Ann Hornaday Movie Review: 'Baader Meinhof Complex,' Terrorism in Germany

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

There's a sickening sense of symmetry in the "The Baader Meinhof Complex" opening in Washington on Sept. 11. This deeply unsettling account of a group of young German activists who 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 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 Gedek), like many of her fellow 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 for an article, Meinhof concludes that simply writing about the exploits of the Left isn't enough, and she 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 -- the most vicious of which were done in the principals' names while they languished in prison -- in a campaign that was initially greeted with the admiration accorded to folk heroes and outlaws, but finally held the country in a grievous, grindingly 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 (and their eventual incoherence), without absolving them.

Meinhof is portrayed as a compassionate, thoughtful mother of two who, in questioning her own bourgeois privilege, finally abandons her family in the name of political purity; Ensslin, the daughter of a pastor, leaves her baby to join what she perceives as the morally righteous vanguard against imperialism and the creeping re-Nazification of the German government. Both women, the film suggests, came to embody the good intentions that pave that notorious road to hell. Baader, on the other hand, seems less interested in ideology than in perfecting a style of leather-jacketed, Marlon Brando cool; he's a rebel with any cause that happens to come in handy.

As a cleareyed, judiciously un-hysterical portrayal of activism at its most extreme, "The Baader Meinhof Complex" joins such recent films as "Hunger" and "Che" as a bold and deceptively sophisticated form of political portraiture, one that doesn't demonize or valorize, but instead trusts viewers to arrive at their own moral conclusions. The closest thing to what might be taken for the filmmaker's voice comes in the form of a German federal police chief named Horst Herold (Bruno Ganz), who, as he tries to capture the increasingly emboldened RAF, insists that it's only through comprehension and understanding that neutralizing them will be possible.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" also represents yet another example of Germany confronting the unresolved chapters of its past. The film's writer and producer, Bernd Eichinger, also wrote and produced 2004's "Downfall," which was not only a chilling account of Hitler's final days but also a quietly stunning meditation on culpability. "The Baader Meinhof Complex" joins that film, as well as the more recent movies "The Lives of Others" and "The Reader," as a fascinating example of a culture coming to terms with the most troubling, and indeed complex, aspects of its history.

"The Baader Meinhof Complex" finally seems propelled by a sense of doomed 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 about how art, in resisting both romanticism and rage, can turn even the most painful and incomprehensible history into part of a usable past.

The Baader Meinhof Complex (150 minutes, in German with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing images, sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity.

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