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Movie Review: The Baader Meinhof Complex
Some people just say they want a revolution. During West Germany's tumultuous late 1960s and 70s, the Red Army Faction delivered. The Baader Meinhof Complex, directed by Uli Edel and based on the book by Stefan Aust, chronicles the RAF and its leaders, including Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu), his partner-in-crime Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and reporter-turned-revolutionary Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). It was a Golden Globes and Oscars Best Picture nominee this year, but is only making its way to U.S. screens now.
The film begins with families sunbathing in the nude while Janis Joplin is heard wishing Jesus would buy her a German car. As her husband ogles other women and her prepubescent daughters frolic in the surf, Meinhof reads a magazine detailing the impending visit to Berlin of the Shah of Iran. It's an idyllic scene, but soon enough Meinhof, and the movie, will leave tranquility far behind.
The gut-wrenchingly depicted June 2, 1967 riots that erupted in Berlin between the Shah's security and peaceful protesters made up of exiled Persians and student activists set the ball in motion for Meinhof, who would soon enough go underground. After being arrested for various actions, including a department store bombing and attacks on the headquarters of a conservative newspaper, Baader and Ensslin eventually make their way to Jordan where they undergo small arms training with a group affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Soon after returning to West Germany, Baader is captured but then is freed in a messy but daring plot undertaken by three women, including Meinhof and Ensslin. It's at this point that Meinhof decides to leave domesticity and her husband and daughters behind and join the revolution.
It's also at this point in the 2 hour 30 minute movie that the heady days of Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof's headline-grabbing bank robberies and attacks on U.S. military bases begin to give way to newer RAF members who are given little introduction, and most of the rest of the movie is spent in prison and in court. The pace isn't completely dragged down in the second half, with events such as airplane hijackings and besieged government buildings shown. But after the first half's whirlwind action and without prior knowledge of the history behind the scenes, it's tough not to lose interest.
Speaking as an American, it can also be a little tough dealing with the anti-Americanism the movie's characters directed towards the U.S. over its war in Vietnam. While documentaries like Berkeley in the Sixties, The Weather Underground and Chicago 10 did a fine job of detailing 60s and 70s activism in America, Europe's fervent radicals were given short shrift, so Baader Meinhof is a welcome complement to these films in terms of trying to gain some understanding, even at the risk of hero-worshipping terrorists. In a scene featuring Bruno Ganz (who starred in Wim Wenders'1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire, but who's better known to the YouTube Generation as Adolf Hitler), there's even some discussion of the roots of terrorism that's relevant in this post-9/11 world.
Another difficult aspect of the movie is its no-holds-barred violence -- people are blown up, shot in the face, force fed, etc. with women as the most radical characters advocating violence. Not surprising considering it was Meinhof who wrote, "If one sets a car on fire, that is a criminal offense. If one sets hundreds of cars on fire, that is political action."
Though The Baader Meinhof Complex has enough action and nudity to entertain the prurient, it's the thought-provoking ideologies delivered by the characters and their actions that makes the movie worth recommending, whether or not you subscribe to those ideologies. The movie's also a reminder that, while we in the States have our share of instability and terrorism, we really have it good now compared to the radicalism of that earlier time and place.
Review by Ryan Vincent