(Vitagraph) Martina Gedeck, Moritz Bleibtreu, Johanna Wokalek, Nadja Uhl, Stipe Erceg, Niels Bruno Schmidt, Vinzenz Kiefer, Bruno Ganz. Directed by Uli Edel
There is a fine line between commitment to a cause and absolute obsession over it. The committed work hard within the realm of the law; the obsessed seek any means necessary to get their agenda across.
There is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the youth of West Germany in 1967. American imperialism as expressed by its war in Vietnam, German corruption, police brutality – what’s a German Marxist to do (other than move to the other side of the Wall)? The German left wing begins to shift its focus when a peaceful protest is turned into a riot when the police exercise a beat down on the protesters; not long afterwards one of the leaders of the Left Wing is shot and nearly killed by a right winger.
When the going gets tough, the tough get violent. At least, that’s the theory according to Andreas Baader (Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek). The two lead a radical group called the Red Army Faction who are putting their signboards away and picking up guns and bombs. When a well-known journalist named Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck) interviews the rock star/political activists, she finds a strange fascination with their cause. After Baader is arrested, she volunteers to help him escape and leaves behind her husband, children and suburban lifestyle.
The film follows the group from its roots, through its notorious early 70s run of terrorist activities and through the capture of the principles and their subsequent trial. Students of the history of that era will know their fate, which wasn’t pretty; suffice to say that the band wasn’t the same without them.
This is a two and a half hour movie that has the you-are-there feel of a documentary tempered with the breathless feel of a thriller. While the moviemakers have prided themselves on their historical accuracy, the story is nonetheless fictionalized in some places for dramatic and time compression purposes.
The main cast of actors for the most part well-known in Germany but not so much here; they do superb jobs. Gedeck in particular has a schizophrenic role to play; in the beginning she is a wife and mom with a fairly bourgeois mindset albeit more left-leaning than her peers; as the movie progresses she becomes more cold-blooded than you might ever imagine.
The movie does little to explain the motivations behind the people. You get the feeling that Baader wanted to be something of a rock star; he is petulant and childish which underscores a thuggish mentality. Wokalek plays Ensslin as a hard-as-nails cast-iron bitch who doesn’t really care about the lives of the innocent; in her somewhat paranoid mindset, everyone who isn’t for the revolution is automatically allied with the government. For someone who is supposedly doing what she does for the good of the people, she sure doesn’t mind killing off her beloved “common people” for the sake of making a point.
Ganz, one of the best actors to emerge from Germany in the last 30 years, plays Horst Herald, the director of the Federal Police Office, is the conscience of the movie. He desperately tries to understand the minds of the leaders of the RAF in order to better capture them, but they wind up as great an enigma to him as they do to us.
The movie is a bit slow in the middle third, but kicks it into overdrive during the final third of the film. As the RAF disintegrates and the leaders are put on trial, we at last see some of the emotion missing from much of the movie. Those who give up on the movie near the middle might miss out on the best parts of it.
The movie suffers from trying to tell too much story. There are so many characters, all of whom are identified once and then left for us to figure out who they are and what their significance is to the story that after awhile we have no idea of who is doing what to whom. I would have much preferred it if the filmmakers had concentrated more on the three charismatic leaders of the group and left their vicious deeds offscreen; I would have been more interested to know why they did what they did rather than just what they did.
To be fair, it is more likely that the filmmakers themselves didn’t know because quite frankly, the world doesn’t know. Why smart, rational people would turn to such violence and brutality to get their point across is beyond me. We live in a world in which terrorism remains a constant threat; any one of us, at any time could be in the wrong place at the wrong time and pay the price for it, so the movie will still strike a chord with modern audiences.
The scenes of the terrorist acts can be sudden and brutal, and those with sensitive souls are well advised to stay clear, as some of these acts are quite disturbing, even by today’s standards. While most Americans remain basically ignorant of the real Baader Meinhof Complex, those who lived in Europe during the 70s will be very familiar with their actions and their consequences. It is well for us to remember that before there was an Al Qaida, there were the Weather Underground, the IRA and Baader Meinhof. Terror does not have a racial profile.
WHY RENT THIS: A terrific recreation of the era and the situation. Some of the scenes of violence are marvelously choreographed.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: We never get any real insight as to why these people did the things they did.
FAMILY VALUES: This is a disturbing film on many levels, with graphic nudity and sex, extreme violence and carnage and a foul word or two. This is definitely meant for mature audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Susanne Albrecht, who is portrayed by Hannah Herzsprung in the movie, was roommates with Herzsprung’s mother Barbara in boarding school.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The special edition 2-disc DVD set includes features on the historical authenticity of the film.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: The A-Team