There's a sickening sense of rightness that "The Baader Meinhof Complex" opens in Washington on Sept. 11. This deeply unsettling account of a group of young German activists that morphed into a murderous gang of domestic terrorists provides both a useful lesson in history and a haunting portrait of idealism hardened into the most extreme form of nihilism and violence.
The film, nominated earlier this year for a foreign-language Oscar, hews closely to actual events and lays them out with rigorous dispassion. It opens in 1967, when journalist Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck), like many Germans, is outraged at the killing of an unarmed demonstrator at a rally in Berlin. Several months later, activists Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) and Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) are arrested after firebombing a department store to protest the war in Vietnam. In 1970, after interviewing Ensslin, Meinhof agrees to help Baader escape from prison. For the next several years, their group, the Red Army Faction, would embark on a series of bombings, killings, kidnappings and hijackings in a campaign that was initially greeted with the admiration accorded to folk heroes and outlaws but ultimately held the country in a murderous thrall.
Adapting Stefan Aust's definitive book of the same name, director Uli Edel ("Last Exit to Brooklyn") retains a superb sense of balance and control throughout the film. He manages to create understanding for his characters and their motivations without absolving them.
"The Baader Meinhof Complex" seems propelled by a doomed sense of inevitability and is all the more gripping for it. There's much to be learned in this film, not just about its protagonists and their tragic journey, but how art, in resisting both romanticism and rage, can turn even the most painful and incomprehensible history into part of a usable past.
-- Ann Hornaday (September 11, 2009)
R, 150 minutes Contains strong, bloody violence; disturbing images; sexual content; graphic nudity; and profanity. In German with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema