Baader-Meinhof in film: celebration or indictment?

The 2008 movie The Baader Meinhof Complex runs two and a half hours, and it is as ambitious as it is long. It seeks to tell the history of the Baader-Meinhof Group, or Red Army Faction (RAF), as fully as possible – to include every act of terrorism and every important RAF personage. The production is fastidious: the filmmakers reportedly went out of their way to re-create events, whenever possible, in the very spots where they had taken place. The attention to period detail, and to other particulars, is remarkable, as is the effort to create rich, rounded portraits of the major figures of (at least) the RAF’s first generation.

The film – directed by Uli Edel from a script by himself and Bernd Eichinger, which is based on a book by Stefan Aust – was a huge hit in Germany. It was a nominee for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. There was, however, much debate as to whether or not it romanticized  the terrorists. Some felt it portrayed RAF members as “Bonnie and Clyde-style heroes.” One film critic objected that Edel had given Andreas Baader “what he always wanted. Posthumously he has become the hero of a real action film.” Bettina Röhl called the film “the worst-case scenario – it would not be possible to top its hero worship.” The widow of banker Jurgen Ponto, who’d been assassinated by the RAF, protested the government’s financial support of the film by returning a Federal Cross of Merit. Michael Buback, son of a murdered federal prosecutor, complained that Edel had shown “little consideration…towards the family members” of the RAF’s victims.

Christopher Hitchens, however, praised the movie for not romanticizing the RAF. As he saw it, the film “interrogates and ultimately indicts (and convicts) the West German terrorists rather than the state and society which they sought to overthrow.” And Jorg Schleyer, son of another RAF victim, affirmed with admiration that Edel showed the RAF to be a “wantonly brutal band of murderers.”

BODY OF EVIDENCE, director Uli Edel, on set, 1993. ©MGM
Uli Edel

Well, which is it? On the one hand, the movie doesn’t stint on spelling out the main characters’ many flaws (including the fact that they’re cold-blooded killers). On the other hand, its use of cutaways to stock footage of the Vietnam War – bombings, terrified natives, etc. – seems to impute legitimacy to the RAF’s view of America as a cruel imperialist power. This impression is enhanced by the film’s almost total failure to remind the viewer that America was, in fact, at war with Communism, thanks to which East Germans were living under a totalitarian government under the thumb of the Kremlin. In the end, whether a particular viewer considers the characters in The Baader-Meinhof Complex sympathetic may depend mostly on that viewer’s own politics.

But the movie fails in at least one important, indisputable way: for whatever reason, it essentially omits the role of the Stasi in the history of the RAF. And without the Stasi, the film’s story, however crowded with accurate specifics, becomes a lie.

By contrast, consider Volker Schlöndorff’s 2000 movie The Legend of Rita. It’s the story of a well-off young West German woman, Rita Vogt (based in part on RAF member Inga Viett), who becomes involved in a RAF-like group because, as she puts it, “Riding horses, playing tennis or guzzling down salmon doesn’t interest me.” After she makes the front pages by killing a cop in France, she flees to East Germany. The Stasi’s RAF links are made clear from the start, and it’s the Stasi that gives her a new identity (and then yet another identity after the first one is blown).

There’s no doubt what Schlöndorff’s film wants us to make of Rita: she’s an oddball, as perversely happy with her new life in grim, oppressive East Germany than she was unhappy as an affluent citizen of the West. In the East, she’s grinning like a fool while everyone else is miserable. Ideology, clearly, is realer to her than reality. She doesn’t understand their attraction to the West:  “Why do so many people want to leave here?” For their part, they mock the naïvete with which she contributes to a Sandinista solidarity fund: doesn’t she realize it’s a government scam?

volker
Volker Schlöndorff

When the Wall comes down, her colleagues’ newfound joy enrages her, and she lectures them about the value of what they’re losing: “This here was a great attempt at a revolution!” At the end, there’s no doubt about her utter foolishness. As a portrait of the RAF mentality, The Legend of Rita is shorter on documentary fact than The Baader Meinhof Complex, but scores far higher on moral clarity. Alas, one hesitates to say the same thing about its portrait of the Stasi mentality; to anyone familiar with the real Stasi, the consistent kindness of Rita’s Stasi contact is beyond improbable.

A third film merits mention here. Germany in Autumn (1978), the work of ten high-profile German directors, including Schlöndorff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, is a bizarre mishmash of images, staged scenes, documentary footage, and impromptu monologues and arguments, all directly or indirectly about the RAF; it concludes with the October 1977 funeral of Baader, Enslin, and gang member Jan-Carl Raspe, at which dozens of mourners raised their fists and screamed “Murderers!” at cops. The filmmakers obviously felt they were paying some sort of tribute to the RAF, or at least doing them the honor of tackling the issues they’d raised, but today the film serves mainly as a document in 1970s-era useful stoogery in West Germany, where for many members of the cultural elite democracy was fascism and Communism was liberation.

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