Big Spoilt Brats with Guns: The Baader Meinhof Complex November 30, 2008Posted by Garibaldy in Film, History, Terrorism.
Everyone should go and see The Baader Meinhof Complex. It’s an exhilarating film, based on Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, and the two and a half hour running time whizzes by. It hardly needs saying, but the film is the story of the emergence and activities of the Red Army Faction, or Baader Meinhof gang, as it is more commonly known. The film covers the period that led to its creation until the events of autumn 1977 (the German Autumn) that saw desperate terrorist attempts by the RAF to have their leaders freed, and the controversial deaths of those remaining leaders of the first generation of the RAF, including Andreas Baader, in Stammheim prison. I am unable to judge the historical accuracy of the various scenes portrayed, but the atmosphere of the film is certainly very convincing. I won’t try to go into all the issues it raises here, but concentrate on those that struck me most.
The film begins with Ulrike Meinhof and her husband and two daughters at the beach, giving a glimpse into the secure family life of this influential left-wing columnist, who had joined the banned Communist Party in 1959. It is during a visit by the Shah of Iran and his wife’s visit to west Germany, and Meinhof pens an open letter to the Queen discussing the poverty and oppression suffered by the people of Iran. While clearly of the further left, she has not yet come close to adopting the ideas she later became synonymous with. One of the successes of the film is to track her gradual radicalisation, although the lack of dates given in the film can make it hard to be sure what is happening when.
The first key scene is a protest against the Shah and his wife in west Berlin in 1967. Iranian students – all male, suited, and heavily built – supporting the visit launch an attack on the disparate band of lefties, young and old, protesting against the march. In order to do so, they walk through the police lines, meeting no opposition, before the police mount their own attack on the shocked demonstrators, beating all round them. For an Irish audience familiar with the stories of the civil rights movement at home, this seems familiar territory (and in fact the sometimes criticised Simon Prince may also be inclined to blame the German leftist protestors for provoking the violence, as in Derry, as the film shows some flour bombs being thrown by them before the attack). However, unlike the attacks on the NI civil rights marches in 1968, the German police shot one of the protestors dead. This event convinced many – particularly students – that the west German authorities remained riddled with fascist attitudes and fascist sympathisers, and radicalised many, adding to the momentum that would culminate in 1968. There was a great deal of truth in this, and the film conveys it very effectively.
The radicalisation not just of Meinhof but of Baader and the effective co-founder and joint leader of the RAF Gudrun Ensslin, a preacher’s daughter, continues apace amidst the Vietnam War and the attempted murder of the radical leader Rudi Dutschke. The film shows the attack on the Springer publishing group that followed. Around the same time, Baader and Ensslin begin their violent activities with an arson attack on a department store. The recklessness with which Baader treats the process of making the firebombs is representative of his portrayal in the film – impatient, impetuous, obsessed with things being done his way, casual in his attitude to planning and violence, and hostile to criticism. This is demonstrated again and again, whether it is when he encourages his lawyer to steal a woman’s purse, during training in Lebanon or at his trial. The leniency with which the arsonists are treated when captured and released several months later pending an appeal somewhat undercuts their idea that west Germany was a fascist state, and this is true later in the film, when Meinhof, Ensslin and others are able to exploit similar leniency to arrange his escape. This is the fateful moment in Meinhof’s life, when she breaks with the original plan, and decides to go underground with the others.
This portrayal of the radicalisation of those involved is one of the main strengths of the film, relating this aspect sympathetically and convincingly, but not shying away from the mixed motivations and character flaws of those involved (such as the young people clearly looking for a way to avoid their personal problems through violent activism). So while this part of the film may seem to be sympathetic to the people who would go on to found the RAF, the rest of the film is much more critical.
The Germans in the training camp in the Middle East show no respect for their hosts, whether it is their cultural traditions regarding the separation of men and women and nudity, or for their professional expertise. The willingness of the leaders to use violence and deception to rid themselves of unwanted elements speaks badly of them, and their internationalism seems skin deep when confronted with the reality of the Palestinians and their struggle. This may be revolution, but it will be on their terms whatever the consequences.
