Saturday, December 19, 2009

Radical Evil (Evil Perpetrated by Radicals)

I missed the short theatrical run of The Baader Meinhof Complex. For some reason, I couldn't convince any of my friends to come and watch a two-and-a-half-hour foreign film about an obscure (in this country) German terrorist organization. It's a shame I wasn't able to shanghai anyone into watching it with me, because The Baader Meinhof Complex is one of the best films I've seen all year.

The two most famous members of the left-wing terrorist Baader Meinhof group were, unsurprisingly, Baader and Meinhof. The film portrays journalist-turned-criminal Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) as an idealist who ends up selling her soul to advance her dubious cause. She reaches an epiphany of sorts during her trial and imprisonment, but it comes far too late for it to do anyone any good – she's already thrown away her life and freedom, demolished her family, and participated in a number of murders. Andreas Baader and his girlfriend Gudrun (Johanna Wokalek) call her an intellectual "jerk off", not realizing that writing angry screeds and newspaper columns is a far better occupation than actually murdering the bourgeoisie.

Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) comes across as a sociopath, the bastard child of Che Guevara and the Joker. For Meinhof, the bombings and shootings are the means to the end of revolution. Baader, one senses, believes in revolution because it will let him destroy things. In one memorable scene, he drives along the autobahn at night, firing pistol shots at random into the darkness around him. He's a faux intellectual and a genuine monster.

As with so many other foreign films, it's hard for an American to watch The Baader Meinhof Complex in the way it was intended. The true story of the Baader Meinhof group, which called itself the RAF, is doubtless quite familiar in Germany. A reasonably informed German audience already knows how everything turns out and what to look for in the film. American audiences, on the other hand, will find the film both more suspenseful and more frustrating than it's supposed to be. In one scene, for example, we see a girl, a bystander to a shootout, calmly take a number of photographs. Did these photos become iconic? Doubtless we are supposed to know. More importantly, the film ends without telling us what happens to a number of major characters. The film even dispenses with the traditional "What Happened to X?" captions that follow most docudramas. We have to do a little research to find, for example, that one of the group's major supporters eventually became one of the most notorious of Holocaust deniers. The movie suggests that if you go far enough left, you eventually find yourself on the far right. "Fascist" is one of the most common words in the movie's script, as it is the preferred insult of the Baader Meinhofs. The great irony of the film, of course, is that the Baader Meinhof group was far more fascistic than the West German state it denounced. The socialist / communist student summit at the beginning of the film looks like a Red version of the 1934 Nuremberg rally, though the irony is lost on all of its attendees.

Life is messy, so dramatic filmmakers tend to combine many real people into one fictional one. Uli Edel, director of The Baader Meinhof Complex, however, wanted to create a truly realistic version of the Baader Meinhof group's crimes. As a result, there's an extremely large cast of characters, some of whom appear at the beginning of the film and then vanish until the last half-hour or so. It's hard to keep track of everyone, especially since so many characters spend large portions of the movie in disguise. The film as a whole isn't difficult to follow, but a few parts of it are rather confusing.

Months before I saw the film, I'd read criticism stating that the movie was far too sympathetic to the terrorists it portrays. I'm afraid I must disagree. It's true that many of the bombers, shooters, and assassins in the movie are telegenic, charming, attractive, and brave. And yes, there is quite a lot of attractive terrorist nudity. And it's true that Edel portrays some members the West German government behaving in reprehensible fashion – police brutality, neglect of prisoners, etc. The Baader Meinhof members are not cartoons; they're real human beings, and this makes their various crimes appear all the worse. They abandon their children, conspire against each other, murder civilians, soldiers, and police officers, and then have the gall to call the people who fight them fascists. Edel is a merciless inquisitor. Some of the prison scenes in The Baader Meinhof Complex that reminded me of Hunger, the 2008 film about IRA members on hunger strike in the early nineteen-eighties. Because that film's characters suffered, they were portrayed as noble, whatever violence and evil they may have committed outside the prison. The Baader Meinhof Complex, on the other hand, never lets us forget the crimes that the Baader Meinhof gang committed.

Though the movie doesn't drag, it's hard to believe that The Baader Meinhof Complex is "only" two-and-a-half hours long. It covers ten years, dozens of characters, three continents, and half a dozen countries. It's an epic, and one that remains enthralling all the way through to its bleak and inevitable ending. Morally serious, suspenseful, realistic, and expertly acted and shot, The Baader Meinhof Complex is one of the very best movies I have seen this year.

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