PRINT April 1986


German film’s archaeology of the present past.

IF CINEMA IS TO REMAIN a living force, it must remain capable of exploring and digesting public issues, whether they are matters of everyday discussion or are repressed and taboo. Over the last few years Europe has produced a number of films on the Nazi period. Among these, masterworks such as Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah demonstrate that the medium has an intrinsic role in the difficult, painful effort to come to terms with that black hole in modern history. And several movies have also dealt with more recent, bitterly divisive conditions in German life: the desperate turn to terrorism, and the murky workings of the judicial system, which recall frightening questions from earlier times. I have mentioned some of these films before in Artforum—Margarethe von Trotta’s Die bleierne Zeit (The leaden time, 1981), for example, and Rainer Werner Fasssbinder’s Die dritte Generation (The third generation, 1978–79). But the story these films tell of is traumatic enough in the German consciousness, and echoes of the repressed past are so important in German art of all fields, that the subject deserves further comment. First, the events themselves.

The Rote Anriee Fraktion (Red army faction, or RAF), as it ultimately christened itself, emerged during the youth revolts of 1968. Calling for “armed struggle” against “imperialism,” it started its work with an amateurishly laid department-store fire in Frankfurt which literally sputtered out, quite harmlessly. But the significant part of its story began in 1970, when one of its members—Andreas Baader, a former art student—was freed from jail in an armed raid. Among others involved in the breakout was Ulrike Marie Meinhof, a courageous and respected journalist known for her arguments against the rearmament of the Federal Republic, and for her involvement in the antinuclear movement of the ’50s and ’60s. For two years, Meinhof, Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Holger Meins, and Jan-Carl Raspe—the "hard core,’ as the internal-security specialists called them—moved illegally about the Federal Republic with the unquiet freedom of the underground. The RAF gained notoriety through bombings of American military installations in Frankfurt and Heidelberg, and of the Hamburg office of the powerful newspaper mogul Axel Cäsar Springer. All its central members were arrested in 1972, though second- and third-generation sympathizers have carried on terrorist attacks to the present day.

Incarcerated in a specially built high-security wing of a prison in Stammheim, near Stuttgart, the five men and women of the “hard core” waited for three years before their trial began. By the time the proceedings started, on May 21, 1975—in a specially built, windowless, fluorescent-lit courtroom at Stammheim—Meins had already died, after a hunger strike in an attempt to improve prison conditions. A year after the trial began, Meinhof was found hanged in her cell. A year later, after a total of 192 days of hearings, Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Associates of the “hard core” tried to force the release of the sentenced prisoners by hijacking a Lufthansa plane en route to Somalia, and by taking hostage Hanns Martin Schleyer, the powerful president of the German employers’ association. The German government had the airplane stormed on the ground in Mogadishu by an antiterrorist squad. The same night—the night of October 18, 1977—Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe died in their cells, the men by gunshots, the woman by hanging. A public prosecutor found that the deaths were suicides. A few days later, Schleyer was found dead.

The Stammheim prison is a multistoried cement fortress surrounded by barbed wire. A site of fear, mystery, and death, a fatal site, it has never divulged its secrets. Could Meins’ life have been saved? What might have driven Meinhof to hang herself? Were the final three deaths really suicides, and if so, how did two pistols and a rope find their way into the prisoners’ high-security isolation cells? Stefan Aust, whose highly acclaimed book Der Baader-Meinhof-Komplex (1985) is the result of fifteen years of research, hypothesizes that Meinhof, with her intellectual training and acumen, began inwardly to separate herself from her fellow prisoners. Yet because of the rigid conditions of her imprisonment she saw no way of making her dissent from their position known without appearing to betray them. Thus she chose to kill herself. As for Baader, Ensslin, and Raspe, the only indication Aust finds that they might have resorted to suicide is their intense study of Bertolt Brecht’s Die Massnahme (The measures taken, 1930). In this play, the liquidation of a Communist comrade is not only celebrated by the Party, which sees its interests served by the martyrdom, but is also welcomed by the victim himself. Did the three terrorists connect Brecht’s gloomy dialectic with their own situation? Did they stage their own deaths to mystify the public and incriminate the West German government? Even Aust can answer none of these questions conclusively and they have left a social legacy of skepticism and mistrust in the Federal Republic of Germany The spectral events at Stammheim have indeed fulfilled a prediction of Meinhof’s: “the State,” she said, would “no longer be the same” after the trial.

Despite the deep obscurity that surrounds the central events in the career of the RAF, the New German Cinema has taken on the “Baader-Meinhof-Komplex” on a number of occasions. But Reinhard Hauff is the first to enter the central field of the conflict. His Stammheim: Baader-Meinhof vor Gericht (Stammheim: Baader-Meinhof before trial), scripted by his friend Aust, is a condensed reenactment of the 192 days of the trial. It is performed (and coproduced) by Hamburg’s Thalia Theaters group, a young ensemble under the management of Jurgen Flimm. Hauff and his cameraman, Frank Brühne, give the film a cool, distant, laconic quality; the eye is that of a detached observer. Characters are rarely seen full figure, but are bisected by close-ups and shots from their waists up. The developments of the trial become movements in a powerful drama of ideas. The accused—Baader, cynical; Ensslin, hysterical; Meinhof, politically articulate; Raspe, mostly silent—insist on the status of “political prisoner” for themselves in outbreaks of incoherent rage punctuated by verbal attacks, filled with hatred, on the court. Under these provocations the judge increasingly loses his authority, and attempts to compensate through a counterbalancing cold formality.

For Hauff, the trial at Stammheim is “more than a court case.” As Aust has summarized the situation, “The one side struggles against the law and order of the bourgeois state, all the while appealing to its laws. The other side represents the law and yet does injury to justice” Stammheim, a film about both a place and a controversy is a first purchase on a shared taboo, a historical event that has been suppressed in the societal consciousness. The deep shadows of a possible conspiracy among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches fall from Stammheim onto the Federal Republic of today Its precedents may soon be internalized and legitimized by West Germany’s severe new “security” laws. Hauff’s historical reflection, which this year won the Berlin Film Festival’s Golden Bear prize, is a lesson for the present; his offense, thrown into a, sea of silence, raises questions, making the cinema once again a site of public debate.

Wolfram Schütte is the film and literature editor of the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper. and writes a column on film for Artforum.