I find it hard to care much about the lost humanity of a bunch of people who bombed, shot and blasted away innocent people, many of whom were simply the minions of the powerful political, industrial and judicial figures the RAF targeted. It seems a long way to stretch your sympathy for the sake of a story arc. So it was a relief to see that, production notes notwithstanding, the main protagonists in Edel's film, which has already caused considerable controversy in Germany, are portrayed for the most part very much as I would have imagined them to be. Indeed, they seem very similar to those revolutionary Communist activists I knew back at college in the radical '80s, which is to say cold, narcissistic, indignant and essentially nihilistic. There's not much humanity there to lose.
Before it grew into a network spawning a second and third generation, the Baader-Meinhof gang was dominated by the radical activist Andreas Baader (played here by Moritz Bleibtreu), Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and the left-wing columnist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Beginning with the shooting by the police of a student, Benno Ohnesorg, at a demonstration against a visit by the Shah of Iran in 1967 (an incident which, like the death of Blair Peach here, entered the mythology of the German Left), the film sticks to a strict chronology. There is the gradual radicalisation of the comfortably-off, middle-class Meinhof, who, convincing herself that the pen was no match for the sword, eventually abandoned her children to join the struggle, and helped spring Baader from police captivity. There is the campaign of violence which started with the firebombing of department stores and continued long after the gang leaders were incarcerated in Stammheim Prison, climaxing in the assassinations and hijackings of the so-called German Autumn of 1977, the year which also saw the dramatic trial of the gang leaders and their suicides while still in jail.
This narrative is based on the book of the same name by Stefan Aust, and it is quite brilliantly pieced together by Edel. The script is by Bernd Eichinger, who was also the writer and producer of Downfall, the superb drama about Hitler's last days. There has been some criticism in Germany that the treatment is like that of a thrill-inducing action movie. I think this is wrong; the exhilaration one experiences is that which comes from seeing recent historical events superbly recreated by somebody with a firm hand on the material. I had little sense of it being in any way sensationalised. The bombings and their bloodstained aftermaths were genuinely shocking. The performances, too, are faultless.