Deutschland Deja Vu: The Baader Meinhof Complex
I've written before about Germany's Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang, but hadn't seen the 2008 German movie about their exploits until TiVo downloaded an HD version from DirecTV over the weekend. (It's due out on DVD at the end of the month) Watching The Baader Meinhof Complex's titular Teutonic terrorist gang in action, I was struck by déjà vu of it all.
A small but growing band of radicals with a penchant for street theater, wishing to smash capitalism and destroy the system from within, led by a fanatical, brawling leader, with at least one articulate well-bred intellectual within the inner circle. Starting off by blowing up small, bourgeois shops. Eventually hooking up with sympathetic allies in the Middle East. Then killing American soldiers. And when finally cornered, going out in a Gotterdammerung of mass suicide rather than face punishment from their captors.
That’s never happened in Germany before!
Also adding to the sense of déjà vu, were the roles of the detectives assigned to capture the Baader-Meinhof: Bruno Ganz played the lead investigator and Heino Ferch his lieutenant. Was it purely a coincidence that they were the actors who played Hitler and Albert Speer in Downfall? (Another prominent actor in Downfall, who played one of Hitler’s generals, played the judge who presided over the Baader-Meinhof’s circus of a trial.)
I hadn’t read Christopher Hitchens’ review of the film before getting half way through this post, but he picks up on the sense of Deutschland déjà vu as well, and believes that casting was definitely intentional:
There were three officially democratic countries where for several years an actual weaponized and organized group was able to issue a challenge, however garbled and inarticulate, to the very legitimacy of the state. The first such group was the Japanese Red Army, the second (named partly in honor of the first) was West Germany’s Red Army Faction, led by Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, and the third was the Red Brigades in Italy.
You may notice that the three countries I have just mentioned were the very ones that made up the Axis during the Second World War. I am personally convinced that this is the main reason the phenomenon took the form it did: the propaganda of the terrorists, on the few occasions when they could be bothered to cobble together a manifesto, showed an almost neurotic need to “resist authority” in a way that their parents’ generation had so terribly failed to do. And this was also a brilliant way of placing the authorities on the defensive and luring them into a moral trap. West Germany in the late 1960s and 1970s is not actually holding any political prisoners. Very well then, we will commit violent crimes for political reasons and go to prison for them, and then there will be a special wing of the prison for us, and then the campaign to free the political prisoners by violence can get under way. This will strip the mask from the pseudo-democratic state and reveal the Nazi skull beneath its skin. (In a rather witty move that implicitly phrases all this in reverse, the makers of The Baader Meinhof Complex have cast Bruno Ganz as the mild but efficient head of West German “homeland security,” a man who tries to “understand” his opponents even as he weaves the net ever closer around them. It requires a conscious effort to remember Ganz’s eerie rendition of the part of the Führer in Downfall five years back.)
It doesn’t take long for the sinister ramifications of the “complex” to become plain. Consumerism is equated with Fascism so that the firebombing of department stores can be justified. Ecstatic violence and “action” become ends in themselves. One can perhaps picture Ulrike Meinhof as a “Red” resister of Nazism in the 1930s, but if the analogy to that decade is allowed, then it is very much easier to envisage her brutally handsome pal Andreas Baader as an enthusiastic member of the Brownshirts. (The gang bought its first consignment of weapons from a member of Germany’s neo-Nazi underworld: no need to be choosy when you are so obviously in the right.) There is, as with all such movements, an uneasy relationship between sexuality and cruelty, and between casual or cynical attitudes to both. As if curtain-raising a drama of brutality that has long since eclipsed their own, the young but hedonistic West German toughs take themselves off to the Middle East in search of the real thing and the real training camps, and discover to their dismay that their Arab hosts are somewhat … puritanical.
Heh. The production values were excellent, but at some point, It seemed like a better title for the film would be Stockholm Syndrome, rather than the Baader Meinhof Complex. As Wikipedia notes in their page on the movie, at least as of when I’m posting this:
Michael Buback, the son of former chief federal prosecutor Siegfried Buback who was assassinated by the RAF in 1977, expressed doubts concerning whether the film seriously attempts to present the historical truth, although he had not seen the movie when he expressed this concern. He subsequently amended this statement, but pointed out that the film concentrates almost exclusively on portraying the perpetrators which carries with it the danger for the viewer of too much identification with the protagonists.
Watching a number of the action scenes, you really do get an understanding for why Patty Hearst might eventually become Tonia while trapped inside a band of radical chic terrorists and being brainwashed via a steady diet of their Marxist claptrap.
Speaking of which, how many people who joined Baader-Meinhof in Germany, the S.L.A., the Black Panthers, or the Weathermen, led by Bill Ayers, who’s otherwise just a regular guy in the neighborhood, because they were true believers in anarcho-Marxism, or because they were suicidal adrenaline junkies?
Or maybe because it was simply the late 1960s. Over the The Baader Meinhof Complex’s end credits, occurs perhaps the most pretentious moment of the film, as Kyle Smith wrote in his review of the film last year, quipping, “’The Baader Meinhof Complex’ isn't, very:”
As for the moxie of the ending -- Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" backs up the closing credits, as though we have just seen a film about a circle of peace lovers -- let's just say you don't need a weatherman to know when it's raining bull droppings.
Since I’m not holding my breath for Hollywood to adapt Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic to movie form, or to do a serious look at the Weathermen, this is probably the best chance at getting a stylized and likely more than a little fictitious look at radical chic, albeit German-style.
As long as you know what you’re getting into before watching it.