Interviews Interview: Bernd Eichinger, writer and producer of the Baader-Meinhof Complex
The late Bernd Eichinger, the writer behind the Baader-Meinhof Complex, was the most succesful film producer in Germany (he died early in 2011). His last three films from Germany are the most expensive and among the most successful German films of all time: Downfall, Perfume: the Story of a Murderer, and the Baader-Meinhof Complex. He has also been a lead producer on numerous Hollywood blockbusters such as the Fantastic Four and Resident Evil franchises. This interview was conducted in October of 2009.
Richard Huffman Thank you so much for taking a few moments of time to discuss the Baader-Meinhhof Complex. Can you tell me how you came to this project? Did you pursue this project or was it brought to you?
Bernd Eichinger The subject matter of “The Baader Meinhof Complex” has been developinginside my head for almost 30 years. Already in 1979, I’d tried to make a film about Ulrike Meinhof. In many ways she reminded me of my late sister who was also part of the radical left and at one point very close to extremist circles. My sister and I were always very close, but as much as I tried I couldn’t understand her rationalization of political violence. To me political violence is and has always been a no-go. You cannot create a peaceful society by bombing the hell out of people.
In any case, 1979 proved to be too early for me to make a film about German terrorism. Not enough research had been done, the RAF was still in full swing and I was still too immature as a person and too inexperienced as a filmmaker. Only in 2006 did I feel the time was right for me to tackle the monster that had been haunting me for all these years. I heard that Stefan Aust was thinking about turning his book “The Baader Meinhof Complex” into a docudrama for TV so I contacted him and said “let’s do this for the big screen.”
Richard Huffman Did working on this film change your opinion about the Red Army Faction and the Baader-Meinhof era?
Bernd Eichinger By writing the script I forced myself to get inside the heads of people I’d distanced myself from for all these years. This was a very intense experience. I’ve come out of this experience with a great feeling of sadness – so many lives lost, so much energy wasted, all those ideals betrayed.
Richard Huffman Aust’s book, which is clearly the masterwork of the canon of Baader-Meinhof literature, is more than 20 years old at this point. Why was now the right time for this film? Do you think that this film could have been made 20 years ago?
Bernd Eichinger I cannot speak for other people, but I as a filmmaker couldn’t have made “The Baader Meinhof Complex” 20 years earlier. In 1988 I’d just made “Name of the Rose” and I was shooting “Last Exit to Brooklyn” in New York with Uli Edel. I was in a completely different headspace. And my own headspace is what drives me as a filmmaker not what I think other people might find interesting or timely.
Richard Huffman I was struck by your choices in adapting this book. In a way it reminded me of Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential in that he took a sprawling and complex book and made brilliant, sprawling and complex film. Was there ever a thought to paring down the story or did you always envision it in its final form? Can you compare your task with this film with your previous work adapting Perfume: the Story of a Murderer?
Bernd Eichinger I wanted to throw the audience into the wild torrent of events that took place between 1967 and 1977. I wanted them to feel how the vicious circle of violence spiraled out of control. So there was never any thought of pairing down the story in order for the audience to identify with one particular character. Characters appear, many of them remain nameless, and if they play no further part in the story they disappear again. There is no-one with whom the viewer can identify, because I did not want to bind the film emotionally to one character. If I had done this I would have provided an interpretation – and that is exactly what I wanted to avoid. Characters appear, many of them remain nameless, and if they play no further part in the story they disappear again.
And yes, there are parallels between “Perfume” and “Baader Meinhof Complex.” Both films work via fascination rather than identification. You do not identify with the protagonists in either movie, but you find yourself compelled to watch them. This dispenses with one of the basic rules of script writing, which says that the viewer should always be able to root for a protagonist. It was fun to try a different a different way of story telling. I already tried to do so in ”Downfall,” but not to such an extreme extent.
Richard Huffman How important was it to you to film in many of the actual location where the events took place? In particularly I am thinking of the June 2nd Berlin riot. To me it felt almost documentary-like in its accuracy…
Bernd Eichinger Accuracy and authenticity was very important because the viewer instinctively knows when something is not quite right. Also, when you’re dealing with a story that shows the deaths of real people you have a responsibility as a filmmaker. There was something very eerie about filming the June 2nd demonstration. We’d closed off a 8-lane Boulevard in Berlin, which is one of the main streets leading through Berlin. As far as the eye could see, the street was empty but for our actors/extras, prop cars and set decoration. It was an incredible sight. It was the second day of the shoot and it felt like we’d entered a time warp. There were many extras who had been at the actual demonstration in 1967 and many of them came up to me and my team and told us how moved they were. And that everything really looked and felt like it had then. Believe it or not, one of the extras, who played a policeman was actually a real policeman and had had his first day on duty during the actual demonstration on June 2nd 1967. He’s about to retire now….. You can see him in the first shot of the demonstration – he’s the policeman with the big white moustache.
