The Baader Meinhof Complex, 150 mins, rating not available, opening in cinemas 7 May 2009.


The Baader Meinhof Complex, a new film from German director Uli Edel and writer Bernd Eichinger (based on the book by Stefan Aust), is timely for at least two reasons.
First, like Steve McQueen’s film Hunger (LSJ, Oct 2008), it reminds us that terrorism is not an invention of the 21st century. And secondly, it appears in our cinemas just as we have experienced an onslaught of bikie gang violence in NSW, and as our government proposes legislation to deal with this. At the time I write, the proposal is that if the Supreme Court declares a gang to be a criminal organisation, members who continue to associate with one another can be charged.
The Baader Meinhof Complex concerns a gang whose violent exploits climaxed over 30 years ago. It explores the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF), otherwise known as the Baader Meinhof Gang, which operated in and out of West Germany from 1968 -1998, though the film only covers the 10 years from 1967-1977. Those 10 years are crammed into 2 1/2 hours.

The action scenes are exciting and realistic; the protagonists – if you can call a gang of violent terrorists that – are young, good-looking, and dress strikingly in the fashions of the 60s and 70s. The producers and director have gone to considerable trouble to be historically accurate in depicting the events, filming at many of the original locations, such as Stammheim Prison, where several members of the Baader Meinhof Gang – including Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof – were imprisoned and tried.

An early scene dramatically depicts the events that spurred the Gang into action. A peaceful demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Persia to Berlin is brutally crushed, and the German police shoot a student protestor. Skilful hand-held camerawork takes us right into the demo and amongst the protestors, brushing up against police brutality.

But this film has divided the overseas critics. Some consider it glamorises the violent methods of the Gang, by showing good-looking young guys and gals with guns, in the manner of Arthur Penn’s film Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Others – and I am in this camp – say that the kids are shown as good-looking because they actually were. And far from glamorising violence, my view is that it shows the RAF as brutal, sometimes stupid, and ultimately deluded in the methods they chose to fight against what they saw as a corrupt and still-Fascist Germany, and a rapaciously imperialistic USA.

Moritz Bleibtrau (from Run Lola Run) is a particular loathsome Andreas Baader. When the RAF go to a military camp run by the PLO in Jordan, Baader is arrogant, culturally insensitive, and outright racist. He’s also a chauvinist pig. Judging by the way he treats women, including his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), he’s a social revolutionary who’s completely unaware of the feminist revolution. He might even be a psychopath.

The women, however, are the real engine of the RAF. Gudrun Ensslin leads the early members of the RAF in its first violent action: the bombing of a department store in Frankfurt in April 1968, for which they are arrested. In 1970, noted left-wing journalist, and mother of two little girls, Ulrika Meinhof (Martina Gedek, from The Lives of Others), becomes involved with the Gang and – as her first radical act – helps break them out of custody. She’s a few years older than the others, and so she takes the role of the cool-headed intellectual. Other female members such as Brigitte Mohnhaupt (Nadja Uhl) take prominent roles in both the intellectual life of the Gang and its acts of radical violence.

It’s fascinating to listen to the political theories espoused by the Gang members in their frequent discussions. Most of the written material is Meinhof’s, but the others speak in arcane terms that are rarely heard these days outside meetings of the Politburo in Hanoi. In one memorable scene, the very attractive Gudrun Ensslin reads Lenin in the bath.

But whatever the theoretical underpinnings of the RAF, whatever high moral values they aspired to, and however glamorous they appear in this film, the filmmakers make it clear that the revolution they tried to achieve ended up stalled in individual acts of violence which achieved no real or lasting social or political change.