film Review | Sunday, 16 May 2010

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An education in terror

When done right, docudramas make for good entertainment. You go into them hoping for some educational value, at least, so if you actually emerge from them entertained, it feels like a nice, added bonus. But nobody really likes to be lectured at, particularly by a cinema screen, and the fact that we are lured to the cinemas by a supposed ‘relevance’ inherent in these films may not be entirely true. After all, even when we are simply watching the news, our minds are automatically hardwired to search for familiar motifs and archetypes: (aggressor/victim, rich/poor, master/slave, wife/mistress) to make sense of it all. Films about fraught political events and eras take advantage of that impulse. Even if the most urgent aspects of the chosen topic remain unresolved, the fact that a limited running time bookends the events leaves one with the hope of something – even vaguely – resembling closure.
Der Baader Meinhoff Komplex, adapted from Stefan Aust’s book of the same name by Bernd Eichinger and directed by Uli Edel, is not such an easy pill to swallow. The film (Germany’s official submission to the Best Foreign Language Film Category of the 2009 Oscars, where it lost to Japan’s ‘Departures’), paints an uncompromising picture of the Red Army Faction (RAF), a militant terrorist group active in Germany in the 1970s, when the country’s fragile democracy is still reeling from its discomfitingly recent Nazi past and is constantly assailed by murderous bomb attacks, the threat of terrorism and the fear of the enemy inside. This angst is personified by Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who are fighting a violent war against what they perceive as the new face of fascism: American imperialism supported by the German establishment, many of whom have a Nazi past. What starts off as a movement aiming to expose the inadequacies of the system descends into a spiral of bloodshed, as the members of the group become increasingly more dehumanised and alienated from the political and ethical implications of their original aims. Head of the German police force Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), pursuing the ‘Baader-Meinhof’ group under a fog of bureaucracy and improvised strategies, appears to understand their logic more than anybody else. But as the violence escalates, even he struggles to keep the situation at bay.
The two-hours-and-a-half running time did not attract me, initially, neither did its promise of gritty political realism (de gustibus…). But Edel’s confident direction sets the scene wonderfully from the very beginning. Granted, opening a film at a nudist beach makes this easy, but it’s an excellent indicator the ‘free love’ 70s in which the film is set and, with Ulrike’s familial troubles juxtaposed against violent political protests and student upheaval, we are thrust into the proceedings with gusto.
It becomes very clear from the start that this is not a Robin Hood story, as it easily could have been. We do have sympathy for the cause during the group’s formative stages, when their efforts are juxtaposed by stirrings of state violence and Germany’s alleged complicity in the Vietnam war (by now a staple Hollywood symbol of unjustified warfare). But the execution (pun not intended) of their plans is far less easy to warm to, particularly as it degenerates into a psychotic mulch of unfocused carnage. And while the group’s status as cult heroes to some of their contemporaries is addressed, particularly in its intertwined relationship with the counter-cultural movements of the time (“f***ing and shooting are the same!” shouts Ensslin to a bemused Palestinan terrorist), the close focus on their gradual degeneration cancels this out.
It is slightly overlong, and does not necessarily accommodate non-German audience particularly well (some of the group’s later targets in particular leave the viewer yearning for Wikipedia) – but as a portrait of a nation under the scourge of internal psychosis, Edel’s film is a gripping, tense success.

The Baader Meinhof Complex will be showing at St James Cavalier tonight and May 19 and 20 at 18:30 and 21:15; May 21, 22 at 21:00; May 23, 26 at 18:30.


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