Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)
The Baader Meinhof Complex is a very sobering film about a very sobering subject. One can't help but admire the courage, the audacity — the nerve! — of a small group such as the Red Army Faction, the RAF, also known as the Baader Meinhof Complex. The Red Army Faction, the group's preferred name, was a left-wing protest group which evolved into one of the most violent and feared groups in Europe, and especially in Germany, their founding place and home base. "The Baader Meinhof Gang" was a media tag hung on the group in reference to its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof.
Whoever chose the opening and closing credits music deserves an Oscar simply for that. If you understand anything at all about Baader and Meinhof and their followers, you'll understand the music. If you don't understand before watching the film, I think you will afterward. Before the first words of the opening credits flash on the screen, the unmistakable beginning of Janis Joplin's classic begins, first the subdued beat… tsk-tsk-tsk… then the words, "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes-Benz?" And the closing credits? How about Bob Dylan singing "Blowing in the Wind?" Perfect point and counterpoint. A classic opening and a closing classic, paeans to a classic-to-be film!
The film starts pleasantly enough, showing Ulrike "Ricky" Meinhof, one of the namesakes of the group and the film, relaxing on a beach on the island of Sylt on Germany's North Sea coast, a popular summer family resort. The next scene is also pleasant, a summer garden party with dancing and cocktails and food. Here's where the brave, yet tragic, story portrayed here really begins, with Ulrike Meinhof reading an open letter to Her Majesty Farah Diba, wife of the then Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, supported by the US and much of the Western world, and who was later overthrown during the revolution. Meinhof says in the letter, "Most Persian farmers (have) an annual income of less than 100 marks (about $25 at the time). And most Persian women lose every second child to hunger, poverty and disease. And the children who work 14 hours a day … the minister of justice had his eyes gouged out." She goes on to add a few more bons mots, but you get the point. It's a scathing letter, but it's only a precursor of what's yet to come.
The very next scene is when the Shah and his wife come to the Berlin Opera, 2 June 1967, which you can see below in a clip from the film. A large group of supporters, all dressed in dark suits and chanting and bearing placards offering various phrases of support, is challenged by another group behind them, wearing paper grocery bag masks bearing caricatures of the Shah and his wife. Between them, a line of policemen.
A can of teargas is thrown, and, dramatically, first one supporter, then others, rip the placards from the small wooden beams, about 2" by 2", to which they'd been mounted. The signs are thrown to the ground, and the dark suits attack the protesters with the 2-by-2s. The police stand by and watch as men and women alike are clubbed and trampled. As the protesters are beaten they try to run, only to be stopped by the police, now behind the attackers. The protesters are not only stymied, they're also set upon by the mounted police, who, incredibly, use their nightsticks on those trying to escape the mayhem.
When the foot patrols finally do go into action, they start using their batons, also incredibly beating on the protesters. The next scene shows the water cannons opening up on the protesters, then two men beating a third man with their sticks; the third man is a protester; one of the attackers is a man in a dark suit while the other attacker is a cop.
Suddenly a shot is fired and a protester falls; the man holding the gun is wearing a dark suit. As a cop watches the man in the dark suit, he tells him, "Lets get out of here." Demonstration follows demonstration. Murder follows murder. Dutschke. Vietnam. Bolivia. Ché. CIA. The Pentagon. MLK. Kent State. Robert Kennedy. Nixon. Agnew. Mexico City. The Mexico Olympics. Czechoslovakia. France. Cultural Revolution. West Berlin. The German Olympics. All these terms are buzzwords or catch phrases from the tumultuous late-1960s onward. Places where huge demonstrations were held. People who were killed. A place where silent protesters, black-gloved fists raised high, Olympic medals around their necks, voiced their silent opinion. An invasion. A vice president forced from office. A president forced from office. And finally, a place where Olympians were killed.
After the beating and shooting of the protesters, demonstrations break out nationwide. Ricky Meinhof was a journalist, covering all these events in one way or another, until she listens in on another reporter's interview with the parents of Gudrun Ensslin, one of the self-confessed arsonists in a Berlin incident, another arsonist being Andreas Baader. As Meinhof writes up her story, she has an epiphany of sorts. Not long afterward, Ricky interviews Ensslin in a cell. At one point, Ensslin says, "People here and in America have to eat … eat and shop, so they can never reflect or gain awareness, because otherwise they might have to do something." She was speaking, of course, about people who see wrongs and do nothing. And Ricky has another epiphany.
All this takes place in the first 20 or 30 minutes of the movie. The remainder of the film takes us through increasing escalations of violence and the consequent tightening of the screws by the German government in their search for the RAF's members. Bank robberies, kidnappings, bombings of US military bases, and more murders cause the entire country to become engulfed in an almost paranoid reaction.
"The RAF was in fact the group most important in efforts at forming a broad, leftist, anti-capitalist front throughout Europe," says author Brenda J. Lutz in her book Global Terrorism. Yet the RAF's membership never exceeded the low hundreds, while there was at least one time that the German government mobilized over 100,000 police, military, and quasi-military, all armed, in an attempt to wipe out them and their supporters, employing traffic stops and building and apartment searches nationwide, and bringing the entire country to a halt.
During this time, I was on the opposite side of the RAF, being in the US Army. The US Army was also one of the groups of people the RAF had in their crosshairs, and US military bases in Germany were under attack, with several bombings by the RAF. But, like other anarchist groups in existence then, and predominantly in the Western world, I still had to admire their courage and tenacity to stand up against such obviously overwhelming odds.
There are some dynamic and dramatic camera techniques to appreciate in the film, especially in one scene showing the four main "leaders" of the RAF during their trial. Several scenes show the four sitting behind their microphones in the courtroom. A later scene again shows the four microphones, but now only three of the chairs behind them are occupied. Sorry, I can't tell you why, though, or it would spoil some of the more dramatic parts of this gripping film.
Considering the RAF drama was a mainstay of the world news almost daily for so many years, The Baader Meinhof Complex is bound to gain even more attention now that it's been recently released in the US. Reading the European reviews, I did see some which were highly critical of certain aspects of the movie. One critic said the film included too much. I vehemently disagree. The music, as I mentioned, is perfect for the film, the acting is superb, the camera work and editing are flawless. My only complaint is that are times that the action is so intense and gripping, I had to back the movie up to understand what happened. That's a complaint?
But the aspect which affected me most was the way the director, Uli Edel, captures the excitement, the tension, the humor, the disappointment, the rage, the depression, the ennui, and the very ethos of the RAF and each of its members perfectly. There are many times when these feelings bleed from the screen and into me, and it's me who's feeling these emotions, not the characters. He manages to give an almost clinical neutrality to his treatment of all the characters, regardless of their politics.
I can understand, although not agree with, some of the criticisms that were written. I'm sure that most of the people writing these comments didn't live through these events, or were too young to be mindful or even aware of them; ergo, their obvious lack of comprehension or appreciation of the crackling tension of everyday life in the 1960s.
At the beginning of this review, I used the phrase Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Here's why: In 1968, during which a part of this film takes place, over 90% of the world's money was controlled by less than 10% of its people. [This was part of what formed the genesis of the RAF, as well as other like groups.]
In 2009, over 90% of the world's income is still controlled by less than 10% of its people.
What are you doing about it?