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The Lens: A look back at Baader-Meinhof

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - The Red Army Faction, popularly known as the Baader-Meinhof Group (or "Complex"), was an underground Marxist group whose actions - which escalated from bank robberies to assassination and kidnapping - shook West German society to its roots for nearly 10 years, until its central leaders died, reportedly in a group suicide, in prison cells in the fall of 1977.

In the late '70s when the New German Cinema was first coming to the attention of the rest of the world, the actions of the RAF and the official reaction to them were often a significant influence upon filmmakers, much of it ambivalent toward the politics of the group and more outraged by the repressive government reaction and the inflammatory right-wing press.

In Volker Schlondorff's 1976 film "The Lost Honor of Katherina Blum" (based on Heinrich Boll's great novel), a young woman is harassed by the press after a brief encounter with a radical bank robber. Reinhard Hauff's "Knife in the Head" related the troubles of a scientist (Bruno Ganz, in one of his finest performances) accidentally shot during a police raid. And in Fassbinder's satirical "The Third Generation,"  possibly the most astute analysis of the political climate of the time,a terrorist groups that has lost its sense of direction is easily co-opted by the industrialists it despises, becoming kidnappers-for-hire.

Uli Edel's recent film "The Baader-Meinhof Complex," is a polished, detailed look at the group and the times that produced them. It's also a curiously uneven work, mildly romanticizing its principals at times yet clearly branding them as terrorists, giving voice to their increasingly strident political views yet showing no clear sympathy for either them or their opponents. It's an unmistakably gripping experience, but one that leaves you wondering exactly what Edel wants to say about the group, their politics and the effect they had on their nation.

Compared to the films of the late '70s, which showed how the atmosphere of violence and paranoia was corrupting everyday life, Edel's film is part nostalgia, part action film and part psychological drama. The ideological arguments and historical moments are tossed in, often without a great deal of context, and often overshadowed by the well-paced action centerpieces. At times, it's like "Bonnie and Clyde," only with more shouting. At others, they're like an emotionless gang of criminals from any Hollywood fireball-and-explosions epic. In both cases, we're left with little insight but a great deal of violence for its own sake.

To Edel's credit, the film is fairly good at recreating the political arguments of the time and gives a slightly cliche-ridden but convincing account of how some of the RAF members were drawn in and swallowed up by the movement as their legitimate indignation at world events (the Vietnam War, the shah's regime in Iran) gave way to the appealing fantasy of taking action against such things. But once the group has been established, their motivations become cloudy; Edel treats their activism as a kind of deep-seated neurosis, a hysteria that overcomes them and quickly removes much of their humanity.

What, then, is Edel saying by giving the story of the RAF a glossy cinematic finish, more than 30 years after it essentially ended? Although there are a few subtle attempts to link the RAF to terrorism in its current, post-Cold War form, and some of the key members of the group are decidedly unsympathetic figures, the film provides no clear ideological answer, no strong justification - or even sympathy - for either the terrorists or the German establishment that captured and ultimately defeated them. There's something a little calculating about Edel's objectivity, something a bit too dry and cautious. "The Baader-Meinhof Complex" provides a reasonably thorough set of details regarding the RAF and its 10-year spree, but falls short of offering any real comprehension of them.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.