PRINT September 2009


The Baader Meinhof Complex

ULI EDEL’S BAADER MEINHOF COMPLEX is a hypercompressed, epic, tile-work rendering of Stefan Aust’s definitive 1985 book of the same name. Aust, before becoming editor of Der Spiegel, covered the activities of the Red Army Faction as a young reporter, from the RAF’s inception in 1970. His exhaustive account begins at the end—with the death of Andreas Baader in his Stammheim Prison cell on October 18, 1977. Edel, director of such films as Christiane F. (1981) and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), begins his narrative, on the contrary, before the beginning of the story, with two vignettes establishing Ulrike Meinhof’s dual pre-RAF credentials as haute bourgeois and gifted leftist polemicist. Thus the film opens in May 1967, on the North Sea resort island of Sylt, summer encampment of German celebrities, where Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), star columnist for the monthly konkret, and her husband, Klaus Rainer Röhl (Hans-Werner Meyer), who founded the magazine, are soaking up the sun on a nude beach with their twin girls. Next we see Röhl, back home, urging his reluctant wife to regale the guests at an upper-crust, leftist cookout with a reading of her latest column, written in response to a recently published interview with the empress of Iran.

The piece is a blistering attack on the shah, then visiting Berlin with his wife—and, as Röhl boasts, tens of thousands of copies have been distributed among radical students. On June 2, all hell breaks loose in the streets as demonstrators are attacked outside the Berlin Opera House (where the empress and shah have arrived for a performance of The Magic Flute), first by pro-shah demonstrators (actually agents of the notorious SAVAK), then by the West German police. Amid the tear gas, cudgeling, and wholesale chaos, twenty-six-year-old student Benno Ohnesorg is shot to death.

Ohnesorg’s killing, the 1968 arson attack on a Frankfurt department store by Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) in protest of the Vietnam War, and the attempted murder of SDS activist Rudi Dutschke (Sebastian Blomberg) that same year set off a sequence of escalating violence and calls for “resistance to the state” by such groups as the June 2 Movement and what would later become known as the Red Army Faction.

The newsreel rapidity of Edel’s film doesn’t exactly eliminate all space for reflection on what happens in it, but it is difficult to decide whether the film intends to enclose an especially traumatic historical era in firmly planted parentheses or to stimulate questions about the consequences of the “German Autumn.” It maintains an equivocal, even sympathetic stance toward the RAF’s terrorism, almost as if the adrenaline thrill of violence that overcame the RAF’s founders constituted exculpatory evidence on their behalf. Of course, many would argue that the state’s excesses in response to the RAF made the escalation of violence inevitable; then, too, the RAF’s goal was precisely to strip what it called the Raspberry Reich of its mask of democratic freedoms, reveal its true, repressive nature, and thereby create a popular revolution. That isn’t what happened.

As The Baader Meinhof Complex faithfully reenacts, Baader and Ensslin, arrested, tried, and convicted of arson, skip bail while out on appeal. Baader is soon captured by the police, and “the group” now focuses its energies on liberating him from Tegel Prison. Meinhof, sympathetic to their cause, helps out by obtaining permission for Baader to meet with her at the Dahlem Institute for Social Research, where they are allegedly to collaborate on a book. On May 14, 1970, while Baader and Meinhof pretend to work in the reading room, Ensslin and her cadre storm the institute, in the process shooting a staff member. They escape through a window.

In the film, Meinhof (played by Gedeck with a mixture of astute curiosity, willful delusion, and self-abnegation) hesitates: She could, quite plausibly, have stayed in the reading room, “decoy” that she was supposed to be, feigned horror at the whole business, and pleaded ignorance of the planned escape. Instead, while truly horrified by the violence, she, too, makes the leap out the window: The legend of the “Baader-Meinhof Gang” originates in that leap.

We next see the group undergoing guerrilla training at a Palestinian camp in Jordan. While this longueur could have been pared down, to great profit—in terms of the film, at least—it serves to highlight Baader’s explosive temper and gangsterish attitude, which carry through the film as a reminder that the theoreticians of the RAF were women: Ensslin and Meinhof. Baader was the “man of action,” and it seems, in Edel’s film anyway, that he could only be calmed down by Ensslin’s stroking him and calling him “Baby.” It has been noted elsewhere that the group ought to have been called the Baader-Ensslin Group, since Meinhof was, from the outset, routinely dismissed as a “bourgeois cunt” and denigrated for the comfortable life she had lived before going underground.

In this connection, it should be said that Ulrike Meinhof was the only core RAF member consistently tormented by conscience; that she had produced a considerable body of well-argued political essays and a film, Bambule (1970), about conditions in a girls’ detention center; and that she was a compulsive Protestant moralist, as was Ensslin—though the latter’s concept of the revolution, as gestated under Baader’s spell, was to break all ten Commandments.

