Monday, September 21, 2009

The Baader-Meinhof Complex

This brutally literal film has landed in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the Red Army Faction was farcically reprised by Patti Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army. In this depiction, Andreas Baader and his co-conspirators are plenty farcical themselves, swilling beer and firing their guns in no particular direction. Moritz Bleibtreu as Baader has all the gravitas of Brad Pitt in Snatch.

The Baader-Meinhof Complex unfurls a suite of violent episodes, always punctuated either by strident Marxist rhetoric or defeated whimpering. The bank-robbing terrorists don't articulate long-term goals or even a theoretical success beyond their own martyrdom. Director Uli Edel is particularly hard on Ulrike Meinhof, once a prominent dissident journalist, who is eventually railroaded by her brattier counterparts.

This leaves the conscience of Germany to Bruno Ganz, who plays statesman Horst Herold. Only he can conjure some kind of meaningful context for all the slaughter. The Oliver Stone-style "upheavals of the sixties" montage doesn't contribute much--what does the RFK assassination have to do with any of this?

Most beguiling is why any of the gang's escapades had to happen. Meinhof abandons her children and career to follow thugs into a life of violent crime. The decision is portrayed as a choice to hurtle herself through an open window and on into the "underground." It is hard to imagine Naomi Klein picking up an assault rifle. But Meinhof was not the only roiling German seduced by mayhem: the Red Army Faction was a teenage sensation, inspiring a spate of pro- and anticommunist murders.

The killers are even more attractive in the film than in real life. But their startling popularity failed to materialize into an authentic challenge to state power, and their actions gained coherence only after their incarceration. The cruelest irony: in prison, the revolutionaries turn into cunning negotiators and bookish study-buddies, where before they dismissed theory as "intellectual masturbation."

Very little moralizing or historical cause-and-effect is presented in The Baader-Meinhof Complex, although one seeks meaning from both films and murders. Complaints that the film suffers from hero-worship are off-base, and rest on an assumption that all movie violence is titillating. Edel takes the killers on their own terms, although he does not give any time to the contention that the Nazis have been replaced by a new imperialist brutality. No attempt is made to contrast the RAF with an excessively obedient culture. And why are the police actions against the RAF and the Munich Olympics kidnappers so sheepish and non-committal? Because Germany was trying to shuck its Nazi tendencies through cowardly appeasement.

To Christopher Hitchens the cycle of cruelty, sexuality, extortion and self-manipulation is predictable, and he praises the film's debunking of radical myths. In that regard, The Baader-Meinhof Complex could be judged an anti-thriller, in the way that Unforgiven is an anti-Western.

The film wins the Award for Most Outlandish Use of Bob Dylan. "Blowin' in the Wind" is the closing credits music, moments after the last body hits the ground. The juxtaposition goes some way to reviving the worn-out ballad, its rhetorical questions all the more cryptic when directed at German terrorists.