films and documentaries Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex

“The Baader-Meinhof Komplex ” is a stunning 2008 film by Uli Edel, chronicling the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Group.
Nominated for a Golden Globe and Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, the movie was based on Stefan Aust’s masterful book “The Baader-Meinhof Komplex.”

The film stars some of the most famous and prominent German stars like Moritz Bleibtreu, Alexandra Maria Lara, Martina Gedeck, and Bruno Ganz. The film was directed by Uli Edel, who first came to notice with the harrowing “Christiane F.” 30 years ago.

For students of the Baader-Meinhof era, this film is nothing less that remarkable. It’s surprising that it has taken more than three decades to produce a film that simply tells the full story of the era rather than tiny slices or as fictionalized accounts. There have been many other films that have explored the effects of left-wing terrorism, from the “Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” to “Marianne and Juliane,” to the “Legend of Rita.” But they were all fictionalized aspects of small parts of the story. There was 2002’s “Baader,” but it was fatally flawed by altering the historical record by having Andreas Baader die in a shoot-out in 1972. So the “Baader-Meinhof Komplex” is a welcome entry in the long history of films inspired by the era.

People who know the story and era intimately might be put off mildly by some of the films anachronisms: the BMW 2002tii driven by Petra Schelm before she was shot was clearly a 1973-76 model that couldn’t have existed when she was shot in the spring of 1971, Gudrun Ensslin is shown watching the Berlin June 2, 1967 riot on TV, when she actually participated in the riot, etc. But ultimately these are very minor problems for a film that seems to have imported the early 1970s wholesale onto celluloid. It’s truly stunning.

Bleibtreu in particular is outstanding as Baader. He’s charismatic, appealing, and mean; sometimes all at once. Martina Gedeck is equally outstanding as Ulrike Meinhof. Some of the actors bear uncanny resemblances to their historical counterparts and others not-so-much. But overall each actor seems to channel the era beautifully.

The film does not skimp on detail; it thankfully avoids streamlining the story too much. It’s all there: from the attempted murder of Rudi Dutchke, to the rescue of Meinhof’s children by Stefan Aust, to the vacations on the Sylt resort, it’s amazing how many different elements to the story have been brought into this two-and-a-half hour film.

The film generated controversy when it opened in Germany and later in the UK; critics felt that it glorified terrorism. It’s an interesting argument. The film tells the story straight; but the story itself is clearly exciting. Is it the film that is glorifying terrorism or is it something inherent in the nature of the subject? I think of Francis Ford Coppolla, who made Apocalypse Now as the ultimate anti-war film, and proudly claimed that he designed it to make such a profound statement against war that those watching it would be rendered pacifists. Of course it had the opposite effect; soldiers in the first Gulf War and current Iraq war routinely would watch the “Ride of the Valkries” scene prior to going into battle in an effort to psyche themselves up for the conflict (see “Jarhead” for a recreation of just such a scenario). Perhaps any film made with care about terrorism would “glorify” terrorism to those inclined to become excited by the subject. Either way, it must be incredibly painful for the families of the victims of the Baader-Meinhof Group to see this group become prominent once again.

The Baader-Meinhof Komplex delves into another controversial area; what happened on “Death Night,” when Andreas Baader, Jan-Carl Raspe, and Gudrun Ensslin turned up dead in their prison cells? Like the book “Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex” that served as the basis for this film, the movie hedges on an answer. The great achievement of Aust’s book was not to say whether the prisoners killed themselves or were murdered by the state, the achievement was to show how it was possible and even likely that they committed suicide. But he couldn’t or wouldn’t say for certain that it was suicide and the film follows this line exactly. It’s probably the right take for such an immensely problematic matter. Interestingly, in Aust’s recently revision to his 1988 classic book, he drops much of the hedging and simply calls the deaths suicide. But the filmmakers were clearly more conservative.

If there is a one flaw of the film–an artistic choice, really–it is the breadth of characters that come and go in the film without any introductions. Bernd Eichinger, who wrote and produced the film, pointedly wanted us to be immersed into this world and often a bit confused as to whom we are seeing. I guess it adds a note of verisimilitude; but even I found myself confused as to which character was which at certain points–and I probably know these people as well as anyone on the planet.

The Baader-Meinhof Komplex was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; it lost to a frankly inferior Japanese film.