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unravelling terror

tony macgregor: the baader meinhof complex, festival of german film

Tony MacGregor is a writer and broadcaster. He has written a libretto for an as yet unproduced opera exploring Ulrike Meinhof’s life and death, with music by David Chesworth.

The Baader Meinhof Complex The Baader Meinhof Complex

active recall

From this distance (in both time and geography) it’s perhaps difficult to recall or imagine the extent of the turmoil that swept across western Europe in the late 60s, as a generation of students, unionised workers and intellectual activists from the Left loudly took to the streets – and took up paving stones if not arms—to protest against US imperialism (not just the war in Vietnam, but the Cold War itself) and the continuing hold of the ‘old’ political elites on formal power and culture in countries finally emerging from the ruination and austerity of the immediate post war years.

For most of us in the ‘Anglosphere’, our understanding of the cultural impact of those events is largely French inflected, seen through the lens of the Nouvelle Vague, and inculcated in the academy through the philosophical pyrotechnics of Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida and their ilk. The streets of Paris in May 68 exist in our ‘imaginary’ as a carnival of youthful and Utopian abandon, and the political legacy of that period includes a generation of the French political elite, only now passing from the scene (Sarkozy is the first president since that time who had no role in ‘les événements’ of 1968.)

In (the then West) Germany, as it did in Italy, the carnivalesque quickly turned bitter and violent. The stakes were higher, and both the State and elements of the extra-parliamentary opposition played harder, with a conservative press urging an ever-tougher government response. The students and academics protesting against American involvement in the war in Vietnam were also railing against the presence of hundreds of thousands of US troops in their own country, in a state of perpetual readiness for war with the bordering Soviet Empire. The political class was dominated by a generation who had grown up under the Nazis—many had actually held positions of power in the Nazi bureaucracy. The perception of the moral corruption and illegitimacy of the State was compounded by the fact that the Federal government was in fact a ‘grand coalition’ of left-liberal Social Democrats and conservative Christian Democrats, forcing political opposition from the Left out of the parliament into more informal—and extreme—forms of protest. Meanwhile the West German economy was powering along—creating a sense of frustrated entitlement among a rising generation who wanted more access to both political and cultural power.

The Baader Meinhof Complex follows the trajectory of the core members of the most notorious of the oppositional groups that emerged out the chaos of that time, tracking the three principals—Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Ulrike Meinhof from their earliest forays into protest in 1967, through their descent into ‘underground’ violence, their arrest, imprisonment and trial, and finally, the suicide in October 1977 of Ensslin, Baader and a colleague. Meinhof had committed suicide in prison 18 months earlier.

art and baader meinhof

The film directed by Uli Edel (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Body of Evidence) written and produced by Bernd Eichinger (who also wrote the script for Downfall) is the latest attempt by German filmmakers to account for the transformation of middle class liberal protestors into violent underground terrorists. The protest movement, the fatal violence of the underground, the savagery of the State response and the horror of the prison suicides combined to create a deep cultural wound, and a generation of filmmakers and writers have worried at it, from well before the dust settled. The extraordinary group devised and directed documentary drama Deutschland im Herbst/Germany in Autumn (with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Volker Schlöndorff among its 13 participating filmmakers!) came out in 1978 incorporating footage from the funeral of Baader et al into its final scene; The Lost Honour of Katherina Blum, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and Volker Schlöndorff from the novel by Heinrich Böll was released in 1975, when the events it sought to address were still very much in progress.

The central concerns of these artists have been the questions that constellate around the transformation of middleclass liberalism into underground violence—and the countervailing transformation of the liberal democratic state into a police state. Is violence inevitable? Is it the only way to truly transform society? Or is it always doomed to failure—not least because it destroys the souls of those who take up arms? What should be the proper response of a democratic state to the violence of its citizens? And what is the proper response of the artist? What are the limits of representation? Do I take up the camera (or the pen) or do I take up the gun?

