Baader to the bone

Pub date September 2, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

"The Baader Meinhof gang? Those spoiled, hipster terrorists?" That was the response of one knowledgeable pop watcher when I told her about The Baader Mienhof Complex, the new feature from Uli Edel (1989’s Last Exit to Brooklyn). The violence-prone West German anarchist group, otherwise known as the Red Army Faction (RAF), still inspires both venomous spew and starry-eyed fascination (see Joe Strummer’s RAF T-shirt, Gerhard Richter’s paintings of its dead leaders, and Erin Cosgrove’s 2003 satirical romance paperback, The Baader-Meinhof Affair). Edel’s sober, clear-eyed view of the youthful and sexy yet arrogant and murderous, gun-toting radicals at the center of Baader-Meinhof’s mythology — a complex construct, indeed — manages to do justice to the core of their sprawling chronology, while never overstating their narrative’s obvious post-9/11 relevance.

Based on the nonfiction best-seller by onetime Der Spiegel editor Stefan Aust, The Baader Meinhof Complex finds its still, watchful center in Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck). Aust’s onetime fourth-estate colleague makes the dramatic trajectory from bourgeois wife and mother to underground radical crawling through Mideast dust and toting a machine gun under the tutelage of Fatah. She’s shocked by brutal police crackdowns on the student protests against the visiting shah of Iran and America’s Vietnam War — enacted with a cruelty reminiscent of the one-generation-removed SS and a reminder of a not-so-distant fascist past — and somewhat in awe of Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek), who emit rock-star charisma.

Helping to bust Baader out of jail on the pretext of working on a book, Meinhof joins her crushes in life on the lam. The three and their followers declare an urban guerrilla war on West Germany until they are nabbed and stuck in solitary at Stammheim Prison. While their trial descends into bitter, kangaroo court-style comedy, the RAF members outside resort to heightened feats of bloodshed and desperation in the so-called "German Autumn" of 1977, killing the chief federal prosecutor, kidnapping a banker, and finally conspiring in the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet.

Edel has absorbed his share of criticism for his RAF portrayal: the director’s far from sympathetic when it comes to these self-absorbed, smug rebels, who relish offending their Muslim hosts by sunbathing nude, yet he’s not immune to their cocky, idealistic charms. Cool-headed yet fully capable of thrilling to his subjects’ eye-popping audacity, the filmmaker does an admirable job of contextualizing the group within the global student and activist movements and bringing the viewer, authentically, to the still timely question: how does one best (i.e., morally) respond to terrorism?

THE BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX opens Fri/4 in Bay Area theaters.