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The Baader Meinhof Complex

Engrossing Political-Historical Drama

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Directed and adapted by Uli Edel (Ring of the Nibelungs, Julius Caesar, "The Mists of Avalon") from Stefan Aust’s best-selling non-fiction book, The Baader Meinhof Complex (“Der Baader Meinhof Komplex”), explores Germany’s most notorious domestic group officially known as the Red Army Faction (RAF) and unofficially known as the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” as well as its two most prominent members, Ulrike Meinhof, a left-wing journalist turned chief propagandist and strategist for the RAF, and Andreas Baader, the nominal leader of the RAF from its founding in the late 60s through his death in the mid-70s. Engrossing, fascinating, and compelling, The Baader Meinhof Complex offers a clear-eyed, unromantic look at the pitfalls of how rigid, dogmatic ideology becomes the justification for political violence and not just political action.

The Baader Meinhof Complex opens in the late 1960s as student unrest and mass protests threaten to destabilize the West German government -- fueled by anti-Vietnam fervor, left wing, social justice-oriented political beliefs, a repressive, heavy-handed government, and the anti-authoritarian attitudes of the counter-cultural revolution that swept through Western countries during that period. Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), a left wing intellectual and journalist, initially refrains from active political participation. It’s not until she discovers her husband having an affair that she leaves a comfortable middle-class existence (with her twin daughters in tow, however) for the RAF thanks to her friendship with Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), Baader’s (Moritz Bleibtreu) girlfriend and RAF co-leader.

Formed in response to the violent government crackdown on student protests and the absence of left-wing voices in the West German parliament, the RAF under Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof bomb civilian, government, and U.S. military installations, rob banks (rationalized as “expropriation to finance the revolution”), after receiving training in the Middle East from Palestinian terrorists, and later, as student unrest and demonstrations dissipate, to kidnappings and assassinations to remain politically relevant.

Meinhof doesn’t become an active member in the RAF’s operations until the police capture Baader. Even then, Meinhof limits herself to chief propagandist and occasional strategist for the RAF. It’s Baader and Ensslin, however, who plan and execute most of the RAF’s actions. After they’re captured, detained (for three years), and put on trial, the RAF’s “second generation” carries on in their name.

While, by necessity and, presumably, historical precedent, The Baader Meinhof Complex focuses primarily on Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin, other members of the RAF also receive screen time. Unfortunately, that’s exactly where The Baader Meinhof Complex suffers the most: in delineating the supporting or background characters, some of whom appear in a handful of scenes, barely introduced, only to disappear altogether. Once The Baader Meinhof Complex shifts from Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin, the RAF’s second generation increases in importance, but given their late, sketchy introduction, it’s difficult to follow them with anything except marginal, tangential interest.

The Baader Meinhof Complex’s other major flaw lies in the absence of markers to denote the passage of time. While Edel includes the occasional montage to cross off major events (e.g., the political assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy), Edel doesn’t include references to the year through title cards, superimposed text, or dialogue. Baader, Meinhof, and Ensslin’s detention and trial last three years, but Edel discloses that in a single line of dialogue near the end of the film. It might sound like a minor point, but in a film tied so closely to historical events, it’s important to let the audience in on when events are happening and the time between major events.

Where Edel succeeds, however, is in the portrayal of the RAF, the initial idealism of its chief members, and their relatively rapid descent from political activism to terrorism, including the murders of government officials, industrialists, and members of the police. Idealism fueled by ideology hardens into dogmatism, dogmatism hardens into an “Us-Them” mentality (an idea Ensslin mentions several times), and that “Us-Them” mentality allows Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and their followers to justify murder by dehumanizing political opponents.

Whatever its faults, The Baader Meinhof Complex is at, minimum, a cautionary tale, regardless of political ideology. Once political activism turns to violence, whatever value ideology may have (i.e., by reflecting real-world power relations) becomes, if not moot, then discredited.