This is perhaps one of the best political films ever made, and one of the most riveting films of this year. It’s a relentless look at the rise–and fall–of the West German terrorist group, The Red Army Faction (RAF), urban political activists who robbed, kidnapped, bombed and assassinated, killing at least 34 people in the 1960s and 70s. Though they were not the most bloody group to terrorize Europe, they did become one of the most well known.
The film was made in Germany for Germans, so Americans might need a little background information. Even just a few internet searches will give you enough information to be able to distinguish the characters and to set the story in its historical context, including how it relates to American history.
The generation now known as the baby-boomers, in Germany, is determined not to make the same mistakes that their Nazi-era parents did. The war in Vietnam enrages idealistic young people all over the world, convincing them that the U.S. is an imperialistic power determined to enslave the less powerful peoples of the globe. Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is a German wife and mother of twin girls who writes effective left-wing newspaper articles and essays. Running away from her unfaithful husband, she flees from all shreds of bourgeois normalcy. Bereft of companionship, she finds emotional sustenance with like-minded left wingers, who were on the path from sophomoric rhetoric to addictive action.
The most powerful spokesperson for the student revolts, Rudi Dutschke is shot and permanently injured, leaving the movement without a crowd-pleasing leader, and many smaller groups move into the vacuum. One of these is the group Meinhof had begun to live with, the Red Army Faction. It is led by Guddrin Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), the daughter of an Episcopalian minister and her boyfriend, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), a quick-tempered laborer, one of the few urban terrorists who is not a college-educated intellectual.
Sexually liberated and charismatic, the couple easily finds recruits among disaffected teenagers. They taunt Ulrike Meinhof, claiming she’s just a writer, all talk and no action.
In time Ulrike Meinhof gives in to their persuasion, and when the group takes up arms, she joins them. At first they disavow violence, then embrace it. They travel to Jordan to improve their terrorist techniques, becoming experts with weapons and bombs. In time, as we see in the gradual changes of the characters, they become enchanted with their violence, with their ability to make tons of money by robbing banks, and with their growing fame. When Andreas Baader is arrested, Ulrike Meinhof takes part in a daring escape and the group gains its other moniker as the Baader Meinhof gang.
As the years go by, their violence escalates and so does the cost on their emotions. Ulrike Meinhof, once the devoted mother, has to give up her children so she can continue her work as a terrorist without them to hinder her. Step by step, incident by incident, the body count increases and the police become more determined to capture them. Led by a canny terrorist expert, former Nazi Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), traps are laid for the gang. He alone, it seems, among all the law enforcement officials, wants to know what the psychological makeup of the terrorists is, what has driven them from middle class prosperity to a life as criminals, living hand to mouth, childless, constantly on the run. The same questions for which all countries need answers today.
The Baader Meinhof Complex, as the title implies, is populated with a large cast, each of whom is portrayed distinctly. I’m sure Germans know who all the characters are, but as an American I really needed more information, which is why I suggest some research ahead of time. Despite its length–two and a half hours–the film moves rapidly, intercutting between the stages of the characters’ development and action scenes. It’s darn violent, too, and any sympathy you might have had for the characters quickly dissipates. You’ve lost your sympathy, but the masterful direction of Uli Edel keeps you fascinated. I was sorry to see the film end.
Afterwards, I can’t stop thinking about it. I remember the stories of the German terrorists from the film and what happened to them. And then of course I wonder about other terrorists. Are we doomed to spawn one generation of terrorists after another? Will the progression of youthful protest always lead some to blood-letting?