The most effective part of the second half of the film is its portrayal of the naivety and futility of the whole RAF project. This is perhaps best summed up by the image of one of the terrorists firing a pistol at an armoured personnel carrier the police have when coming to arrest him. The increasingly extreme tactics adopted by the police hunting for the gang as they travel across the country carrying out robberies, bombings and shootings form a central part. The police chief in charge of hunting them understands better than his masters that the RAF represents a political as well as a policing problem. One in four Germans under 30 – 7 million people – declared themselves sympathetic to them in the early years. Faced with such odds, the police adopt increasingly sophisticated tactics, becoming more and more the authoritarian and surveillance state of the RAF’s propaganda. Yet the RAF is itself becoming increasingly isolated. Bombs kill and injure innocent workers, while the world has moved on since 1968. More and more, they are likely to be turned in by ordinary citizens. One is caught when she leaves a gun in a jacket while going into a changing room, the victim of her own amateurish stupidity and a hostile sales assistant who call the police. Nevertheless, new generations continue to be recruited and to remain active, although it is now much harder for the police – and the audience – to understand the attractions.
As the film moves on into the 1970s, the story does increasingly resemble 6 against 60 millions. The targets increasingly become industrialists and businessmen as the terrorists desperately try to free their leaders from gaol. In prison, the RAF is waging a campaign over its conditions. In the opposite situation to Ireland, they demand the same conditions as criminal prisoners. A hunger strike is inaugurated, culminating in the death of one of the prisoners, who is denied treatment by the authorities at the end. The four leading prisoners – including Baader, Meinhof and Ensslin – receive good conditions, including the freedom to associate and cooperate in planning their defence, but they become irrevocably split, and the psychological disintegration of Meinhof as she becomes isolated from and hostile to the other prisoners is vividly portrayed. It is clear that the filmmakers regard her death as a suicide, although the other prisoners claimed in court it was murder, and there would be a similar controversy over their own deaths in the future. The desire for revenge forms a major motivation of the subsequent generations of the RAF, who even Baader regards as too extreme. They take the struggle to free their leaders far beyond Germany. The more vicious later generations in fact seem more motivated by nihilism, vengeance and terrorism than anything else, though they are never developed as characters in the same way.
This is not a film that glamourises terrorism or the RAF. On the contrary, the main message I saw in it was the utter futility of their terrorist campaign, even by their own lights. Rather than lionise the participants, it shows them for what they were – deeply flawed people, motivated by an imprecise ideology and above all a commitment to action. It is never really made clear what exactly the ideology of the RAF actually was, perhaps because they themselves never really knew, beyond a commitment to revolution that would be inspired by anti-imperialist struggles in the developing world and urban terrorism in the west. In the film’s portrayal of their ideology and actions, we can detect the influence of the Frankfurt School critique of commercialism, we see Ensslin reading Trotsky in the bath and the usual Che posters, the RAF assert the link between sexual and political revolution, and we hear the words of the communiques issued after attacks, and the lionising of the urban guerilla; but it is clear that it was the excitement of the guns, the bank robberies, and the bombings that formed the main plank of their ideology. The lack of a clear ideology or strategy is above all what isolated them from the people, even those initially sympathetic, and ensured they would slowly shrink and die off, and the RAF eventually disbanded in 1998.
Theirs was a legacy of needless death, with nothing positive. One aspect that was missing that I thought would be made more of was the issue of support from the DDR, which was at best implied. It was a major mistake of that regime ever to give any credence whatsoever to people who were ultimately vain, shallow, adventurist dilettantes playing at being revolutionaries, without the commitment, discipline or willpower necessary for sustained and successful political struggle, and who represented the very opposite of the Marxist-Leninist tradition of political struggle. Watching the film, I could not but dwell on the necessity for organised and disciplined political action by a political party of and for the working class, while thinking of Lenin’s denunciation of left-wing communism, the infantile disorder.