While the film muddles certain details, it is gruelingly faithful to events: bank robberies, bombings of US military installations and the Springer publishing house, the capture of Baader and Holger Meins (Stipe Erceg), followed by Ensslin and finally Meinhof. One by one, the group’s members are x-ed off the wanted posters ubiquitous in West Germany at the time, cornered or killed through the efforts of Horst Herold, the newly appointed chief of the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), played here by the great Bruno Ganz. Herold introduced computerization to the process of winnowing down leads on the myriad possible suspects, associates, safe houses, and apartments, in the process creating a data bank on West German citizens comparable to the files of the East German Stasi. At the same time, he had the intellectual acumen to understand that actual conditions in the world (theVietnam War, social inequalities, etc.) had produced the RAF and would continue to generate “armed resistance” and mayhem until those conditions were ameliorated—an insight that remains just as valid, and perhaps even more urgent, today.

The Baader Meinhof Complex encompasses episodes from the bizarre trial of the core RAF prisoners, and Meinhof’s detention in the “dead zone” of Ossendorf Prison prior to the group’s incarceration in Stuttgart’s high-security Stammheim Prison; shows Meinhof’s increasing isolation from her erstwhile comrades, resulting in her suicide; excruciatingly depicts the death of Meins as a result of his hunger strike; provides salient glimpses into the “infosystem” by which the prisoners communicated with their cadre outside while in isolation (using code in copies of Moby-Dick), alternating with scenes of the second-generation RAF’s attempts to liberate them, culminating in the kidnapping of Hanns-Martin Schleyer (Bernd Stegemann), president of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations, and the hijacking of a Lufthansa jet full of tourists at Palma de Mallorca on October 13, 1977. The plane ends up at Mogadishu, Somalia, where a team of German soldiers storms it, killing three of the four hijackers and freeing all eighty-six passengers.

On the morning of October 18, only hours after news of the Mogadishu raid reaches Germany, Jan-Carl Raspe (Niels-Bruno Schmidt) and Andreas Baader are found shot in their Stammheim cells; Gudrun Ensslin, hanging from her cell window; and Irmgard Möller (Annika Kuhl), another RAF prisoner, repeatedly stabbed about the heart with an ordinary kitchen knife. Möller survives and maintains ever after, “I neither tried nor meant to commit suicide, and there was no suicide pact.” Schleyer, who has been spirited to Belgium in a wicker basket in a car trunk, is summarily shot to death at the Belgian-French forest frontier immediately after the deaths at Stammheim are announced. In Edel’s telling of the story, this is the end of the German Autumn, though in actuality a second and third generation of RAF terrorists continued, sporadically, to carry out bomb attacks and assassinations. The RAF “officially” concluded its activities in an eight-page letter received on April 20, 1998, by Reuters.

It’s a weird time for such a film to appear, after 9/11, of course, but also after the “fall of Communism” has raised and deflated so many false hopes, and at a time when the corrosion of “free-market” capitalism and “globalization” looms so legibly on the horizon. In the years since Herold’s crime-stopping innovations, we’ve come to accept computerized intrusion into our private lives to a degree unthinkable before. The developed world, as it used to be termed—and the undeveloped world as well—has become thoroughly colonized by technologies that might seem miraculous for mobilizing mass consensus, as in the last US presidential contest, but are equally effective in neutralizing social dissonance and reducing individual identities to the condition of interchangeable monads.

In many unfortunate ways, the Red Army Faction succeeded all too well in “unmasking” a liberal, “permissive” society, however boring, and transforming it into a nation of repressive surveillance and ideological conformity—without inspiring “world revolution” or even a German popular uprising. The BKA’s methods of gathering data on all citizens have since become commonplace in Western democracies, and the RAF’s methods have likewise become universal, whatever religious or ideological justifications are given for them, and hence a “necessary evil” that, in turn, justifies the state’s control of consciousness.

“Baby, this is getting totally out of hand,” Ensslin desperately remarks to Baader in the last minutes of the film, when it has become apparent that the various attempts to liberate the RAF from Stammheim have devolved into “blind terror,” the threatened killing of innocent people to achieve a political goal. It is to Edel’s credit, perhaps, that he shows even the thuggish, bullying Baader overwhelmed by the enormity he has unleashed: I don’t believe the expression on actor Moritz Bleibtreu’s face at this moment is meant merely to convey Baader’s terror at the inevitability of his own suicide.

On the other hand, The Baader Meinhof Complex may strike many viewers as fundamentally skewed, in attempting to “balance” the hubristic excesses of increasingly deranged idealists with the predictably excessive reactions of a modern state. “The six against the sixty million,” as Heinrich Böll dubbed the RAF, accomplished nothing positive and left nothing behind except a still-festering historical wound.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Gary Indiana’s most recent novel is The Shanghai Gesture (Two Dollar Radio, 2009).