Review of the film: The Baader Meinhof Complex
This film traces the history of the German “Red Army Fraction” (RAF) from its origins in the predominantly student protest movement of the late 1960s through to the prison suicides of its remaining leaders in 1977.
In total, the RAF had 39 members, but never more than 20 at any one time. It was the most famous — or infamous — of a flurry of similarly-sized groups which emerged in Germany in the 1970s and which equated “anti-imperialist struggle” with armed struggle: bombings, kidnappings, hostage-taking, and killings, all financed by armed bank robberies.
The film is not a documentary. But it is historically accurate. Not just the general “storyline” but also the specific incidents portrayed in the film, much of the dialogue spoken by the RAF members, and also the way in which the personalities of the leading RAF members are portrayed.
Andreas Baader is a domineering, loud-mouthed, cynical, macho misogynist, with a penchant for violence as an end in itself. Just as he was in real life. Unlike other RAF members, Baader had little involvement in the political upheavals of the 1960s. For a young person living in West Berlin at the time, this was no small achievement.
His partner, Gudrun Ensslin, despite having a character of her own, provides Baader with the hero-worship which he craved. This too is the real-life Ensslin. On more than one occasion she wrote of Baader in terms such as: “The absolute enemy, the enemy of the state; the collective consciousness and the morality of the oppressed and of the downtrodden, of the metropolitan proletariat — that is Andreas.”
Ulrike Meinhof, a well-known left-wing journalist at the time, is portrayed as a more complex character, which indeed she was. At one point in the film she says that she could never join a group like the RAF as it would mean abandoning her children. And yet she did join the RAF — and then tried to arrange to have her children brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp.
The other members of the “core group” of the RAF have, at most, only an episodic role in the film. They shoot, they bomb, and they get arrested or killed. But their appearances are too fleeting for their personalities to be fleshed out.
This too reflects the real-life RAF: Baader, backed up by his high-priestess, made the decisions, with all other members reduced to mere supporting roles.
Based on Stefan Aust’s book of the same name, the film has been meticulously researched and incorporates material from a variety of other sources as well. But where the film falls down, as many of its critics have pointed out, is that it tries to cover too much in too limited a space of time.
The political context in which the RAF emerged is represented by scenes of protests against a visit to Germany by the Shah of Iran, demonstrations and rallies against the war in Vietnam, the attempted murder of Rudi Dutschke, the campaign to attempt to stop distribution of the right-wing Bildzeitung newspaper, protests against the “Notstandgesetze” (emergency legislation), news reports about the Six Day War in the Middle East and the following year’s General Strike in France, and the decline of the student protest movement in the closing years of the 1960s.
And that’s all just in the first half hour or so of the film!
All this certainly helps recreate the “atmosphere” of the period. But, especially in the case of non-German audiences, how many people can make sense of all this and recognise that the RAF was not so much the product of a movement of radical political protest but rather an expression of its decline and disintegration?
The history of the RAF in the early 1970s is dealt with in the same kind of rapid-fire style: the arson attack on a Frankfurt department store, the arrest and trial of Baader and Ensslin, Baader’s escape from imprisonment, military training with Fatah in Jordan, a series of bank robberies, and a succession of bombings of US military bases, police headquarters, and the offices of the Bildzeitung — interspersed with policemen being shot, and RAF members being shot.
This is followed by another succession of similar events, but more brutal and on a larger scale, carried out by the “second generation” of the RAF, with Brigitte Mohnhaupt duly anointed as commander-in-chief by the now imprisoned Baader.
All this provides little more than a glimpse into the political “logic” behind such events.
The RAF did not so much elevate “anti-imperialist struggle” over class struggle as reject the latter entirely in favour of “anti-imperialist struggle”. (The working class had been corrupted by material possessions. It was therefore no longer a force for social change.) And, beginning a tradition which has carried on to today, it found the ultimate expression of anti-imperialist struggle” in an armed Palestinian.
The RAF was contemptuous of theory and glorified “action”. The ultimate form of “action” and of “anti-imperialist struggle” was armed struggle (no matter how few people were involved in it).
Insofar as the RAF had what might be termed a strategy, it was one of carrying out provocative actions in order to force the state to reveal its true but concealed repressive nature. The RAF — and large sections of the organised German left in those years — adhered to the view that Germany was either a fascist society already, or, at a minimum, was well on its way to becoming one.
Another criticism levelled at the film, especially in Germany, is that it glorifies the RAF and its violence. “The ultimate idealisation of the idiots of the Revolution,” according to one critic. This is a particularly perverse criticism: the film is a sustained attack on what one of its characters calls the “myth” of the RAF. In fact, the declared goal of the film’s author and producer is to destroy the mythology which, over three decades later, still surrounds the RAF.
The film shows the remorseless escalation of violence inherent in the RAF’s notion of “urban guerillaism”. It begins with an arson attack on a department store after opening hours. It moves on to bank robberies. Then bombings and murders. And from there to mass hostage-taking in the German Embassy in Stockholm and participation in plane hi-jackings.
By the time of the kidnapping of Hanns Martin Schleyer, head of the German equivalent of the German CBI, the violence has become obsessive: even after his bodyguards are dead, the kidnappers continue to empty their machine-guns into their corpses.
In the prison scenes following the arrests of Baader, Ensslin and Meinhof, the film focuses on the systematic humiliation and mental bullying of Meinhof by her fellow RAF prisoners. “You’re the knife in the back of the RAF,” says Ensslin to Meinhof at one point. Eventually, their behaviour drives Meinhof to suicide.
Similarly, the death of fellow RAF member Holger Meins while on hunger-strike in prison is portrayed as a price which Baader and Ensslin are happy to see someone else pay in order to maintain the momentum of the campaign for their release from prison.
In contrast to the ruthlessness of the RAF, the police chief in charge of the hunt for RAF members is portrayed as a fatherly Mr Wise Owl figure. He does not support terrorism — not many police chiefs do — but, he explains, terrorism will be ended only when politicians find solutions for the political conflicts which lead to terrorism. If only politicians could be as sensible as police chiefs!
The closing words of the film are spoken by Brigitte Mohnhaupt, the daemonic and ruthless leader of the “second generation” of the RAF. She explains to her comrades that Baader, Ensslin and fellow-RAF-member Jan-Carl Raspe, whose deaths in prison have just been announced, were not murdered by the state but committed suicide, like Meins and Meinhof before them.
Her statement is met with bewilderment by the other RAF members in the room. They genuinely believed that Meins and Meinhof had been murdered. And their group has just taken part in a plane hi-jacking and the Schleyer kidnapping to prevent the other RAF prisoners from being murdered as well. But now Mohnhaupt disabuses them of their illusions.
“Stop seeing them (the RAF) as people they weren’t” says Mohnhaupt in the closing words of the film. The words have a broader meaning for the film’s audience.
To underline how the RAF should really be remembered, the film immediately switches to its final scene: the murder of Schleyer in a Belgian forest, probably the most senseless of all the RAF’s killings. (Schleyer had been taken hostage to secure the release of the imprisoned RAF members. But by this time they were no longer alive.)
The film’s attitude to the RAF could not really be stated much more clearly than that.