Crowds of people take to the street to protest a dictatorship. Despite gathering peacefully, they are set upon by the police and gangs of thugs, who beat them mercilessly. A student, never having attended a demonstration before, is shot and left for dead by the cops. Official media falsely blames the demonstrators for the violence, while agent provocateurs try to create pretexts to crack down on demonstrators even harder.
If the situation I describe was present-day Tehran, would anybody be surprised if people decided to fight back against such repression? And, would anyone blame them? Push people hard enough and they snap.
Yet the above scenario is not Tehran, 2009, but Berlin, 1967. A protest against the then Shah of Iran — a Western-backed tyrant with oil — was brutally attacked by the police and pro-Shah demonstrators (including the Shah’s secret police), and student Benno Ohnesorg was killed in cold blood. This was a turning point for many who were there; bloodied and filled with loathing, the students regrouped and discussed what should be done.
“This fascist state means to kill us all,” declared one demonstrator, a thin blonde woman named Gudrun Ensslin. “We must organize resistance. Violence is the only answer to violence.”
This may sound extreme to modern ears, but Ensslin’s generation was mostly born in the wake of the Third Reich. Unprovoked attacks on political protesters had ominous echoes of the Nazis’ rise to power. One year later, Ensslin would protest the American bombing of Vietnam, in which close to 4 million civilians would die by war’s end, by launching an arson attack on a department store with another young radical she had met — and fallen in love with — Andreas Baader. No one was killed, but unlike Henry Kissinger, they did jail time for their bombing.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||150 minutes|
|Opens||Opens July 24, 2009|
By 1970, Ensslin, Baader and political theorist Ulrike Meinhof would be armed and living underground, waging war on the state. The Baader-Meinhof group, also known as the Red Army Faction, would go on to become the most notorious of the many leftist militant groups of the 1970s, robbing banks, bombing U.S. military bases, kidnapping politicians, and shooting judges and businessmen.
This history is brought to the screen in “The Baader Meinhof Complex,” a thrilling, explosive film by director Uli Edel (“Last Exit to Brooklyn”), based on the authoritative book on the radical gang by Stefan Aust. Edel’s film, scrupulously objective, captures the Baader-Meinhof gang in all its contradictions: Ulrike Meinhof (played by Martina Gedeck from “The Lives of Others”), a strident ideologue on paper, was also a mother of twin daughters, and she seems a somewhat tragic figure, caught up in the momentum of actions taken. Meinhof decides to help Baader escape from jail after the arson attack, and when someone winds up shot, she makes a split second decision to flee with Baader, and there’s no turning back after that.
Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, “Das Experiment”) is portrayed as a charismatic rogue, a wild boy whose taste for revolution was a passion for stolen cars and guns as much as anything else. His fearlessness and commitment is undeniable, but Edel also shows his screaming, spoiled egomaniacal side. Had his revolution succeeded, he would have made a great Stalin.
Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek ), a pastor’s daughter, is a fierce moralist, unswerving in her belief that she’s fighting for the oppressed, a Joan of Arc for the Left, even when that means bombing a conservative newspaper’s offices and hitting only the poor proofreaders.
The film flies through a decade of German history at lightning speed, yet all the essentials are there. The filmmaking is incredibly potent, equally adept at communicating the terror and chaos of a street riot, the ruthless efficiency of a meticulously planned assassination, or the paranoia of walking down a crowded street when wanted posters with your face on them are on every corner.
At times the film feels more a romantic myth like “Bonnie and Clyde” than modern history, especially with its sexy, self-assured couple of Baader and Ensslin at the film’s core. Yet the consequences of their actions, the senseless deaths, and their calculated attempt to portray themselves as martyrs all create dissonance with any attraction a viewer may feel.
In the 1960s or ’70s, we’d call such characters fascinatingly flawed antiheroes; these days people fume at the director for supposedly “glamorizing terrorism.” Truth is, though, that Bleibtreu’s Baader is no more or less seductive than, say, Johnny Depp in “Dillinger” (opening later this year). Yet while U.S. cinema has fostered a long love affair with good-looking killers who are driven by the pursuit of money — Jesse James, anyone? — to have a good-looking actor play someone who pulls the trigger in an anticapitalist agenda remains beyond the pale. (Which is likely why this film has not even opened in the U.S.)
Edel surely is aware of the fact that at the height of the Red Army Faction’s notoriety, one in four West Germans under the age of 30 felt “some sympathy” for the group, a striking level of support for a group labeled as terrorists. The filmmakers understand that the reason for this is the same reason why we watch Dillinger or Robert de Niro in “Heat” or Jimmy Cliff in “The Harder They Come” and find ourselves almost sympathizing with these deeply problematic characters: They are individuals who dared to take on the state, and since we are all controlled by the state in certain ways we’d rather not be, we can hope, however shamelessly, that just once, someone can mess with the man and win.