DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX: Misguided Rebels

The year 2008 featured two films about revolutionaries in protest, with Steven Soderbergh’s CHE and Steve McQueen’s HUNGER, based on Che Guevara and Bobby Sands respectively. Both films were ambitious in their own right, taking historical figures and using their lives, not for conventional biopic storytelling and to question their places in history, but as pretexts about the experiences and ideals of their respective times. The films weren’t so much about why, but about the how; interpretations about the images and politics left to the viewer based on emotionalism as much as the idealism; as if to live them is to further understand them. Uli Edel’s DER BAADER MEINHOF KOMPLEX, a 2008 German film that retells the early years of the West German terrorist group Red Army Faction (RAF) at the time of the German student movement to the German Autumn (Deutscher Herbst) in 1977, doesn’t attempt to do what Soderbergh and McQueen did. Edel’s choices are sometimes superior, but other times painfully inferior.

The film starts exhilaratingly with a riot in 1968, where the Berlin police enforced unfairly a brutal measure of crowd control on students that were in a protest against the Shah of Persia. I could go into the political reasons or the facts of the event, but they wouldn’t be too unique. The riot is a veracious demonstration of inhuman behavior, where Edel’s film shows each hit, its sound and its blood with detail and realness, and the camera present inside the moment (one particular shot has the viewer looking directly into the water cannon), as if we were running for our own lives. The event is atrocious enough that it works as a pill of anger for the film’s emotion, in which we initially identify with the arguments in complain from eventual Red Army Faction co-founders, Ulrike Meinhof (Martiana Gedeck) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), against German fascism, and American imperialism.

The first 30-minutes of the films are hypnotic. Their verbal dissent afterwards seems so inconsequential in TV debates and house discussions that it almost motivates the viewer to root for some of the anarchistic remonstration that follows, which do not feel immoral, but instead cathartic against such unfairness; like the image of a man screaming around a fire that is of liberation as a rebuttal to past injustices. “We believe that speech without action is wrong,” says Gudrun at one point. She says it so convincingly and of such righteousness; her looks and those of her friends are attractive and gorgeous. It fools us to follow their misguided revolution. The film captures political emotions far better than Soderbergh’s and McQueen’s films in these 30-minutes, as it timely exchanges between political debates and expressive protests. It then expands further into a montage where historical figures such as Martin Luther King, Che Guevara and Bobby Kennedy are shown assassinated, with worldwide chaos displayed. It is the death of verbal protests and the creation and creativeness of anarchism.

These first 30-minutes are the paramount of the picture, bar none, but this is the film’s disgrace. Where films like HUNGER and CHE were consistent with their promises, enganging the viewer more with visual expresiveness than verbal sections, BAADER MEINHOF consistently struggles to find the tonal frequencies of visceral articulacy and political argumentation that made the opening act masterful. The rest wavers with far more vocalization and trades the protests for an odd sense of action-movie awareness through various violent montages that lack the emotional spirit from the first 30-minutes; the fact that it is accompanied by a score oddly reminiscent to those of the National Treasure films is another critical element that adds further generic qualities. It begins as once an accessible film and an intricate one – something that Soderbergh would benefit to become – but gradually becomes more shallowly convoluted, with verbal happenings and generic montages, in which case I’d prefer my Soderbergh Complex.

There’s a particular section in the second-half where it challenges the viewer to compare it with McQueen’s mediative and visceral film, when the Red Faction Army members are in prison and enter into their Hunger Strike and claustrophobic setting. It highlights the film’s fatal injuries: Because it becomes such a hurried narrative, and eventually an unfocused multifaceted one, it isn’t able to establish much of an atmosphere to feel these events in the second-half further than their swift political descriptions. But because it then aims to build momentum rather meditative impression, to compress its historical episodes in Scorsese-esque stylization, it demands a narrative that faces an element of unification. There is none. Truth is that it gradually feels more episodic than continuous, more uneven than linear, as it breaks into more groups (characters that we don’t care for or feel for), and more anesthetized than alive.

The performances are still excellent; mainly the ones of Gedeck, Bleibtreu and Wokalek, even if attention to them is gradually compromised as the film expands. When the Red Army Faction starts to dwindle, and the focus to them is fully regained, their reaction to their downfall while they’re in prison, their faces of desperation and exasperation, becomes invaluable. They are trapped in a world of violence, where violence is the only escape.

This is a film that works out of anger, thus its genesis of unfairness and unfaithfulness, like the hate for an un-loyal husband. But it ends as one of calmness, with faces of lamentation and no celebration. It masterfully starts with death and elegantly ends with death. But the middle part of the movie is the main problem, when it doesn’t know how to deal with anything.

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