Richard Huffman The film uses the famous 1971 wanted poster of the Baader-Meinhof Group as a visual reference point throughout the film. Can you talk about using this poster throughout the film?
Bernd Eichinger The poster was omnipresent in German public life for decades. Every post office, every public place there’d be one. And it constantly changed: People who were captured or shot dead were crossed out. That was a very shocking and brutal image and thus it provided us with a powerful visual shorthand.
Richard Huffman How did Uli Edel come to the project? I know that you have worked with him many times, beginning with the remarkable film Christiane F. But what made him seem like the right director for this project? Among the surprises the film offered me was his excellent handling of the action sequences. The scene detailing with the capturing of Hanns-Martin Schleyer is certainly among the most wrenching and brutally effective sequences about a terrorist act ever filmed. I don’t think I breathed once during the whole sequence.
Bernd Eichinger Uli was my first choice as a director for this movie. I’ve known him since our first day at Munich Film School 38 years ago, so I know what a great and energetic filmmaker he is. I know he can handle anything, no matter what. In my opinion he’s one of the best film directors alive. To see what a great action director he can be, you only have to watch the riot sequence in “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” to name just one example.
Richard Huffman What was the reaction you expected from the public for the film? Did some of the controversy surprise you?
Bernd Eichinger I knew this film would be controversial but I had not anticipated the scale of the controversy it provoked in Germany. It was absolutely astonishing. In the week prior to the German release of the film, the press went berserk. The film was front-page news in every major German newspaper. Some of the most sophisticated critics totally lost their composure and tried to tear us to shreds. I’m no stranger to controversy but in all my 30 odd years as a filmmaker I hadn’t experienced anything like it. Outside of Germany the reactions were quite different.
Richard Huffman Some critics have accused the film of glorifying terrorism. Do they have a point? Would there have been a way to film this story without seeming to glorify terrorism in the minds of some?
Bernd Eichinger The film doesn’t moralize or push a message down people’s throat, but that doesn’t mean it glorifies violence. On the contrary, I hope people will come out of this movie concluding that violence will only lead to more violence. If that’s something you find appealing, you should be in therapy, not in a movie theatre. And I’m a filmmaker, not therapist.
Andreas Baader and Gudrun Ensslin had a real sense of style and pose – the fast cars, the clothes, the hair, the sunglasses… all that was very deliberate and it worked. They were like political rock stars. Apart from anything else, they had great sex appeal. We had to show that in order to convey why people mesmerized by them.
Richard Huffman Many films have supposedly inspired criminal or dangerous acts, from Rififi, to the Deer Hunter, to Fight Club. After the notorious financier Bernie Madoff was arrested this summer, someone broke into his Florida home and stole a statue; later quietly returning it with a card that said “Your days of plenty are numbered, signed the Edukators”… clearly inspired directly from the 2004 German film “Die Fetten Jahre Sind Vorbei.” Do you have a concern that some young people might be moved to emulate the people of your film?
Bernd Eichinger No. We didn’t romanticize what the RAF did, we showed what happened and what it lead to. And I don’t think that’s anything anyone would want to repeat.
Richard Huffman Do you ever see a return of left-wing terror groups like the Red Army Faction coming to Germany or Europe?
Bernd Eichinger No. But we do live in times of terror.
Richard Huffman Your film treats the strange deaths in Stammheim much the Aust originally treated them in his book; you lay out exactly how they could have killed themselves (the smuggled guns, etc), and internal motivations for suicide, but you leave their deaths off-screen and mysterious. In the new foreword to Aust’s book he directly calls the deaths suicides; though he acknowledges that there will never be any way to prove the case one way or another. Did you consider treating their deaths differently? Do have an opinion on how they died?
Bernd Eichinger Today, after all the inquiries and all the research being done, there’s no question that they committed suicide. However, there were no witnesses, so it would have been preposterous to show them committing suicide. It’s for that same reason that I didn’t show Adolf Hitler committing suicide in “Downfall.” Apart from the fact that it would have been a cheap and ghastly money shot, it’s an impossible scene to write because we have no eye-witnesses, no sense of how it happened.
Richard Huffman This is a personal, non-Baader-Meinhof question. As the writer of Downfall, the superb film about Hitler’s final days, I’m sure you’ve seen your work parodied on youtube literally hundreds of times with the various “Hitler Mash-up” videos. What do you think of those videos? If you find them at all amusing, do you have a favorite? Or are they too inappropriate? I confess that I find “Downfall of Grammar” pretty amusing:
Bernd Eichinger I find those parodies tremendously amusing! Obviously, the film and this scene in particular is a real fire starter for people’s imagination. What else can you hope for as a filmmaker? This is moviemaking heaven! My favorite one is when Hitler is having his tantrum over his losses in the real estate crisis. Hitler’s real crisis at the time was also about a gigantic real estate loss: the loss of all those territories he had conquered fuelled by false credit and driven by avarice, megalomania and extreme ruthlessness. And then history’s Down Jones came crushing down on him….I find this parody so funny because it’s historically relevant.