The Baader Meinhof Complex18, Key Cities
The Baader Meinhof Complex is, well, just horrible really. Horrible, horrible, horrible and for those of you who are slow out there — and I know who you are; don’t think I don’t — it is horrible; just horrible. It is brutal, relentless, nihilistic, violent, terrifying, relentless, psychopathic, and yet — and this is quite a big ‘and yet’, so do try to concentrate, even those of you who find it a struggle — it is so powerful, so explosively febrile, it compels you to watch and keep watching. It’s like being caught in a current taking you way out to sea. You want to get back to the safety of the shore, and you may even thrash about for a bit (‘help, help!’) but ultimately there is nothing you can do. This is not a film to like — I did not like it at all, not for a minute, and it’s 150 minutes, so you may say I disliked it 150 times in a row — but it is such an engrossing and commanding piece of cinema, it’ll have you, or at least it did me. And I say that as someone who is quite hard to get and would never, for example, have sex with anyone until the first date.
Produced by Bernd Eichinger (Downfall) who also wrote the screenplay based on the non-fiction book by Stefan Aust, and directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit to Brooklyn), The Baader Meinhof Complex is about what you’ve probably already surmised it is about. But for the slow ones — I still know who you are; there is no hiding — it’s about the German terrorist group which grew out of the radical politics of the late Sixties, the anti-Vietnam war movement and the perceived authoritarianism of the West German state. It starts with Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a left-wing journalist and married mother of two, who, because of the government’s heavy-handed response to the 1968 student rebellion, becomes the political mind behind the terrorist activities of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), a pastor’s daughter who has left behind her husband and baby to join the struggle. Struggle for what exactly? To dismantle the state, I suppose, although, once dismantled, there is never any suggestion they would have a clue what to do then. You may say they never have a Plan B.
They begin to accrue weapons and start making bombs on the kitchen table, because what is the point of talk without action? Plenty, I would say, particularly if it means nobody gets hurt, but that, I guess, is why I’ve never been recruited by a terrorist organisation. (I once went for an interview, said as much, and never heard anything again. A shame, as I did quite fancy the hours and a minibreak at some training camp in Jordan. I think that, these days, they even offer spa treatments.) Anyway, what follows is an absolutely relentless succession of arson attacks, bombings, shoot-outs, kidnappings, assassinations, suicides, hijackings, prisons, prison breaks — horrible, like I said — but it all happens at such a breakneck pace that, for non-swimmers who would like a different kind of metaphor, it’s like being on a speeding train you cannot get off. Plus, it’s demanding work. Told in a fragmented, almost cinéma verité kind of way, characters are barely introduced while individual motivations are almost entirely dispensed with. It never asks: at what point can someone so lose their humanity that, in the name of ‘liberation,’ they can abandon their own children, blow up innocent people and shoot an old caretaker through the head? Here, the gang members just are — just are — terrible and you are simply plunged into the thick of it. It flatlines and fascinates simultaneously.
It’s not a flawless film. It’s narratively so dense it’s hard, sometimes, to figure out who’s who or what’s what, plus the violence is so frequent it eventually becomes almost banal. Also, aside from the police chief (played splendidly by the splendid Bruno Ganz), who struggles to understand what is going on, there is no one to root for or sympathise with. Perhaps, though, that is partly the triumph of this film: it’s compelling in spite of that. Whatever, it doesn’t sex up terrorism, as it might have done, or even draw parallels with al-Qa’eda, which it also might have done, and an American film would have certainly done. The filmmakers were, I would guess, aiming for a brutally real account of historical events. I didn’t like it, didn’t like it one bit, but I wasn’t ever bored. Is that a recommendation? I’ve no idea, work it out for yourselves. Cruel? Hardly, after seeing this.