Everybody smoked constantly in the 60s.
On this occasion it's Ulrike Meinhof
This film regards historical events of which I was wholly ignorant, but which would be far more familiar had I ever lived in Germany. There's certainly enough here to make sense of it all to an outsider, though I was rather caught off-guard to find so overwhelmingly sympathetic a presentation of this violent terrorist group. If I was simply given the resumé of the RAF (the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang) I might have counted them as plain villains, but this film gets into why they did what they did, and makes an extremely compelling case.
In short, Germany in the late sixties was a troublesome place, with its politicians supporting dubious American wars in Vietnam and the Middle East, and their police extremely violent in their dealings with peaceful protestors (a suggestion corroborated by 1992's 'Die Zweite Heimat'). People who where children during the Nazi government and World War II can see their parents' generation once more equipping the boots of oppression, a resurgence of those old terrors. When it becomes clear that peaceful protests won't change the minds of the country's leaders - a realisation that eventually reaches everybody who's been on a protest march - people start to take up different forms of protest. Bombs are harder to ignore.
Andreas Baader lights up a cigar at his trial
Since peaceful protest and violent action seem to be met with the same police response, the latter begins to look the more credible. Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu, whom you may have seen in 1998's 'Run, Lola, Run') is firmly entrenched in the life of a pretty damn cool violent criminal (and hot-tempered jerk, to boot) when the film starts, but Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) is a journalist, a pacifist, a writer who uses words rather than actions, at least until Baader's circle condemn her for this, and give her a chance to be of more practical use.
Hers is the most fascinating role, and the most exciting performance, and I shall happily add Gedeck to my list of German actors for whose sake I actively seek out other films. As to Meinhof, I place a lot of faith in the ability of a free press, online as much as on paper, to change minds and change society for the better; I can see, though, how somebody in Ulrike Meinhof's position could eventually resolve that words alone weren't changing society, that a gun would be louder.
For a good third or half of the film, the gang's actions, while increasingly extreme, with creeping body-counts, are presented as, if not a benign solution, at least a reasonable one. I can't quite think how it worked now, as it seemed a logical progression while I was watching, and over the following week, but seems absurd and frightening now that I think back on it, a month later. For instance, it's almost unthinkable that anyone would make a British film sympathetic to the bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army, a violent order closer to home. But, so far as I'm aware, the IRA's work was more about revenge, about who you were related to and how you were brought up, while the RAF's attacks were much more a response to the international political situation.
Bruno Ganz (oh, you know, Adolf Hitler) plays Horst Herold, a notable historical figure who doesn't even get a page on English-language Wikipedia. Herold was in charge of the German anti-terrorist squad, and despite being innovative and capable, the nation's worst terrorist activities happened on his watch. What Herold is keen to stress, at least in this film, is that there's no point in trying to track down and stop established terrorists without enquiring into their motives; more than once he out and says that the RAF have some justification, and that what must change is the activities of politicians - that American wars in the East are the reason for violent unrest at home, and that this problem won't go away.
It's surely a deliberate piece of casting, to see the man now so famous for playing the Führer in 'Downfall' (2004) voicing such controversial, relevant and liberal sentiments. It's certainly a message worth listening to. I still feel I've no idea why the 9/11 or 7/7 attacks occurred, since the way they were reported focused on inherent foreign villany, or religiously-motivated insanity, rather than enquiring into what the terrorists were so angry about, and how these desperate measures were reached.
Ulrike again, at the trial
The second half of the film regards the trials of the gang's surviving members, Baader and Meinhof chief among them. The trial is presided over by judges unwilling to listen to or engage with the defendants, and it's uncomfortably reminiscent of the trial at the core of 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928). Both films were able to work directly from court transcripts, and both seem grotesque travesties. In each, the authorities are angry, rather than just, and the defendants are sure from the start to suffer at length, and to die, but not be forgotten. What St. Joan lacked, which the RAF unfortunately did not, is a second and third generation of increasingly extreme and murderous terrorists in the outside world, inspired by their acts but entirely outside their control. Actually, thinking about it, Joan may have had something like that too, but it's more of an issue here than in her film.
What came back to me several times in the week after watching this film was how the country rallied to the RAF's support. When the police and the anti-terrorist department step up their search for the Baader-Meinhof gang, our heroes are forced to go under-cover, and though they already have a reputation for robbing banks (sort of hooray), blowing up office buildings and shooting policemen (markedly less hooray), a sizeable minority of the German public, when asked, proffer support for the gang, many saying they would shelter gang members from the authorities. This wasn't just a violent gang threatening the nation, they were standing up for the people and against a malign state, and the people were glad of this. It's certainly a more inspiring, more intelligent Crowd than we get in 'M' (1931) or 'Julius Caesar' (1950). What I have since been asking myself: would I shelter gang-members, if they stood up in this way to authorities so cruel and wilfully ignorant of their electorate's needs, a state that needed to be stopped? Maybe. I'd like to think so, even. Would I end up making bombs for them? I hope not, as I'm terribly clumsy.
P.S. Oh, it's a good film, by the way. A strong script, direction, hurdy-gurdy, hurdy-gurdy. As happens on occasion, I seem to have found myself talking about the message and the ideas, and not about the film under consideration. That probably means the film works very well indeed.
P.P.S. With 'Die Baader-Meinhof Komplex', 'Das Testament Des Dr Mabuse' (1933) and 'Die Nibelungen' (1924), I've achieved a pointless mini-goal of mine, to see films starting with the masculine, feminine and neuter German words for 'the'. A complex, it seems, is masculine, a Testament is neutral, and a Nibelungen? Well, actually that's plural in this case, so I haven't strictly speaking achieved what I sought, even if I did get a Die, Das and Der. Thankfully homelands are feminine, at least in language, and 'Die Andere Heimat' (2013) is in cinemas this October, at least in Germany, and I'm very keen indeed to see it.
This is a film worth watching. It is, as you may expect, violent in a number of ways, though not gratuitously so - but if you think that may be a problem for you, steer clear of it. Otherwise, give it your full attention.
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