From an Australian perspective such questions can seem both futile and abstract, but the body count was real enough—more than 30 dead, and hundreds wounded through RAF related violence—and still more if one takes into account the events surrounding the Munich Olympics in 1972. The questions Fassbinder, Böll, Schlöndorff, von Trotta et al asked themselves were at the time very real; they seem hardly less so now as the world contemplates escalating levels of terrorism.

The Baader Meinhof Complex The Baader Meinhof Complex
At first glance, Edel and Eichinger’s film seems to address these questions by simply recounting in as objective a manner as possible the key events of the historical narrative, with minimal psychologising of the motivations of the protagonists: we are given the opportunity to witness the actions of both State actors and the terrorists, to see their effects, and track their catastrophic consequences. The apparent objectivity allows us to see good and bad on all sides, and we watch in horror as good (or at least recognisably ordinary) people are caught up in events which lead toward their doom. As often as not death and destruction are the product of accident as of intent.

The filmmakers essentially follow the narrative of events laid out in Stefan Aust’s 1997 book of the same name. Aust is a former editor of the German news weekly Der Spiegel, and knew many of the protagonists from his own student days. His book is a forensic account not just of the story of the key members of the Baader Meinhof ‘gang’, but also an engrossing and fine grained detailing of the activities of numerous splinter groups and the background to people caught up in events as they unfolded over a decade. This is the ‘complex’ to which the film’s title refers, and in cleaving closely to this detailed and multilayered narrative, the resulting film is sprawling, episodic and very long (at 150 minutes).

the power of mythos

Students of German history and culture—and anyone with an interest in the nature of terrorism—will find the experience of watching the film exhausting but fascinating. However, the real power of the film, and the insight it offers, is in its understanding of the Baader Meinhof complex as a mythos, and its episodic structure to an extent disguises an elegant formal structure in which the mythic or archetypal character of the work is fully revealed. And it is in recognising the mythic qualities of the Baader Meinhof story that we understand its enduring impact on the German national story (and the ever present attraction of passionate idealists to violent direct action).

The early clue to the intention of the filmmakers to render the story as myth as much as history, is evident in the way the three main characters are introduced. We meet Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) as a celebrated liberal journalist with the radical monthly konkret, and a fixture (the radical voice and token woman) on TV chat shows in which the subject of youthful rebellion, the war in Vietnam and other hot topics of the day are debated; her frustration with her limited ability as a journalist to influence events is clearly visible, as is her almost erotic fascination with those who are prepared to take direct action. Similarly, we meet the angry young Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), bawling baby in her arms, cigarette hanging from her lips in her family’s modest apartment, arguing about the evil of the war in Vietnam with her father, a liberal but austere Lutheran pastor. She is possessed by a holy fire and impatient with the compromises and complexities of ‘bürgerlich’ civility.

By contrast, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) simply appears, a force of nature with neither history nor narrative. Whereas Aust’s book gives us an extensive account of Baader’s background as a working class juvenile delinquent with a chip on his shoulder and a preening self regard, the film posits him as a kind of demiurge, at once erotic and violent, whose arrival at political activism is both accidental and opportunistic. He and Ensslin become lovers, and it she who both contains (barely) his most violent impulses, and serves to interpret his native rage as revolutionary fire. Literally—his first act in the film is to set fire to a department store.

Meeting Ensslin and Baader in the course of reporting on the trial of the department store fire-bombers, Meinhof is drawn step by step into taking direct action, literally jumping through the window (after Baader, whom she has helped escape from his imprisonment for the fire-bombing), out of her middle class comfort into life on the run—an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole moment.

Most of the key figures constellating around Baader (a decidedly un-intellectual leader) are women, and women enact the violence he wills as readily as the men. The film reveals revolutionary terrorism as a kind of Dionysian revel, in which a laughing god drunk on wine and dope urges his ‘cunts’ to ever more destructive acts of violence against those outside his charmed circle. Once they plunge into the underworld, the ‘Baader Meinhof Gang’ are consumed more by ‘wilding’ than by obviously political action: racing through the streets in stolen BMW’s and Porsches, robbing banks and rolling in the cash, setting bombs and blowing things up.

