A new German movie strips away the myths surrounding the Baader-Meinhof gang
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I’d wager that there are few British 18-year-olds around now who have any idea what communism, in either theory or practice, actually meant for millions of people. If they’re from state schools, they’ll certainly know about the Nazi Holocaust and something too about the slave trade from their history teachers. If they weren’t paying attention, then by osmosis alone some impressions of these events would have entered their subconscious via television and the cinema. Popular culture – Hollywood, the BBC – has, on the whole, been good at keeping them alive.
When it comes to crimes against humanity perpetrated by the far-Left – whether by states, or their mostly bourgeois supporters in Western democracies – there’s been an extraordinary void. There has been no Bafta-winning series on the peacetime genocide of Mao, no Oscar-nominated film about Stalin’s Red Terror. And when, on the odd occasion, their supporters and fellow travellers in the West have been depicted, they’ve generally been given an easy ride. They meant well, tends to be the message, and at the worst were naïve. Sometimes they’ve even been accorded a certain chic.
Did the Baader-Meinhof gang, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), a network of revolutionary terrorists that carried out numerous attacks and assassinations in Germany in the 30 years from 1968, mean well? Uli Edel, the director of The Baader Meinhof Complex, a new German film about the RAF has said that he is attempting to “demythologise” the group and its activities, to depict them as they really were. In which case, he should cast his eye over the background notes given to us critics. In setting the scene, it is asserted that the aim of the group was “to create a more human society but by employing inhuman means they not only spread terror and bloodshed, they also lose their own humanity.”
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.
The initial petty criminal transgressions of the car-stealing, joy-riding Baader initially drew supportive laughter from some of the younger viewers at my screening, doubtless in the belief that they were seeing something cool, but this faded away when it became clear how repulsive a character Baader actually was (although perhaps it was his sexist insults rather than his way with explosives which shocked them into silence). What might also strike them, if they think about it again, was the almost total absence from the film of any representative of the group’s beloved proletariat. The only time we set eyes on the workers is when, as chauffeurs, policemen and bodyguards, they are on the wrong end of one of the gang’s shotguns. This is a solidly middle-class affair.
Edel has said that for dramatic purposes he omitted some of the more arcane political discussions of the group. Certainly, those 18-year-olds I mentioned might be at a loss to understand what the group was actually doing this all for, other than out of a hatred for the generation that came before them, the “pigs”, the people they protected and, of course, America.
But that doesn’t actually seem so wide of the mark. A superannuated adolescent rebelliousness against authority, rather than a misty-eyed vision of a future paradise, is what motivated much of the far-left activity of the period. And as one watches the gradual disintegration of Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin in jail, the picture conjured up is not so much the disillusionment of a group of freedom fighters as the final days of the followers of that other cult leader of the counterculture, Charles Manson.