The Baader Meinhof Complex
Directed by Uli Edel. Starring Moritz Bleibtreu, Martina Gedeck, Johanna Wokalek, Bruno Ganz. (2008, R, 150 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Sept. 25, 2009
At once a gripping recent-history lesson, a textbook example of how to be a successful homegrown terrorist (depending, of course, on one's definition of “successful”), and a black-leather primer on the importance of haute couture when undertaking violent, revolutionary actions (something the previous German generation fully understood and embraced), The Baader Meinhof Complex is explosive stuff. Director Edel (Christiane F., Last Exit to Brooklyn) chronicles the birth and surprisingly lengthy life span of the West German domestic terror cadre, the Red Army Faction, and does so in grim high style and with precious little agitprop. (Note to al Qaeda: Try to dress more like you just wandered out of an Exploding Plastic Inevitable happening. Urban combat is the ne plus ultra of street hassle; ditch the beard and try to appear as though you're waiting on the man instead of the IED, and both your street cred and ability to slaughter innocent civilians/occupying forces will go bang big-time.) The Red Army Faction, aka the Baader-Meinhof Gang, operated as an urban guerrilla and terrorist outfit from the late Sixties to as recently as the mid-1990s. Essentially, they were attritioned out of existence via dwindling public support and the relentless incarcerations, killings, and suicides of their key members. Initially an offshoot of global, student-led protests against the Vietnam War and smitten with both Che and Mao, the Red Army Faction was symptomatic of a kind of perfect storm composed of the same worldwide cultural and political upheavals that brought us Paris' May ’68 riots (famously, both Godard and Truffaut were involved, a fact that Edel surely mused on during filming), the struggle for Palestinian statehood, and any whiff of homegrown, stately fascism. The group gained steam through an increasingly deadly series bank robberies (the Red Army Faction was compared to Bonnie and Clyde in the intellectual underground press, and much of the German citizenry was, at least for a while, inclined to agree). Led by the charismatic bourgeois firebrand Andreas Baader (Bliebtreu) and his (literally) femme-fatale paramour Gudrun Ensslin (Wokalek), the most interesting (and contemporarily relevant, given the terror of the times) character is Ulrike Meinhof (Gedeck), a well-respected German journalist who, while reporting on the group's increasingly bloody "actions," ended up joining the and promoting their cause until her death by suicide in her prison cell in 1975. Edel manages to get almost everything right about the Red Army Faction, but more importantly, The Baader Meinhof Complex is visually riveting and emotionally overwhelming. Edel propels the complex narrative and its myriad ricochets, and, shockingly, it all holds together. Much like in The Battle of Algiers, Edel uses documentary tropes to realize his overarching narrative, and the end result is an electrifying, morally complex story of the evil that men (and women) do in the name of the greater good.