The defining relationship of the film—and of the historical ‘gang’—is the archetypal triad of Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof, in which forces of eros (Ensslin) and logos (Meinhof) revolve around the dangerous centre of mad Dionysus. Meinhof never fully surrenders her grasp on logos—until in the end she seeks to rationally account for her choices and to locate them within an historical and institutional framework—but the erotically charged force of Baader and Ensslin overwhelm and breakdown Meinhof’s fragile grip on rationality.

the descent

This descent into something like madness is amplified by the formal shape of the film. It begins with the movement of the protagonists from the domestic into the public realm—television, street demonstrations, public meetings. Taking direct action, becoming criminals, they are forced underground, and the film becomes pre-occupied with night time journeys between apartments with blinds drawn, and the protagonists move around in public in disguise. After their capture, the space occupied by the film is further reduced—now they are confined to a series of prison cells, a court room (the proceedings reduced to farce by the inability of the court to contain the wildness of Baader and company), meetings with lawyers. Meinhof is held in solitary confinement, and driven to despair, and finally, suicide. As the final act of the film unspools, Baader Ensslin and their comrades are reduced to speaking to each other over an improvised intercom system, sealed up in cells that have been soundproofed by the addition of padded wooden panels. They listen on a smuggled radio to reports of the final desperate attempts of their companions ‘outside’ to secure their release—namely, the hijacking of a Lufthansa airliner. The move fails—German commandos kill the hijackers while the plane is on the ground in Mogadishu—and it is this failure that apparently precipitates the penultimate act of the film, the suicide of Baader Ensslin and their fellow prisoner Carl Raspe. (The final act is the killing, by ‘third generation’ members of the RAF, of the industrialist Hans Martin Schleyer, kidnapped weeks earlier in an attempt to force the release of Baader & co—again, unsuccessfully.)

good moves and bad

There are dud moments and frustrating elisions, of which two are worth noting. The films credits roll to the sound of Dylan singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” which strikes a tone at total odds with the sentiment of the film, suggesting the final scenes of suicide and murder are ameliorated by recourse to comforting images of doves nesting in the sand. The use of music throughout the film borders on the banal, despite the references being entirely accurate historically—from Janis Joplin singing “Oh lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz…” over the opening titles, to fragments of “My Generation” and “Wild Thing” which float through the soundtrack.

And Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof all had children whom they ‘gave up’ to pursue their careers underground. This was particularly wrenching for Meinhof who agonised about her decision to abandon her two daughters, and wrote heartbreaking letters to them from her prison cells. These girls make two brief, silent appearances, and we see Ensslin with her baby in the opening moments of the film, but the reality of the children in the emotional lives of the characters is never really acknowledged, and their credibility is reduced as a consequence.

These gaps (and a few others) aside, The Baader Meinhof Complex is an important and powerful film. It tells its potted history of protest and terrorism and the forces arrayed against the would be revolutionaries with great force (and the incidents picked out above are but some moments of many), but its real force derives from the relentless intensification of the experience of its protagonists as the world they inhabit becomes more and more restricted. And its key insight is in revealing the descent into violence as less to do with strategic action and more to do with the surrender to the erotic charge of violence itself.

The Baader Meinhof Complex, director Uli Edel, writer, producer Bernd Eichinger, based on the book by and in consultation with Stefan Aust, co-writer Uli Edel, director of photography Rainer Klausmann editor Alexander Berner, production designer Bernd Lepel; Audi Festival of German Film 2009, April 15-28;; and cinema release May 7

For more information on the Baader Meinhof gang, visit

Tony MacGregor is a writer and broadcaster. He has written a libretto for an as yet unproduced opera exploring Ulrike Meinhof’s life and death, with music by David Chesworth.

RealTime issue #90 April-May 2009 pg. 25

© Tony MacGregor; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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