Thursday, October 16, 2008

Annals of Terror

The epiphanies come fast and furious in the new German drama The Baader-Meinhof Complex. The first one drops like a live shell about an hour in (the film is a good two and a half) when the parents of Gudrun Ensslin are being interviewed by the media outside the courtroom where their daughter has been indicted, along with accomplice Andreas Baader, for blowing a department store to smithereens in protest of the Vietnam War. The father, a clergyman who had hitherto had a philosophical rift with his child, in a volta-face, glows with pride, gushing that her actions have only enhanced her standing within the family. Then the previously timid mother steps forward and, eyeballs roving, says that her daughters actions have carried the unexpected consequence of "liberating me from fear." It's a transgressive moment for the audience, and a pivotal one for reporter Ulreke Meinhof, who overhears the exchange. An idealistic key turns within her, and she is soon helping Baader escape from jail following a sojourn in Italy after his rejected appeal. It is during this somewhat bungled escape (due to some pesky unplanned casualties) that Meinhof abruptly joins the group, and is soon punctuating each of their wildly chaotic operations with surly, pithy dispatches, read in voice-over, the manifesto of the nascent RAF.

For Meinhof, the violence of putting pen to page wasn't enough, and she took it a step further by joining Baader, Ensslin and the others. The film muddies this ethical line by delineating the scribe as a roiling cauldron of guilt and conflict, peer pressure, sophisticated and naive ideology, a vessel of stymied goals and enervated causes. She is the conscience of the group, the yin to Baader's charismatically sociopathic yang. The ambiguity is underscored by scenes in a Jordanian terrorist training cell, where Meinhof finds herself at yet another crossroads, giving up her children to an orphanage and allowing Ensslin to falsely expose her husband as an Israelite.

Of course this all begs the question, is it effective to fight state violence with more violence? The film offers no easy answers. As Meinhof eloquently puts it in one of her missives, "If a man sets fire to one police car it's arson. If he sets fire to a thousand, it's a revolution." In one scene, when asked point blank, "Why do they do it?" the German chancellor, in between slurps of lobster stew, telegraphs: "Mythos." This rather obvious message is re-capped in a scene in which the female leader of RAF's second generation importunes the heirs to this terrorist mantle when a botched hijacking leads to the mass suicide of all the founding RAF members. In this dramatic speech she reminds the youths none of them had ever met Baader, Meinhof or any of the other OT's (Original Terrorists).

By including scenes like this film tries to have it both ways by refusing to glorify the RAF's behavior, while maintaining a moral relativist stance, as quick cuts of Western Imperialist interventions in Vietnam, Bolivia and Palestine flashing across the screen make abundantly clear. This editing style is overlaid with a healthy dose of fucking in between terrorist operations, betraying not just the other front in the revolution, but the sensually muscular allure of violence. We are also given an anatomical view of the organization and the disorganization, personal rifts and cracks that lead to amputation of certain "limbs" of the group -- e.g., bungled machinations within the prison and court systems, including partisan judges and a fast gone awry -- and its ultimate demise.

Yet the film's message is muddled by the Karen-Silkwood-style mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of Ulreke Meinhof, in solitary confinement after having betrayed the group, on the eve of the release of the hijacked hostages. Uli Edel, the director, calls into question her suicide by hanging by cutting away from the rent-with-despair journo just before she is about to do the deed. Another character later blabs that the feds topped her in a conspiracy. Martyrdom assured. Potential glorification is again tempered by the existential doubts of RAF Mark II.

Verdict: like its characters, deeply flawed. Still, it merits four stars for a stunning lesson in Deutsch Geschichte for the uninitiated, and ultra-convincing performances. Overall, the filmmakers opt for gritty realism whilst not totally eschewing conventional biopic formats. But somehow it all works. I was completely absorbed in the characters and at times forgot I was watching a film.

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