If Bush’s War on Terror has taught us anything that might be applicable to film, it’s that it’s difficult to draw a moral line in the sand between yourself and a nebulous antagonist whose borders, objectives, and influential range is constantly in flux; such distinguishing lines only belittle good intentions and useful ideals, and aren’t usually worth the coarse grain in which they’re scored. The Baader Meinhof Complex, Germany’s odd choice for a 2009 Foreign Language Oscar submission, encounters similar hardship in its attempt to depict the tumultuous first decade in the life of the Red Army Faction, a militant socialist youth group from West Berlin.
Marginalizing the convoluted political events and motives that led to the inception of the collective (it was formed partly as a reaction against the ubiquity of ex-Nazis in the current government who hadn’t received so much as a slap on the wrist for their war crimes, plus the parliamentary-ordered dissolution of the local communist party, though both of these fairly accessible points are glossed over), the film is little more than a two-and-half-hour assembly line of blazing insurgent activity. Divorced from its confused but passionate socioeconomic goals, the group’s Molotov cocktail lobbing becomes increasingly monotonous, but through the disjointed and erratic narrative (countless key moments in the RAF timeline fly by in a flurry of incomprehensible newsreel montages set to Janis Joplin and the Who) one can’t help but feel that many of these cinematic shortcomings may be due to the filmmakers’ earnest desire to realistically depict terrorist disorganization. We know what these kids are fighting against—police brutality, government mismanagement, the Vietnam War, and the remainder of the typical ultra-leftist canon—but not what they’re fighting for: Even the ramshackle warriors of Cecil B. DeMented had a more lucid manifesto.
Of course, we get the sense that the RAF doesn’t clearly know what they want at every turn either. The fact that the terrorists are teenagers and young adults—and rather uniformly attractive ones, at that—turns out to be one of the film’s few assets, as the volatile ethos of the gang is intoxicatingly depicted as a skewed, perverse form of puberty. The link between violence and nascent and/or repressed sexuality has been explored ad nauseam with “real life” criminals (most archetypally Bonnie and Clyde) but not as often with militant groups, especially those with a socialist bent, which have historically fostered the loss of personal identity—and, as a result, lasciviousness—through stultifying comrade-ism. But, as the goateed leader Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) roughly proclaims in one scene, for these malcontents fucking and shooting are one and the same, though the gang isn’t particularly skilled at either.
This brash sexiness also creates an effective rift between the core collective and Ulrike Meinhof (the gorgeously plaintive Martina Gedeck), an older, and rather asexual, high profile member of the RAF who joins after working as a journalist for a leftist paper. The film fails to satisfactorily dramatize her unique situation, but she wins our respect and sympathy more readily than that of any other character; she’s formerly married with two young children, and her reactions toward the frequent killings are always laced with a modicum of maternal mourning (she would much rather pen useless epigrams for the revolution than bloody up her hands). Meinhof’s motherly perspective isn’t enough to balance out the level of acidic estrogen in the group, however; Baader’s blond lover Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) waxes poetic about her man’s swollen member in the same breath as she extols the virtues of Red China, inevitably bringing to mind John Lennon’s famous advice about carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. Both sex and bombs are clumsy instruments to use as political statements, to the point where it seems as though the true motive of the RAF was to simply blow off excess adolescent steam.
Luckily, Uli Edel can direct an action scene, his spotty oeuvre notwithstanding. The early rioting sequences don’t offer much beyond the typical handheld pandemonium, but when the gang goes guerilla (robbing banks, concocting IEDs, and kidnapping high ranking politicians), the film’s tone grows unpredictably tense even if the emotional stakes are pitifully low: Without a strong storyline we can’t always correctly guess when the next bomb will detonate or when the next gang member will get cut down by a barrage of lead to the face (much is made of the fact that when confronting Baader-Meinhof members, the German police aimed to kill). But as with Bernd Eichinger’s messy script, Edel’s camera fluidly dances around the perimeter of its subjects without ever bothering to venture deeper; the writer and director have created a document of bald, bloody conflict rather than a study of ever-changing terrorist psychology. But is the latter possible to accomplish? Either way, Baader Meinhof Complex is one the rare examples of historical fiction that manages to defuse a violent series of real-life events to the point of disinterest; watching this, one can easily comprehend why the world has forgotten the fleeting terror of the German Autumn.