that are unflinchingly depicted in Uli Edel’s film and made to seem even more horrific by the fanatical zeal with which they were committed. An early riot scene is frightening and realistic.

And yet Uli Edel’s film is far more than a series of highly efficiently-staged action scenes. He painstakingly constructs the slow coalescing of supporters around Meinhof’s concept of a fascist Western state alliance aimed at oppressing the world’s people from South America to the Middle East, before charting the equally drawn-out unravelling of the resulting group, this pivoting around the criminal trial of Meinhof, Baader and their closest associates in circus-like scenes.

Revealing the multiple meanings behind the word ‘complex’, disagreement, betrayal and most of all paranoia are portrayed as just as corrosive as the decadent society the RAF detested, tearing the group apart even as the next generation struggle to continue their self-styled war.

The presentation of the RAF does not take sides; instead, it seeks to explain the group’s motivation and place it in the context of its time. If it seems at times partial toward the radicalist view, one is never allowed to forget the true pain of violence and the cost to the victim and his family. The climactic attack on the car convoy of politician Hans-Martin Schleyer is so powerful it is almost unwatchable, as his guards are repeatedly machine-gunned even when helpless. The tensions within the RAF are also reflected in the efforts of the police and government in fighting them.

Edel deftly pulls off that critically important essential in a film with such a large cast of characters, namely differentiating each of the principals quickly and decisively. The performances are universally excellent. Martina Gedeck plays the quiet, middle-class, almost mumsy Meinhof, whose transition from garden-party pamphleteer to angst-ridden, fatalistic ringleader is brilliantly captured. Moritz Bleibtreu is her partner, the younger, charismatic, but truculent, almost childish Andreas Baader. Particularly superb are Johanna Wokalek as the sexy, ruthless, driven Gudrun Ensslin and Nadja Uhl as the ice-cold torch-bearer Brigitte Mohnhaupt. Quietly brilliant support comes from Bruno Ganz’s portrayal of the patient, determined federal police leader Horst Herold.

Every aspect of what is a geographically, chronologically and thematically broad canvas is handled with equal command by Edel. Germany, Rome and Baghdad, some of the many locations between which the action moves, are well-realised, including use of the actual Stammheim prison where the RAF were held, and the pace is always appropriate. The period atmosphere is wonderfully evoked, from cars to clothes to interior design, whilst the technological change paralleling the social shifts depicted in the piece is subtly illustrated by the new (room-sized) computer assisting the authorities’ hunt and the presence of an early video recorder and camera to capture a hostage’s plea. Genuine archive footage is neatly integrated into the drama.

With the stunning Downfall, also of course featuring Ganz, this is another chapter of modern European – and German – history that deserves to be seen, both for its inherent interest and the wider relevance to the world today.

US trailer for Der Baader Meinhof Komplex; embed from YouTube


German-language poster, from
via Die Welt

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