REVIEW: DVD Release: The Baader-Meinhof Complex

Film: The Baader-Meinhof Complex
Release date: 20th April 2009
Certificate: 18
Running time: 145 mins
Director: Uli Edel
Starring: Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Bruno Ganz
Genre: Action/Crime/Drama/History
Studio: Momentum
Format: DVD
Country: Germany/France/Czech Republic

Terrorism is, understandably, tricky terrain for filmmakers, and like many films made before and after it, The Baader Meinhof Complex has been criticised for the way it handles this inevitably contentious subject. For the most part, however, director Uli Edel’s 2008 factual drama earned widespread applause for its meticulously researched and balanced approach to the story of the titular German terrorist group that sprung up in the late-60s.

Based on a 1985 non-fiction best-seller by German journalist Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex focuses on the first decade of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a volatile left-wing terrorist group whose members saw themselves as anti-imperialist urban guerrillas fighting against what they saw as a fascist West German state with links to Germany’s Nazi past.

The story begins innocently enough, with future RAF lynchpin Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) relaxing on a sunny German beach in June 1967 with her husband and two young daughters, but the use of Janis Joplin’s iconic anti-materialist song Mercedes Benz in the soundtrack suggests that Meinhof is not your average German housewife.

It quickly becomes apparent that left-wing journalist Meinhof is at odds with Germany’s conservative mainstream media, and her opposition to the social injustices of the regime of the Shah of Iran is contextualised against a harrowing recreation of demonstrations opposing a visit to Germany by the Shah and his wife, when German police attacked demonstrators, ending in the killing of a fleeing student.

Soon after, Meinhof leaves her philandering husband and sets out on a path that will lead her to join up with fiery activists Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his lover Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek). The cool and rational Meinhof has an uneasy relationship with Baader and Ensslin, but she is inexorably drawn into their increasingly violent schemes to undermine the West German state. Against a background of the Vietnam War and left-wing demonstrations against authoritarian governments in various parts of the world, Meinhof’s stance shifts from one of protest to resistance.

When Meinhof helps Baader to escape from police custody following his arrest, there is no way back for her, and the media casts her as a central figure in the group, dubbing the RAF The Baader-Meinhof Group. With the German police, headed by the unflappable Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz, perhaps best known for his memorable performance as Hitler in Downfall), now stepping up efforts to stem the tide of homegrown terrorism, members of the group leave the country for training in Jordan. Upon their return, they embark on a series of bank robberies, bombings and assassinations that rocks the West German state to the core...

It is to director Edel’s credit that the various RAF members are portrayed as flawed, complex characters: driven by ideological fervour and a deep commitment to their cause but also rife with contradictions and, in the case of Baader, prone to outbursts of casual racism and fits of pique. In conventional dramatic terms, there may be an apparent lack of character development, but this is perfectly understandable given the nature of the people involved and the lengths they went to in devoting themselves to a cause that demanded selflessness and a rigid adherence to strict rules.

The director also does an excellent job of establishing the context in which the RAF operated, and makes effective use of a wide range of archival media footage. While most West Germans were horrified by the brutality of the RAF, increasing numbers of young people identified with their cause, and following the arrests of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and other original RAF members in 1972, a second and then third generation of recruits continued their work well into the 1990s.

Edel does not shy away from the violence and brutality that was integral to the RAF’s modus operandi, but rather than sensationalising it, as some critics have claimed, he treats it in a relatively detached, clinical fashion. Much of the latter part of the film focuses on the experiences of Baader, Ensslin, Meinhof and fellow RAF member Jan-Carl Raspe in Stammheim Prison, where they were held in solitary confinement prior to and during their trial.

The deteriorating relationship between an increasingly fragile Meinhof and the rest of the group makes for fascinating viewing, and Edel presents an unflinching glimpse of the slow, tortuous disintegration of the first wave of the RAF. From the initial adrenaline rush of explosive action to the torment and frustration of confinement and judgement by a state they despise, Edel handles the narrative arc with great skill, and offers compelling insights into the lives of terrorists who were willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believed in.

That Edel has done such a good job with The Baader Meinhof Complex may be something of a surprise given that he sank into relative obscurity after following such critically acclaimed films as Christiane F. (1981) and Last Exit To Brooklyn (1989) with the execrable Body Of Evidence (1993), but based on the evidence here, he is far from a spent force.

With eye-catching cinematography, an intelligent screenplay and an exceptionally well cast group of actors, The Baader Meinhof Complex makes for a gripping, thought provoking viewing experience. JG

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