Film review – The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)

Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck)

Nobody could accuse contemporary German cinema of shying away from the past. Films like The Downfall, The Lives of Others and now The Baader Meinhof Complex have all explored very dark chapters of the country’s history, ensuring that the events depicted will be preserved as a constant reminder for future generations. In the case of The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel (Christiane F., Last Exit To Brooklyn), it is the creation and the terrorist actions of the radical and militant leftist group the Red Army Faction (RAF) from 1967-1977 that is under scrutiny. The RAF had its foundations in the anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist student movements that were happening worldwide in the late 1960s and The Baader Meinhof Complex carefully reveals the conditions under which that rebellious sentiment led to violent action. The young generation of educated Germans knew all too well what could happen if state fascists tendencies were left unchecked and police brutality, an increase of rightwing journalism and rightwing violence against student protesters were all ingredients in turning their outrage into extremism.

The various characters who eventually form the RAF initially come across as very sympathetic. Their protestations are legitimate and their anger understandable. What is so disturbing about The Baader Meinhof Complex is how these characters soon become terrifying as they turn their backs on political debate and resort to violence. Producer/writer Bernd Eichinger states that this transition is why The Baader Meinhof Complex focuses on the RAF’s actions rather than the theories behind those actions. The obvious film to compare The Baader Meinhof Complex to is The Battle of Algiers, a film that has rightly been long regarded as the definitive film about urban terrorism. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a much slicker film but it shares The Battle of Algiers’s episodic narrative, lack of protagonist and refusal to take sides or make moral judgements. The filmmakers have also gone into painstaking detail to recreate the real events by filming at the original locations and even matching the number of shots fired in each scene to the number of bullets recorded by the police during the original incidents.

Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu)

Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu)

All the cast are excellent including Moritz Bleibtreu (Run Lola Run, The Experiment) as the young, almost childish Badder and Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others) as the “bourgeois” journalist Meinhof. Bruno Ganz is also terrific as Horst Herold, the head of the German police force who realises that understanding the terrorists and changing the conditions that have led to their disillusionment is not sympathising with them, but the only way to stop them and prevent others from repeating their actions. His measured approach makes him the voice of reason in all the madness. The Baader Meinhof Complex is gripping cinema that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It is fascinating, exciting, terrifying and sombre. Its attempts to stick closely to the source material, Stefan Aust’s definitive 1985 book of the same title, means that not all narrative strands are explored as satisfactorily as you may expect but that’s a small price to pay for such authenticity.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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