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Film Review

The Baader Meinhof Complex

The generation of Germans who were children during the Hitler era, or born immediately thereafter, felt that their parents had done far too little to oppose the Nazis, and in many cases, were Nazis or Nazi supporters. This feeling of guilt by association fed the left's anger at great injustices, such as the many ex-Nazis in positions of power in Germany (i.e. Kurt Kiesinger, Chancellor, was a former high ranking Nazi party member), the Vietnam War, Apartheid, capitalism, and their perception that Israel was an American tool to secure oil supplies for America. This post Hitler generation, mostly students, were determined that they would not be passive as so many of their parents had been. When the Shah of Iran made a state visit to Germany in 1967, organized supporters of the Shah beat and severely injured a number of student protestors, all while German police stood watching. The police themselves were brutal, attacking the students, and a policeman shot and killed a student. Germany was stunned, and the radical student left was galvanized by these events. The radical left swore to avenge the killing and to overthrow what they perceived as a fascist government, which in their eyes, was not much different than the Hitler era. And thus began nearly 30 years of terrorists' actions that killed over a hundred people, with bank robberies, department store arsons, bombings, and assassinations of prominent political and business leaders. Many of these actions were carefully planned to convince Germans that their government could not protect them. Essentially a low grade civil war, with an impact that few Americans can appreciate, even those with a memory of the riots of the 60's and the SLA. The German left's labeling of the government as fascist became, in part, a self fulfilling prophecy as the police and intelligence services mobilized to fight these gangs. These organizations, Baader Meinhof, known as the RAF, and others, were not like their bumbling counterparts in America. Instead they were rigorously trained, disciplined, and received sophisticated weaponry and explosives from the Palestinians, and later, the East German intelligence service, Stasi. Initially, a surprising percentage of the German public sympathized with the students, but as the various radical groups' actions became more brutal and mindless, the left lost support, the various groups lost steam, and in 1998 the RAF announced it was disbanding.

Based on this history, and documented in a critically acclaimed book by Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex, the German director Uli Edel has produced a riveting and tension filled account of that time. The film opens with Ulrike Meinhoff at a beach with her two young daughters and husband. It is a nude beach, which gives an edenic beginning to a journey that takes her from being a loving mother, leftist journalist, and conscientious citizen to the intellectual foundation and active leader of the Red Army Fraktion (RAF), which was the most active of the radical left terrorist groups in Germany. She witnesses the terrible police riot during the Shah's visit, which radicalized many students. These scenes are some of the most impressive and frightening recreations of a riot that I have ever seen. And meets Andreas Baader, who is committed to violence for political ends and is probably a psychopath. They attract other students, and begin a campaign of killings. They go to Jordan where the Palestinians train them further. There is a hilarious but ironic scene where the women are sunbathing nude at the terrorist training camp, greatly offending the Arabs. They return to Germany, continue the bombings and killings, and are eventually captured. At least a quarter of the film shows their famous trial, which lasted many months. For some reason, the authorities moved them all to the same prison and allowed them to meet to plan their defense. And their defense succeeds in repeatedly disrupting the trial and giving them a platform. A Palestinian group tries to free them by hijacking a Lufthansa plane, killing the pilot, and stating that they will kill all the passengers if the RAF members are not released. Those familiar with these events know the outcome.

This is a powerful film, with a great deal of violence, but although often bloody, seems to animate the story and show how idealism can morph into something very evil. Mao was their ideal, forgetting or ignoring that Mao killed at least 50 million of his own countrymen in his attempt to reshape his country. Edel's film is long, 150 minutes, but moves quickly, and never without tension. He doesn't idealize Meinhoff, Baader and the others, but he doesn't portray them as monsters either. We do understand the roots of their rage, but Edel does not grant them forgiveness for their many crimes. The acting is uniformly superb, with most actors unknown to American audiences, except Bruno Ganz, who is brilliant in portraying a senior police official. Ganz's character understands that it isn't enough to simply capture them. It is vital to understand their motivations. The first generation of RAF members, such as Meinhof and Baader, predict that the following generations will be even more brutal, which Ganz's character understands. The Baader Meinhof Complex is a fantastic film, and an important film, that should be seen by anyone interested in European history of the 60's and 70's. It is a first rate piece of filmmaking; no one will forget having seen it. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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